Jeff Spivak was in his office last April when the call came from another SM East football parent: “Have you heard anything about Sherman?”
“When someone calls you like that, it’s usually not a good thing,” said Spivak, who was about to take over as head of the Lancer Gridiron Club. And, for those invested in SM East’s football program, the specter of head football coach Chip Sherman exploring other options was about as bad a thing as they could imagine.
In four years at the helm, Sherman had breathed life into a football program that had been stagnant or worse for five decades. The Lancers had made the playoffs three years straight, breaking school records for wins, beating SM West for the first time since 1992, and generating huge excitement among students and the community along the way.
For the first time in school history, football had become the thing.
Spivak spent the next few hours “trying to run down a rumor.” He found the tweet from Metro Sports anchor Dave Stewart indicating Sherman had applied to the head coaching job at Olathe Northwest, and then spent the afternoon on the phone talking to other football parents, checking out the Olathe Northwest website — whatever he could do to find out what, if anything, was going on.
Finally, Spivak connected with Sherman himself on the phone.
“He said the rumor was true,” Spivak said. “There was certainly a lot of fear among the parents about what was going to happen. A successful, popular coach was leaving. No one knew what to expect.”
True, no one knew what to expect.
But what most SM East fans seemed to expect was that the program would take a step backward. How could it not with Sherman on his way out? This was the guy whose name the students chanted with each SM East win. This was the guy so committed to the game that he kept coaching even while undergoing chemo treatment, going over game film late in the night, sleeping in the locker room.
The outcome that almost no one expected was that the team would get better — a lot better – in 2013 and take SM East to unprecedented heights.
But the thing that almost no one expected is exactly what happened.
Football is, in many ways, the ideal sport for schools and their communities to rally around. Once a week, on an evening when there’s no homework due the next day, and no office jobs for parents to head off to, the whole school community can come together and cheer.
Trouble was, in a half decade of fielding teams, the seasons where SM East fans actually had something to cheer for were astonishingly few. In the three decades that preceded Sherman’s arrival at SM East, the Lancers had gone a woeful 108-174. That changed in 2009 when then-principal Karl Krawitz brought Sherman in from Platte County, where he’d piloted a successful Pirates football program for more than two decades. Sherman brought a potent spread offense with him and worked to land legitimate college prospects like Dakota Collins and Jordan Darling to run it from the quarterback position. After going 4-6 his first year, Sherman tied the most wins in school history by going 8-2 in 2010, and then 7-4 and 7-3 in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
For the first time in school history, fans — and more importantly, players — had started expecting to win. But with Sherman leaving, the burgeoning football culture at 7500 Mission Road seemed like it very well might leave with him.
Perhaps no one felt that trepidation more acutely than John McKinney, who had himself just been named the successor to a popular figure at SM East. After five years as an associate principal, McKinney had been tapped in February to take the top spot at the school after Krawitz retired in June. That transition provided plenty of fodder for anxiety as it was. But when McKinney and the rest of the SM East administration team were called into Krawitz’s office to hear the news that Sherman was departing, McKinney — who Krawitz told the administrators would be tasked with finding Sherman’s replacement — knew he had a big hole to fill.
“I give all the credit in the world to coach Sherman for what he did here,” McKinney said. “Football had never been the focus of the fall semester among athletics, and he changed all that. He gave the team confidence. He gave them the belief that they could compete. I think that because I have such a commitment to East and this community, I felt a lot of pressure to find someone who could carry on what he had started.”
And not only did McKinney need to find the right person. He needed to find the right person right away. Sherman submitted his official resignation April 30. Football conditioning starts in late May. So McKinney, a natural-born consensus-builder, quickly went about assembling a hiring committee representing stakeholders from the district, the school and the community.
Spivak was involved as the parents’ representative.
“We were throwing around names all over the place, and there was all sorts of speculation about who might be able to replace him and keep the momentum going,” Spivak said. “But with the timeline we had, some people were out of the picture right away.”
Still, the job was attractive — it was a 6A school in a nice area and a program with strong momentum — and a handful of top-tier candidates put their names in for consideration. Among them was a 33-year-old former Emporia State University linebacker who was at 5A Emporia High School in his first head coaching role. The Spartans had just completed a 9-2 season in Dustin Delaney’s third year as coach. Prior to Emporia, Delaney was offensive coordinator at Hutchinson from 2006-2009. In his final season with the team, the Salthawks went 13-0, taking the state 5A title and averaging more than 50 points per game.
“There were two things that stood out about him,” Spivak said. “He’d been successful everywhere he’d been. And he ran an unusual offense.”
That offense was “the flexbone,” an unorthodox attack that relies heavily on the quarterback to run option plays, often dishing the ball off to one of three running backs who can shoot off from behind the line of scrimmage in just about any direction. Flexbone offenses move fast. They’re tough for defenses to read. And, unlike Sherman’s spread offense, they don’t require a precision power throwing quarterback, which makes them well suited to high schoolers.
“I was probably the only one in the room who didn’t understand the X’s and O’s of it,” McKinney said. “But the people who really knew football were impressed with how it worked.”
The committee decided to tender Delaney an offer.
“Believe me when I tell you, we had some amazing candidates, and I think any of our finalists could have done a good job,” McKinney said. “But there was something about this that seemed like the right fit.”
The school officially announced the hiring May 17, and Delaney met with his players the first time May 20.
“You guys know how to win,” Delaney told them. “You guys learned that from Sherman, but now I want to take this program to the next level. I want to win a state championship. I believe that’s why I was brought here.”
Looking back now, Delaney admits he didn’t know if such a feat was even a remote possibility with his new group of players. He has only blurry impressions of his first meeting with the team — “It was such a whirlwind. And, you know, kids are kids wherever you go.”
But one thing everyone seemed to notice was that the coach hit the ground running.
“This was a big move and a lot of change for everybody, and nobody could have felt that more than him,” McKinney said. “He didn’t really have strong ties to the area, so there was all of the stuff that comes along with moving to a new place, to a new job — and there were only two weeks for him to get acclimated before summer conditioning started. But he jumped in with both feet. He put himself in it 100 percent. Everybody could see that.”
SM East had its new football coach, and he came to Prairie Village focused and running hard.
His real challenge, though, was getting a team of 50 high schoolers who’d never seen anything like his offense running the same way he was.