PORT LAVACA – Readers may remember Tank McNamara, a comic strip that appeared in the Advocate’s sports section some years back.
The strip featured a fictional former pro football player turned TV sportscaster.
McNamara frequently reported on a football team called the Sandcrabs, who were at the wrong end of the score more times than not.
A few readers in Port Lavaca were not pleased with the way their school mascot was being portrayed and went so far as to accuse the newspaper of inserting their team’s name into the comic strip.
Obviously, this wasn’t the case, but the results experienced by the actual Sandcrabs were much like the fictional ones.
When Richard Whitaker left Kingsville to become Calhoun’s athletic director and head football coach in 2005, the Sandcrabs hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1961, and their last playoff win had come in 1960.
He took over a team that had gone 29-82-2 in the previous 13 seasons, and two years later, won a district championship and a playoff game.
“We worked very hard that first year on convincing parents and not just kids,” Whitaker said. “I can’t tell you how many homes I went into. We had kids that should have been playing that weren’t playing. It was a journey that year just to get the parents to buy into what I wanted to do. I felt like if we could get them to start believing, the kids would believe.”
Whitaker’s first Calhoun team went 2-8, but he could sense the possibilities after its lone district win over Brazosport in Freeport.
“The night that we beat Brazosport there was a celebration over at that stadium,” he said. “My core coaches stood out on the field watching the kids and parents celebrate and I said, ‘If we ever get this turned, it’s going to be a crazy frenzy around here.’” You could just see that they wanted it so bad.”
The celebration at a packed Sandcrab Stadium when Calhoun defeated Beeville to win the district title the following season was just a prelude of future success.
The Sandcrabs have gone 113-54 under Whitaker and have been in the playoffs 11 of the past 13 seasons.
The program’s turnaround has not gone unnoticed, as Whitaker was selected by his peers as one of the most underrated coaches in the state in a survey conducted by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine.
Whitaker attributes much of the success he’s had at Calhoun to the option offense he learned as an assistant under Bill Smith at Aldine.
“I just feel like no matter where I’m at that there are some schemes that we have that can be successful at any level,” Whitaker said. “We’ve been fortunate here to have some big physical linemen and we do a lot of things where we’re running right at people. There’s other years where we have to scheme more and those schemes are pretty good. It forces defenses to play assignment football. It forces them to balance up to us. It can be a very challenging offense.”
Calhoun’s success has not only changed the community’s perception of its team, but also raised expectations.
“It’s not only the expectations I put on myself, but the expectations the community puts on me,” Whitaker said. “That’s a lot of pressure. But it’s also nice to know that we were part of something special that got this community turned around and believing like that. We do believe when we step on the field we have a chance to win.”
Whitaker’s success in Port Lavaca has created opportunities to go elsewhere. But he’ll begin his 15th season at Calhoun when the Sandcrabs travel to Memorial Stadium next month to play Victoria West.
“I’ve never been one to move around a whole lot,” he said. “I spent nine years at Aldine and went to Kingsville to become a head coach. I came here for the chance to be an athletic director."
“I like being part of a community. I like getting to know people. This community has treated (wife) Kellie and my family great. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. You’ve heard that your whole life. I think we have it pretty good here. I love the kids, I love the community and it became our home.”