Farmington Hills — Alex Grignon was pacing up and down the field, showing an abundance of energy Wednesday night at the John Herrington Complex during his first taste as the head football coach at Walled Lake Western.
Grignon, 30, was handing out compliments while also giving pointers to help players execute plays during 7-on-7 competition.
Simply put, Grignon is the high school version of former Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck, who is now at Minnesota.
Grignon is replacing Mike Zdebski, who retired after a long successful career that included 160 wins, five state semifinal appearances, a 1999 Division 1 state championship and a spot in the 2016 Division 2 state title game.
“I was just hired yesterday,” Grignon said. “It’s fun and exciting. The expectations are high and there’s big shoes to fill, but that’s what was attractive about the job. They asked me why I didn’t apply for it originally, but I just thought it was already taken.
"Then, when I got the call (Friday) to see if I was interested, it was an honor to even be considered and then the interview went well.”
There was a strong list of candidates for Western’s head coaching job, but a teaching job was not on the table in the deal for interested applicants.
Grignon isn’t the lone young first-time head coach. Offensive line coach Andy Lafata, 30, has been promoted as head coach at Canton, replacing Tim Baechler. Josh Lucas, 31, replaces Brad Bush at Chelsea. Lucas has head coaching experience, running Allegan's program the last three years.
“We have athletes all over the place so my job is to come in and not screw anything up, right?” Grignon said. “It happened quick, but I’m excited. I jumped all over the opportunity. Like I said, we have a lot of athletes, there’s a lot to do in a short amount of time, but we’re not going to try and rock the boat too much, just try to improve on all of the tradition and excellence that was already here.
“I haven’t brought anybody else in as of now. We just had our first staff meeting. Coach (Mike) Weiskopf has been great showing me the ropes, been there every step of the way in helping the transition. We’re just trying to see what we need and where our guys fit in the best to put us in the best position and then we’ll bring in a couple of more guys.”
Grignon is a 2005 graduate of Dearborn High. He then played defensive back at Northern Michigan before working under his father Jamie, at Lincoln Park from 2012-16, working the first two years as defensive coordinator before working the final years as offensive coordinator.
He helped Lincoln Park end its 66-game losing streak in 2013 and then earned a playoff berth in 2015. He was offensive coordinator at South Lyon last year.
Grignon has a lot of Division 1 talent to work with led by Boston College-bound quarterback Sam Johnson, tackle Spencer Brown (Michigan State) and junior three-star receiver Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen.
When asked what his strength is as a coach, Grignon replied: “I think I bring a sense of energy and enthusiasm. I’m very passionate about the game and I like my teams to take on those characteristics of me. Like I just told these guys, if we’re not giving 15 chest bumps today, we’re not playing very well so we want to be high energy, but at the same time, I think we can bring that character and class to the program. We want to make that Warrior Way the right way.
“We’re not going to change much on offense, try to stay consistent. It would be a lot easier for me to adjust to them than the 55 to adjust to what I want to do. This first year, at least, we’re going to keep stuff consistent and build on what we’ve been doing well. We’re going to use the spread, use some zone schemes and we obviously want to use the strength of Sam (Johnson) and get the ball out to our receivers.”
Grignon feels fortunate to have leaders in Johnson and Brown.
“I only got to be with the players for 10 minutes (after first accepting the job), but in that time I watched Sam give all the linemen a hug with a big smile on his face,” said Grignon of Johnson. “They were throwing on the other side of the field and he pushed these guys through their conditioning, especially those younger guys, and to see a player like that, a leader in the program supporting them that early is huge.
“Spencer was working his tail off and I was very impressed. We need those guys to take the reins. I’m the head coach, but at the end of the day it’s their class and we want those guys to pretty much take accountability. I’ll guide them the best I can.”
Western opens the season against Detroit Catholic Central on Aug. 24.
Lafata played for Baechler, who won 208 games, which includes a 172-53 record in 20 years at Canton with 17 state playoff appearances. Canton appeared in the Division 1 state title game in 2005.
In fact, Lafata was the starting center on Canton’s 2005 team and then coached under Baechler for the last 10 years. He joins Baechler on the first class of recently announced Canton High School Hall of Fame inductees.
“I played for Coach Baechler for four years and then coached under him for 10 years,” Lafata said. “We’re going to use the same (wing-T) offense since it’s the offense I know.
“We have a decent amount of kids back, but it’s more that we have hard-working kids. We never won because of talent. We won because we have hard-nosed, tough kids who are coachable, who go out and do their jobs. We have good returners, but everybody has to prove themselves.”
Canton finished 10-2 last season, defeating Livonia Churchill in the KLAA championship game before defeating Saline and No. 1-ranked Belleville in the districts before losing to Catholic Central in the regional final.
Lafata will have stars on both sides of the ball, led by 6-foot-6, 250-pound Darius Robinson, a three-star defensive end who has an offer from Michigan State and 1,500-yard running back Steven Walker.
Lafata said it’s business as usual at Canton.
“It’s nice that we’ve kept most of our staff,” Lafata said. “We have four people back, a few new faces, but the core is still intact. We just had our camp. It kind of feels like business as usual.”
Canton hosts Livonia Churchill in the season opener.
Lafata is part of a complete coaching turnover on the Canton/Plymouth/Salem campus. Brian Lewis, 29, is taking over for Mike Sawchuk at Plymouth and Justin Reed replacing Kurt Britnell at Salem.
Sawchuk, who directed Plymouth to the Division 1 state title game in 2010, is moving to Naples, Fla. Britnell led Salem to its first state playoff appearance since 1991 last season, his ninth year as head coach.
Lewis was head coach last season at Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard, which finished 7-3 with a state playoff appearance. Reed, 34, was defensive coordinator at Sterling Heights Stevenson the last two years, also working as linebackers coach at Warren De La Salle when De La Salle won the Division 2 state title in 2014.
Lucas will also have big shoes to fill at Chelsea where Bush guided the program to a 169-60 record and 18 playoff appearances in 21 years, including seven district titles and a Division 3 state championship game appearance in 2015.
“I wouldn’t say I’m done coaching, but for right now I am,” said Bush, who remains athletic director at Chelsea. “I just think this is the right thing for our football program right now. Really, it was kind of a combination of a couple of factors that led to it. Number one, we were in the position as a school to bring someone in since we had a lot of teaching openings. I knew that was a factor because as an athletic director you always have to plan for what is next. I felt like as our athletic department continues to grow, I don’t know if I was as good of a football coach that I wanted to be.
“I know the football program is in great shape. I just kind of knew in my heart that I felt like this is the right moment, the right time to make this decision. It was very difficult because I still love doing it. I’m still very passionate about it.
“We just had the chance to bring Josh Lucas in and he was head coach at Allegan and before that an assistant at Zeeland East, which is obviously a great program. He’ll be a P.E. teacher at our high school. He’s a young coach and I think our entire staff is staying on which is good.”
There will also be a new head coach at Detroit East English following the resignation of Rod Oden this past winter.
Oden is head coach at Harper Woods after guiding East English to a 46-20 record and five state playoff appearances in his six years at the school that opened in 2012. He was also head coach at Detroit Crockett for the last seven years before the school closed.
Alvin Ward, the deputy executive director of Detroit Community School District, expects the East English coaching job to be posted soon, then he will interview candidates before the job is filled.
Changing of the Guard
New Head Coach, School, Former Head Coach
Alex Grignon, Walled Lake Western, Mike Zdebski
Andy Lafata, Canton, Tim Baechler
Josh Lucas, Chelsea, Brad Bush
Brian Lewis, Plymouth, Mike Sawchuk
Justin Reed, Salem, Kurt Britnell