Lansing — It wasn’t Lombardi, Shula and Landry, Super Bowl coaches during the glory days of the NFL, but it was definitely the high school version of it when legendary coaches John Herrington, Al Fracassa and Tom Mach spoke during a Prep Football Legacy Forum Thursday night at the Lansing Center.
The trio combined for more than 1,200 victories with Herrington still coaching at Farmington Hills Harrison at age 76, guiding the school to the Division 3 state championship game this past November at Ford Field.
Herrington has the most wins in state history with 435 and his teams have earned 13 state championships in 18 state title game appearances.
Fracassa retired following the 2013 season at age 80 with 430 wins and three consecutive Division 2 state championships (2011-13) at Birmingham Brother Rice. He spent 27 days in the hospital this past summer with a heart problem and a bleeding ulcer, but recovered enough to attend the 46th Annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Clinic, displaying a sharp mind to answer a variety of questions during the hour-long show.
Mach retired following the 2016 season with 370 wins, 10 state titles and 17 state championship game appearances while at Detroit Catholic Central, including his final season with a loss to Detroit Cass Tech in the Division 1 title bout.
All three coaches have won or played in state title games at the end or near the end of their careers, just as successful at the end as they were decades and decades earlier.
So, all the coaches in attendance were at the edge of their seats to see what the legendary coaches had to say, trying to learn from them, then use that knowledge in upcoming seasons.
Herrington has been coaching for 56 years, starting at North Farmington where he made $125 … for the season. He plans to coach one more year before Harrison closes its doors following the 2018-19 school year.
Fracassa misses coaching, saying: “I get letters now, guys 60 years old who write me Christmas cards, saying ‘Coach, I’ll never forget this or forget that and it kind of makes you feel good, that maybe you were a good coach and I miss those days. I miss them. When you can love your kids with all your heart and soul, you’re going to be a success.”
Fracassa talked about the importance of making every player feel important, not just the stars.
“The best football player on your team is important and the last guy on your football team is also important and I learned that when I was at Michigan State,” Fracassa said. “I used to baby-sit for Duffy Daugherty’s kid. I wasn’t an All-American or a first stringer, but I worked really hard to prepare our team as a scouting team quarterback and they made me feel like I was one of the most important players on our football team, and I felt that I was because the coaches made me feel that way. We had a 28-game winning streak, were national champions in the early ’50s and I learned so much. I learned how to be the best that I could be because my coaches taught me that and I carried that on.”
Those are definitely words to hold on to for young and old coaches. And, Fracassa remained at Brother Rice even after Michigan State coach George Perles offered him a coaching job nearly 30 years ago.
“They didn’t pay them like they do at the University of Michigan now,” said Fracassa jokingly. “George offered me $22,000 and I had a family and didn’t think I could make it. I loved high school and wanted to spend more time coaching in high school and George said, ‘Anytime you’re ready, let me know.’”
Fracassa talked about the topic of safety in the game.
“I used to really be a stickler for proper technique, use your shoulder, get your head up, make sure that you use your body and don’t use your head, and we used to do some mini drills to make sure that a kid won’t get hurt,” Fracassa said. “Some of these coaches that I knew didn’t care, as long as the kid made the hit, it didn’t make any difference to them how he used his body and I think that we as coaches should teach the game right and do the right things because you know how it is these days with concussions.
“You watch these NFL football players play. These guys are powerful, I mean they are big and fast and strong and when they hit each other I can feel it while watching television. We’re responsible for doing it the right way so we don’t get any of our boys hurt.”
So, how has Herrington’s philosophy changed with the times?
“Basically, I think my philosophy hasn’t changed, but obviously you’ve got to change a little bit with the culture you have,” Herrington said. “One thing I’d say that I’ve had to bend a little bit to the particular players I got, I used to play the Big Ten fight songs in the locker room before the game and now we got hip-hop and rap in my locker room so I shut the door and try not to hear it.
“You have to bend a little bit, but my philosophy about the way I coach and what we do, like the old players will tell you, I still run the same offense, and the way I handle the kids is still the same, but you do have to be a little more flexible.”
Herrington talked about safety.
“My old saying was always put the face bar on the ball and it’s hard for me to say that sometimes, but we’ve got to the point now where we use the Seahawk tackle and everybody uses it except the (Seattle) Seahawks if you watch them,” Herrington said. “It’s all about tackling with the shoulder and keeping the head out of it and the kids are getting better with it. They had the spearing rule, which they don’t call any more. We had to deal with that, you know where you come in first with your head, got that out of the game and I think it’s getting much safer. I don’t think the kids hit with their heads nearly as much.”
Mach said coaches need more time to teach before starting the season.
“I think people need more time to teach proper hitting,” Mach said. “I think we’re all interested in concussions now, but I’m not so sure that concussions have increased at all since I was a first-year coach at Catholic Central. I do know that if a kid goes out there and he doesn’t know how to hit and has his head down he can break his neck.
“I think that what we should do is have more days of proper hitting technique. If you have a team of 50 to 70 kids and you have one week to teach them how to hit properly before they play a scrimmage or a game, that’s not enough, so as much as we want to talk about it we should take a look at how much actual hitting is that guy going to do and is that guy ready to hit when he goes in, is he automatically going to keep his head up, that’s where we need to be. We’re worried about concussions, but I think the proper technique, hitting with your head up will take care a lot of that, but I also think that we have to make sure that the head is always got to be up and it has to be up with an automatic response to hitting and that only comes from practice and hitting and doing it over and over again.”
Mach feels that a coach can play a big role in a young man’s life, not only in high school but well after.
“I think one of the keys is that if you can teach a young man the power of positive thinking, you can give him a key to life, that he can wake up every morning and have an attitude that life is going to be what he makes it,” Mach said. “If you can teach him that in football, you’re going to be way ahead. I also think if you can take a young man and make him believe in himself, make him believe in his team and make him believe that he’s going to win, there’s nothing that he can’t accomplish later on in life when he starts putting all of those lessons together.”