Q&A: Refugio's Herring rides roller coaster to state championship
Dec. 21, 2011 at 6:21 a.m.
Updated Dec. 22, 2011 at 6:22 a.m.
REFUGIO - An emotional Refugio coach Jason Herring climbed over the railing at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington and hugged his wife, Lisa, moments after the Bobcats had defeated Cisco 36-35 in the Class 2A, Division II state championship game.
Herring led the Bobcats to their first state football championship since 1982 in his fifth season as head coach.
The state final win brought a successful conclusion to an enjoyable, but trying season for Herring.
The Bobcats scored 891 points, breaking Big Sandy's state record of 824, and falling 12 points short of the national record.
But along the way critics lambasted Herring and the Bobcats for running up the score and displaying poor sportsmanship.
Herring took some time this week to reflect on the 2011 season.
How did you come up with the plan to play your starters for three quarters this season.
What first struck me was last year in the third quarter of the Schulenburg game. For the first time in our life we're down at halftime. It seems like we're having to ask our kids to suck it up and get rejuvenated because we're in a war. I'll never forget, I look over there right before we kick off and our kids are fighting over the oxygen mask. They're physically exhausted. It just happened to be there and Shiloh (Whetsel) and Draigon (Silvas) were just sucking on this as fast as they can. One of our lineman came up and said 'Coach, I'm exhausted.' I said, 'Dude we're down 21-7 you've got to stinking go.' That's when I first realized something's not right. Here we are Week 13 and our kids are having to grasp for air in the second half and we hadn't played any of the third quarter yet. That's when I realized something was wrong.
When I made the decision was about March or April. Sometime last spring. I analyzed every single playoff loss. Why did we lose 7-6 to Rice, why did we lose to Blanco at the Alamodome, why did we lose to Daingerfield, why did we lose to Lexington?
Every one of them I could come up with a reason except for last year's. Against Rice we dropped five open touchdowns and fumbled four times inside the five. Against Blanco, they were just better than us. They physically whipped us, 27-7. Daingerfield were not going to beat them if we play 100 times.
The one that haunted me was Lexington. It was the first year of the big school, small school so I knew there wasn't a Daingerfield out there. I knew we were as good as anybody numbers wise and talent wise and yet we didn't even get close.
I had already changed coordinators, I had already changed defenses, we had already revamped our offense, I had already revamped our offseason, we changed our weight program. After each loss, I had analyzed what do we have to do different. I had already tweaked everything in the world that I could think of, and I still felt like there's something that we're missing here because we didn't even get close against Lexington.
They're our size, we were every bit as talented and we didn't get close. Schulenburg dang near beat us and I honestly felt like they shouldn't have been on the field with us. I felt like we were that much better than them.
After analyzing every phase of what we do, the only common denominator I could come up with in our four losses and the only thing that I hadn't tweaked was our kids have only been allowed to play about half a game in all of the district games.
I started adding it up and I counted how many times we didn't play the second half and it was like seven out of 10 games before Lexington. So I thought in seven games our kids had the opportunity to get 28 quarters and I only let them get 14 quarters. I wonder if something's there.
I knew in our district we were going to be better than everybody. I knew Robstown had graduated everybody and Hallettsville was kind of in a rebuilding mode even though they ended up having a great year.
The only team on our schedule that I thought was going to be a challenge was Rice (Consolidated). I looked at it in the spring and summer, and I said nine of our 10 games are going to be over with at halftime probably, which means our kids are going to play 18 quarters.
I thought there's no way that's not hurting us. It was just a combination of me looking for something to tweak and this was all a process. It was not something I just thought of. I just convinced myself after thinking about that Schulenburg game about us sucking for air. It was all I could do to keep the team together at halftime.
Emotionally, physically, they're sitting there sucking on oxygen tanks. Our kids didn't understand that there's two halves of football. They're used to it being over. Shoulder pads off, throwing water bottles at each other, looking up in the stands. That's the way it had been all year long. We had never asked our kids, OK it's zero to zero completely refocus and put the pedal to the metal.
Ultimately, I talked a lot to my coaches and I prayed about it. I just decided we're at least going to play three quarters so I can get them as much game-time experience as I can regardless of what feelings it hurts. I had no idea that the backlash was going to be as bad as it was.
Where you surprised at how severe the response to your lopsided scores was
Shocked, appalled, hurt, disgusted, disbelief, all of that describes it.
Here's what's amazing to me. It's never been about the record, but now that it's set, I'm going to say it. We scored 891 points and beat the all-time Texas record set by Big Sandy. Aledo scored 886 points. Only five points different and I didn't hear a word about Aledo running up the score all year long.
There's a hatred for Refugio that's been around for years. I think it was kind of a perfect storm, that and this. Aledo basically matched us point for point all season.
Never in a million years did I know it was going to be so personal and so venomous. They called our kids thugs, they said our kids are going to be working at McDonald's, they called me classless, they called me coach Satan, I got a death threat, they called me a bully. What's so ironic is there's probably some coaches out there that would fit Coach Bully.
I'm so opposite. I'm a people person. I love people, and that's why it bothered me. We've always been a real good program, but there's always been two or three parents who were very upset, and I could never let go of the two or three. My whole life I've been that way. Even though I gave the appearance that I had a coat of armor on and never bothering me and it was us against the world, it was miserable.
That's why I went and hugged my wife. She's the only one that knows. I never let the kids know because I didn't want them to know how much it hurt. I'm the type of guy if there's one person against me, the whole world might as well be. That's the way I am. I'm a pleaser. I don't want people to be upset.
The words "stay linked" are on a fence at the school and your players started wearing a chain link around their necks. Who came up with the idea?
When Donald's (Trevino) mother was on her last breath and Donald said, 'Coach, I would like us to sign the football and take it to my mom after the game.' We got on the bus and drive over there 11 o'clock at night and she's on her last breath of air, I mean within hours of passing. I saw every little kid go up there and hug her neck. But what struck me was as I'm hugging her neck and I'm fixing to walk down the stairs, I turn around and everyone of our kids completely unprovoked is in a circle with their arms around each other and somebody started a prayer. They're sitting there praying and I had never seen our kids do that anywhere. Praying for Donald, praying for his mother.
Now that I look back, I'm not sure if that's where the bond first started. I think that's where the link first started and the bond first started with this group of kids. There's no doubt Donald is the heart and soul of this team. He's the inspiration of this team, the leader of this team. No question, and for that to be his mother going through that, I think that's where the bond first started.
When this team really got unified is when we had the adversity in the middle of the year and I had to remove three players. Starters, I mean good players, dynamic players. That right there is when you felt a complete difference in every single thing about us. From that minute on, from that day in practice to after that there was no way you were going to separate this football team. Sometimes it takes adversity. We just became so intertwined.
I've always felt there was something missing. It's always seemed odd to me for this many great athletes and this many great teams in this town to only have one co-championship and one championship.
I couldn't put my finger on it, but this is way more of a football town and way better athletes than I ever had at Sonora and Sonora's got five championships. I've always thought what are we missing? What's Refugio missing? What's the bolt that we've not yet found? The only thing I could come up with was unity and togetherness and being able to fight through adversity because in games we just knocked the heck out of people and they don't hit back and they don't fight back. It's like you just push on the wall and it falls and then you get to a Schulenburg or a Lexington and all of a sudden you hit and those suckers hit back.
Then all of sudden you have some adversity, you're down 21-7. Quite frankly, none of my other teams knew how to handle that. I still believe that if we don't come back and run that trick play after halftime of the Schulenburg game and throw the fly sweep pass. I told coach (Drew) Cox and he said you don't want to run that the first play. I said if we don't light a fire under this crowd and these kids we're not going to recover. We've got to do something crazy. It worked. I felt like we needed a jump start.
I'm telling you none of my other four teams could have battled back from three deficits the other night. There's no question of the unity or togetherness.
We were talking in the office, and I said I wish there was a symbol and I'd always used this to all of my teams, you're only as strong as your weakest link. A chain can just be rock solid. But pretend you're just like holding the end of chain and you're hanging off a cliff. Who do you want holding the chain and how solid do you want the links between? If that person up there holding it is a weak link, you're gone or anywhere in the chain there's a weak link, you're gone. I heard from some coach years ago.
We had never gotten to a point as a team where we could use it and symbolize it until this team. Somewhere along the middle of the year we kept talking about it, 'Don't be the weak link, don't be the link that breaks the chain.'
I think it was coach (Kent) Hawthorne who said at one of his schools they actually cut a chain and took a link and gave it to each kid and they wore it around their neck. Coach Hawthorne came up with the idea and I thought it was awesome.
I never thought about this and I don't even know how to put this in words. But to break a chain in order to get one good link, you've got to get rid of two links. Until we were actually doing it, I told the coach how odd that you've got to get rid of two negatives before you can have one positive. You don't think how many links you have to ruin to get 40 good links. It struck me to get one good link you have to get rid of two bad. You have to ruin two links and cut them to get one.
I used that with the kids. I said, 'Do ya'll know how hard it is to get one solid link? You have to ruin two.' To get 40 links we had to ruin like 80. It just kind of rolled and the next thing you know everything about us is stay linked. Don't be the weakest link. Don't let your link be the one that breaks the chain. We just bonded around it.
Right there, on that ring (on the framed state championship poster), it says stay linked and whoever made that ring doesn't know us.
It just took off like fire and became our motto, and it was everything. It kind of started accidentally. I've never believed in doing things just to be doing them.
Honestly, we've had a hard time being unified. We've had some great teams but I've had a hard time the previous four years and everybody channeled into one stinking goal.
There was always a few detractors and always two or three that weren't sure why we were doing it this way. For the first time, because of Donald's mother, we bonded a little bit then. When we had that adversity, for some reason our kids just stuck together as tight as I've ever seen. There was no question what the goal was on this team.
This is hard to believe in Refugio, America. I had not one single problem with one kid from that point forward. Nothing, nobody late, nobody failing a class, nobody skipping a class, nobody skipping workout. I mean nada. It was strictly business because the kids bought in to being unified and I'm not going to skip practice because I'd be cheating my friends and I'm not going to go hard on this play because I'd be cheating my teammates.
It just caught fire. I wish I knew. I could be rich. I could write a book about how to do it. Every week I just saw it growing. All of a sudden we're winning and we're winning big and then you throw on top of that all the negativity.
People are just attacking us from everywhere ESPN, media, newspapers, you name it. You have this team that was already pretty linked and then you have people throwing darts, spears, rocks and stones at us and the next thing you know it unifies us. I honestly think our criticizers became our motivators unintentionally.
I didn't want it to be this way, but it kind of became us against the world. I didn't want it to be that way because I think that sounds malicious, but that's what happened.
It became nine coaches and 40 players and everybody hates our guts. Coach Cox started every day practice, 'Guys it's 3:30 on Monday the 18th and everybody in the state hates your guts. We might as well whip 'em.' He said it the other night. At 11:58, we're fixing to walk through the tunnel and everybody in the world hates your guts. The very people who were trying to tear us down and break us apart actually strengthened us and built us together. It was almost like you've always had our back, we're going to have your back. It unified us in a way that will probably never happen again.
Was there a moment during the season when you felt like winning a state championship could happen?
I felt like offensively all year long we had enough talent to win it. With Travis (Quintanilla) being the wild card. We've got a great running game, a good offensive line, great receivers. But we've had that four years in a row. What we lacked is a real passing game that I trusted that in the heat of the moment against Lexington that I was willing to pull the trigger.
If we would have lined up against Lexington like we did last year and run it up the middle 48 times they'd have beaten our tail end. I had enough confidence in Travis that I think we probably threw it 80 percent that night. The other night we probably threw it 70 percent. They both worked out.
Honestly, all season long my biggest fear was are we good enough defensively to win it all. If it was a team that was going to be a shootout like Lexington, that didn't bother me.
What bothered me was a team that would grind it out like Cisco did and limited our possessions. I really didn't think anybody could stop us, but I was really concerned.
When we beat Lexington, 63-33, I knew right then this is special. There's something special about this team.
How long will you celebrate the state title before beginning to prepare for next season.
I'm going to let them celebrate the whole Christmas holidays, and then when we come back we'll take all of our state champion pictures with all the trophies. We'll get all that over with the first day or two and then we'll break off and go to work.
We're going to have six and six back next year. We didn't lose a game at any level. The whole program went 41-0. Obviously, expectations are going to be high. I fully expect us to be ranked in the top two or three and maybe No. 1. The cupboard is not bare for sure. Now our goal is to go back-to-back. I've always told my closest friends that if we could ever win one, we might win two or three.
It's tangible. For 30 years, since we won one and since 1987 when they got in the game, you can say it all you want, but in '87 these kids weren't even born. It doesn't seem tangible no matter how much I talk about it.
Now, it's tangible. They see it can happen. They see that having 90 kids show up at strength and conditioning the past three years has paid off. I've always said that if we can win one, I really think we've got a shot to win a couple.
We've got a great run of kids coming. We're going to do just what we've always done. We'll tweak it in areas where we need to tweak it and get even better and keep doing what's been working.
Mike Forman is a sports writer for the Victoria Advocate. Contact him at 361- 580-6588 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.