Farmington Hills Harrison football gears up for last hurrah

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Head coach John Herrington instructs students on the Farmington Hills Harrison High football field.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on Farmington Hills Harrison’s final football season.

Farmington Hills — Legendary football coach John Herrington was enjoying the afternoon sun on Wednesday at Farmington Hills Harrison’s field while directing his players through a number of offensive plays during the final hour of the school day.

While Harrison has less than a month to this school year, Herrington is hard at work in preparing for Harrison’s final season of football with Harrison scheduled to close its doors for good following the 2018-19 academic year.

Herrington has reason to be optimistic following last fall’s run to the Division 3 state championship game at Ford Field, a 28-10 loss to powerhouse Muskegon.

After all, Herrington wasn’t even sure Harrison would reach the state playoffs after failing to earn an appearance in 2016, then going 4-2 last season before a three-game winning streak locked up a postseason bid, including a 17-14 upset of Oak Park.

Yes, the emotions have changed to excitement for the final season after last year’s run instead of sadness and disappointment if Harrison would have missed the playoffs for a second straight year.

“It’s business as usual,” said Herrington, taking a break from the class. “We’ll have 40 players next year, plan to field a JV team, too. Things are looking good, like normal. We’ll have about 650 students, probably play in Division 4.

“As far as the school closing, the kids haven’t said much about it to us, the younger guys don’t seem to be worried about it, just want to play this season so you couldn’t ask for any more than that.”

Sure, all eyes were on Harrison’s football team last year, not because it was a top-20 power, but because Herrington was closing in on becoming the state’s all-time winningest coach.

Herrington began his head coaching career at Harrison back in 1970 … when the school opened its doors. He started with records of 3-4-1, 5-4, 3-6 and 5-4 before 8-1 and 7-2 seasons, then Harrison’s first state championship game appearance in ’76, a 36-27 Class A title game loss to Midland Dow.

Herrington went on to guide Harrison to 13 state championships in his 48 years as head coach, becoming the state’s all-time winningest coach with his 431st career win in a 39-0 victory over Berkley at the sports complex now named in his honor on Oct. 13, breaking the former mark held by his friend Al Fracassa of Birmingham Brother Rice.

Herrington will enter his final season with 435 wins after last year’s 10-4 record, his 27th double-digit win season. He was thrilled to say Harrison will be playing six home games while also playing for a city championship, hosting North Farmington in the opener and Farmington in the season finale.

Yes, Herrington is looking forward to Year No. 49, but says a 50th season as a head coach is not in the cards, not with Harrison closing. He doesn’t want to lead another program, but wouldn’t mind one day helping out at another school, especially if one of his assistants becomes a head coach.

Cavalcade of stars

Herrington has enjoyed the luxury of having his share of superstars at Harrison during the past several decades, including such players as John Miller, Mill Coleman, Drew Stanton, Devon Funchess, Aaron Burbridge, Ricky Bryant and Ovie Oghoufo, who played linebacker and tight end last season before moving on to Notre Dame.

Now, Herrington will be looking to Northwestern-bound Rod Heard as one of his leaders and stars.

Head football coach John Herrington, the only football coach the program has had, keeps an eye on the students as they run a football play during class.

Heard watched Wednesday’s action, nursing a slight ankle injury.

Heard said there are big plans for him this fall and he can’t wait for the season to start.

Herrington identifies his top athletes and then uses them to their full potential, a reason Heard played running back for the first time in his life last fall, rewarding his coach with a 1,500-yard season and 23 touchdowns.

“We put in a lot of work last year, made plays and won games,” said Heard, who has 4.5 speed. “It wasn’t the prettiest of seasons, not just blowing every team out or anything like that, but we made it all the way to the championship game with 35 players, players playing both ways and that’s a great accomplishment.

“We have the same goals and same aspirations to have that same success this year and to end Harrison’s legacy with a bang, go out on top. I think we have a legit shot. We’re working on our offense right now in our physical education class today to prepare for the upcoming season.

“I never played running back before last year. Coach Herrington saw the athlete that I am and decided to put me at running back and see what would happen. You might see me play quarterback a little bit this year. You might see me throw a couple of touchdowns in the upcoming season, and then of course play wildcat and things like that. I’d like to get that direct snap, be able to make a decision with the ball when the play starts.”

While Heard, who has a 3.4 grade-point average and plans to major in business, is looking forward to Harrison’s final season, he feels bad that he will not get the opportunity to return to the school and help the younger kids like Funchess and others have in the past.

“Sometimes I still don’t believe that next year will be the last year for Harrison football,” Heard said. “It’s kind of sad for me because as a player I wish I could come back and help out and mentor the younger players coming up. I won’t have that opportunity like a Devon Funchess, Aaron Burbridge or all these other great players at Harrison have had in the past.

“Still, Harrison football will long be remembered, great to the end. Coach Herrington means a lot to me, puts in so much time and effort in the game, loves the game and he has a knack for finding talent and finding the little key things to make the difference, like putting me in at running back.”

Returning cast

Ben Williams turned some heads when he returned the opening kickoff in last year’s state championship game 91 yards for a TD.

Williams plans to use his tremendous speed and talent as a running back/defensive back and return man to help Harrison make another long playoff run while getting some Division I offers in the process.

“It’s really an honor to play for a coach like Coach Herrington and be surrounded by great players like Rod, and just go out on Friday nights and show how hard we work,” Williams said. “This last year I’m going to go out and show people why I’m a D1 talent and how I can contribute to our team and hopefully make a long run in the playoffs.

“I’ve always wanted to play on a historic team like Harrison, a program which won 13 state championships and play for great coaches.”

Players take part in an  athletic conditioning class on the Farmington Hills Harrison football field last week.

Maverick Hansen, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound two-way lineman, has multiple Division I offers from such schools as Iowa State, Central Michigan, Syracuse, Ball State and Morgan State. He played left tackle last season and is Harrison’s lone returning starter on the offensive line.

“This means more to me than anything, the last year Harrison will be open and I push to grind, I push to keep working,” said Hansen, who plans to attend Michigan State camp on June 14 and join the Rising Stars Bus Tour from June 15-22. “We had a heck of a run last year, but I feel that dropping a division this year we can definitely go all the way and win it. We just have to go and make this year the best thing that Harrison’s ever had.

“David (quarterback Hiser) has been my best friend for years and I definitely have confidence in his arm, feeling he can do good things for us. Rod Heard and Ben Williams will be the key to our offense though.”

And, Heard has confidence in Hansen and the offensive line, which will include 6-4, 235-pound Caleb Williams at either tackle or tight end.

“We’re really replacing the whole offensive line aside from Maverick Hansen, but I still feel our offensive line is going to be very good this year,” Heard said.

Heard and his teammates will remain busy next month with 7-on-7 competition, preparing for Harrison’s final season.