ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Some assistant coaches endure their time on the sideline chomping at the bit, just waiting for an opportunity to step into a lead role somewhere, anywhere.
Not Len Coryea.
Having spent the previous 18 seasons as an assistant football coach at Hillsboro High School, Coryea was content to continue in that role indefinitely.
But then opportunity barged in.
Dustin McEwen, the Trojans’ popular and successful head coach for the past eight seasons, announced in spring that he would be leaving. His wife’s teaching job was a casualty of budget cuts, and the two had accepted positions in the Cheney school system.
The head spot at HHS was suddenly open-but Coryea still wasn’t chomping to fill it.
“The first time Mac asked me if I was interested, I said, ‘no,'” Coryea said. “I was happy where I was, and I didn’t want Mac to go.”
Then, he said, some of the Trojan players began talking to him about stepping up.
“I guess that’s when I gave it some real thought,” Coryea said. “I kept thinking, maybe this is my calling at this moment-or maybe not. By no means was I out advertising, wanting to get his job.”
When Coryea finally decided to make the jump, he did so with both feet. “I’m going to give it my best,” he said.
Coryea’s pilgrimage to this moment began in the western Pennsylvania town of Greenville, where he grew up-and where he stayed almost exclusively until he left for college.
“When I grew up, we lived in a 25-mile radius from my house-that was life,” he said.
Upon completing a successful playing career at his rural high school, Coryea began receiving letters from several small colleges, mostly in Ohio and Iowa.
Then he received one from the coach at some school in Kansas called Sterling College.
“Kansas was like Hawaii to me-it sounded like a long way out for us,” he said.
Coryea eventually discovered that Sterling had some 30 Pennsylvania athletes on its roster already, and that the Warriors had won the conference championship that fall.
He said didn’t know any of the athletes from his home state, but decided to make the leap.
“I loved it,” said Coryea, who started at center for the Warriors his junior and senior years.
While there, he met Brenda, a Hillsboro girl who eventually agreed to marry him. The Coryeas opted to stay in Kansas after they graduated from Sterling in 1974.
His first teaching position was at Oil Hill, a small school outside of El Dorado. Coryea also became head football coach-actually, the only coach-for both the middle school and freshmen teams.
In 1982, he accepted the top job at Bluestem High School, located down the road at Leon. Coryea inherited a program that had gone winless the previous season.
Worse, nobody had bothered to inform the former head coach he was being replaced until Coryea met him in the Bluestem weight room that summer.
“That made for an uncomfortable situation,” he said with a rueful smile.
But even Coryea’s enthusiasm for the game couldn’t turn around the struggling program. After four years there, he accepted an opening in the Hillsboro system and became an assistant under Trojan legend Don Penner.
Lessons about character
The 10 years spent with Penner and the eight with McEwen have been enjoyable, Coryea said. Each coach had character traits he hopes to emulate in his new role.
From Penner, Coryea said he learned patience, composure and loyalty.
“Don had a real commitment to the older kids who worked with him all four years,” Coryea said. “He started a kid once who wasn’t very good, and I asked him not to. But he said, ‘No, he’s played for us for four years, he’s a senior, and he deserves it. We’ll work around his weaknesses.’
“There are so many things about Don-the trust factor, for instance,” Coryea added. “He was open to suggestions (from his assistants) and never said no.”
Penner’s composed demeanor was reinforced when McEwen took over in 1996.
“Dustin never got mad in the locker room,” Coryea said. “It was just, ‘Settle down, this is what we’re going to do.’ He was composed, no matter what was going on.”
“What’s neat is that they both had a calm demeanor on the field,” he said. “I know I’m more higher-strung than they are. But I hope I can keep that part going.”
Coryea said McEwen also modeled a willingness to take risks.
“When a team would back us up inside the 5-yard line, he’d take off his mike so you couldn’t hear him. I’d say, ‘What’s the play?’ And he’d say, ‘You don’t want know.’ And then I’d know-we’re throwing the bomb out of the end zone.
“That’s risk taking-which helps sometimes.”
Lessons about strategy
As for strategy, Coryea said he’s aiming for a balanced approach on offense that blends Penner’s commitment to a solid ground attack with McEwen’s willingness to open up the game when necessary.
“There are parts of Penner’s offense that I like and part of McEwen’s,” Coryea said.
Establishing a reliable run game is a priority, though, because it’s necessary when a team against a strong wind, and in the post season, when wet and cold weather can make throwing difficult.
“You look at most of the teams that win state championships, they can run the football,” he said. “If you play in Kansas, you’ve got to be able to run.”
A winning tradition
One tradition Coryea aims to uphold is winning football games. He said both Penner and McEwen finished their time at Hillsboro with a winning percentage around 65 percent.
“There is some pressure there,” he admitted. “But there should be.”
Beyond the glory of winning, Coryea remembers from his early days the frustration that comes with losing.
“I hate losing. When you win, things go well, kids want to be there, kids want to go to school. If you start losing, then you have to force them, push them-and then parents get involved and tell you how you’re doing it all wrong.”
A matter of trust
One more lesson Coryea has learned from the days when he was a one-man coaching staff-is to delegate coaching responsibilities to his assistants-and then trust their judgment.
“I was thinking all along, if I did it again, I’d be way more trusting of my assistants,” he said.
Helping Coryea this season are Dennis Boldt and Scott O’Hare, who are veterans of the program, and newcomer Darrel Knoll, who was head football coach at the middle school.
“I’m pretty fortunate,” Coryea said. “I think I’ve got some pretty good assistants.”
By all means, he should know.