Monday, September 7, 2009
The Perfect Season
Muleshoe is a town of around 4,500 intrepid souls in West Texas. Occasionally the wind blows the sand and tumbleweeds in classic dust bowl fashion but can boast spectacular sunrises and sunsets on more days than the wind blows. When a beautiful Chamber of Commerce day occurs, everyone talks about hoping visitors don’t figure out what a good deal we have here. Local myth has it that the only time it is necessary to lock the car is in the summer to keep people from sneaking surplus squash, tomatoes, and okra in the back seat. The agriculturally based economy is primarily cotton and corn farmers with a recent growth in area dairies. The school district fluctuates from time to time between 3A to 2A classification and for the last few years has dropped down to the large end of district 2-2A.
Muleshoe historically has not made headlines on the football field. After an undefeated season in 1938, the record book was pretty empty until the Mules were able to win the district title in 1962. Things picked up for a few years with winning seasons under the leadership of Don Cumpton in 1977, followed by Mike Wartes from 1978-80 and then Windy Williams in 1981-83.
But it takes a few more consecutive successful years than that to establish a winning tradition, and that building process began when David Wood made the decision to take his first head coaching job in Muleshoe in 1996. I talked with Coach Wood about his 2008 state championship team the week after these young men received their state medals and rings. The rock stars-I mean, Mules-gleefully and patiently autographed whatever objects the fans put in front of them and Coach Wood shared a play-by-play of the winning game. But today as we talked he took congratulatory phone calls and supplied his fingers as safe havens for two kids’ shiny new state champ rings while they worked in the weight room.
David and Jody Wood and their four children moved to Muleshoe from Canyon, Texas, to be the head coach. David had interviewed for the head position in Wellington, in the eastern part of the Texas Panhandle, as well as Muleshoe. His dad, Jim Wood, had coached the Calgary Stampeders in Canada and scouted for the New York Giants before moving to Quanah, Texas, where he coached his son as a senior during a twenty year span there as head coach. Jim Wood encouraged his son to take the Muleshoe position when it was offered, but David was to later learn that his dad had reservations about the move since Muleshoe did not have a winning tradition in football. And winning traditions have a subtle but important effect on the fate of future teams, as I was to hear more than once as we visited.
Winning is a mindset change, according to Wood. “You can go anywhere and change it-you went to Quanah and changed it,” Wood remembers telling his dad, when he learned of his father’s concerns. Because of the absence of the winning tradition, his dad feared that David would find himself on a dead-end road. And that could have happened. After they arrived in Muleshoe, David remembers reading a comment in the local newspaper stating that historically Muleshoe head coaches stayed for 2.4 years, so Coach Wood might be two years away from the unemployment line. The lack of respect for Muleshoe football also became apparent to the new coach when he began scheduling games and saw that everyone counted on Muleshoe as an easy win. “We were just a doormat. Everyone wanted us for their homecoming opponent. One year I think we played in five homecoming games.”
That mindset was about to be changed.
Coach Wood believes that kids growing up in a school with a winning tradition will go to the games and experience winning, knowing nothing but success and will come to believe that they, too, can be a part of that experience. It must be true. Senior receiver Victor Vasquez, interviewed after the state-winning victory, put it this way: “We’ve been dreaming about this since we were little kids, and you know, dreams really do come true.”
The winning mindset and expectations start with the coaches and trickle down to the leaders of the team and eventually to all the players, and before long, the fans believe it as well. The seed is planted, and then it gradually makes it way to the younger kids in the community. By the time the 2000 season started, Coach Wood had been changing that mindset by having winning seasons. Most of the boys on this 2008 state championship team grew up with that winning tradition, many of them as far back as kindergarten, while they participated on the same Little League teams, Little Dribblers, the same junior high teams, all the while attending the high school games and being inspired. Coach Wood smiled, “They seemed to have something special, this bunch, and would always say, if we can just grow a little bit we’ll do better, but they never did [grow much] and they still played the same way, which was always good.”
In 2000 the Mules, under Coach Wood, had a 14-1 season, losing the semi-final game to Forney at Texas Stadium in Dallas. “The Year We Made History,” said the T-shirts we all wore to the game. As the first team to make it that far in the playoffs, they had made history. Things had begun to pick up with Wood’s tenure. His first year’s record was an unimpressive but predictable 1-9 season-they had been picked to go 0-10. The second season showed improvement to 5-5. By the third season the Mules were 10-2 which secured the district title. Being scheduled as a homecoming game opponent suddenly began to change. After that the Mules made the playoffs every year but one. Dedicated coaches, hard-working kids, winning mindset. Yes, the winning tradition was in place.
In 2004, the Mules had run out of linemen and found themselves with two good quarterbacks who also had other skills, so in order to utilize the most talent most of the time, a change was needed. Texas Tech’s Mike Leach had been running a successful spread offense which seemed suited to Muleshoe’s talents. Keeping up with the times and latest innovations, Coach Wood made a trip to Lubbock to learn more about this high scoring offense and found it to be a good game plan for his personnel.
“We found it was a simple plan with not very many plays, and we could run it with big or small linemen. For it to work, though, we had to have a good trigger man-a quarterback with a quick pass. The second thing for it to work falls directly on the coaches, who have to be willing to change their philosophy. It’s fun on Saturday to have a [mental] chess match and play with the next opponent, try to figure out the team’s next move. With the spread, once we installed the offense, that was it. Our prep time was cut way down. We don’t know what the [opposing] defense will do and don’t worry about how they will line up. We change plays 30% of the time from what we call on the sidelines. That’s part of our prep time. The third thing is to allow the quarterback to make those changes. You need a smart quarterback you can trust, and he has to be able to do it. We needed at least three good receivers for the spread and the defense can’t key on them that way."
So now after three years, the coaches have embraced the spread philosophy, the trigger man is in place, three receivers are ready to go, and they are all supported by a team with an understanding of what they needed to do, and full of the right mix of confidence and a certain cockiness toward those bigger, stronger teams who were supposed to run over them. They simply weren’t going to be denied. “This bunch had no problems with bigger teams. They actually wanted big teams because they thought they would be slower. So psychologically size was not an issue.” As to taking hard hits, if a hit didn’t ring their bell, it didn’t faze them. If they suffered a bad play, they’d say that’s okay, we’ll make up for it. And then they would.
There was always talk about “mo.” This team always seemed to have the momentum on their side. They never knew what play would trigger the momentum for or against them, but it was always there this championship season. Fans knew when the momentum changed because it was palpable, even to those of us in the stands. These boys made momentum work for them all year, but the Crane game established the real momentum that carried them to the state finals. Scheduling Crane and meeting them halfway in Denver City for the game was a sure sign that Muleshoe had earned a winning reputation. Now Coach Wood was having a hard time filling the non-district slots. That kind of problem is a good thing. “That game gave us a sense of urgency because a team really gets motivated when they play a formidable opponent.” Crane, traditionally a state powerhouse, was ranked number 2 at the time and was blessed with big boys who had lots of speed. Muleshoe was not picked to win, but when the dust settled and the score was Mules 63, Golden Cranes 41, these kids truly believed they would make it all the way.
And make it they did. The final game was played December 13 against the Kirbyville Wildcats at Grand Prairie’s Gopher Bow Stadium. Playing in a bowl stadium was important to Coach Wood so wind would not be a negative factor to the Mules’ passing game. This Kirbyville team was also big and fast. This team also lost, just like the other 14 teams Muleshoe defeated while making it look seemingly easy, and oh, so much fun. Final score: 48-26.
Coach Wood compliments this team for being a cohesive group without a chicken fry in the bunch.
“A chicken fry doesn’t get into the game. They are just there for the steak after the game. If they want a free ride, I can deal with that, but I tell them up front that they won’t play much. In crucial situations I won’t ever play one, but they can go along for the ride. But this team didn’t have any chicken fries. They all contributed. All 24 of them.”
The state champs were also a self-motivated team with good leaders. Seniors were known to stop a shaky practice and get things back on track. The team never complained about hard work or doing things over, and it has rubbed off on the off-season crew. Coach says it is usually harder to keep the off-season kids motivated, but it is unbelievable the positive effect the championship year has had. Which, of course, will help with motivation this football season.
Coach Wood credits his off season program for the team being season-ending injury-free for the last three years. The off-season program focuses on knee strength, and the fact that the spread has less contact than other offenses, provides less chance for injury in the first place.
A small town’s football team is many times the heart and soul of the community, especially in Texas, and that winning tradition that is so important to motivate players rubs off on the fans. It certainly rubbed off on the Muleshoe fans, who lined the main highway through town and the elementary and middle school children who lined the playgrounds to see them off as the chartered buses headed to Grand Prairie. Bailey County Electric Company hoisted a banner between two bucket trucks that read “Bailey County Electric says Electrify the Wildcats!” Any vehicle leaving town for the game had to pass the sign erected by fan Nick Bamert which read “Last One Out… Turn out the Lights!” Based on official estimates and tickets sales, about 5500 people attended the game, and at least half of them were for the Mules. Residents, former residents, people who knew residents, people who graduated from or attended Muleshoe High School, people who may have just driven through town decided to come to this game. It was like a family reunion and class reunion rolled into one big happy party, especially when the scoreboard showed no time left. Then of course, the requisite championship-boasting T-shirts were designed and printed by a company in town and 2100 were sold. That's almost half the population, remember. Orders came in from all over Texas and all over the nation, from California to Tennessee. Mule Mania had definitely taken hold and has not let go even now. Cars sported the white shoe polished windows proclaiming “Go Mules,” “Mules State Champs!” “Mules No.1," for months after the game.
Coach Wood has 13 returning lettermen and the shoulder pads of 11 seniors to fill this season. But he is not worried. In 2006 the Mules averaged 327 yards a game; in 2007, 402 per game; 2008 saw the number jump to 471. “As a coaching staff, we are learning more and more about this offense and are very comfortable with it. If we add 70-75 yards per game to the average this year,” he laughs, “ who knows what the future holds.”
Who knows, indeed. The 2009 season is well under way, and the Mules have extended their undefeated record to 17-0, beating Levelland 27-14, and Portales, NM 55-14. Mule Mania knows the future looks, well, pretty darn good. Lubbock Cooper is this Friday's challenge. Stay tuned.