Small Town America lives and dies by its high school sports. It may be just an opinion but it is backed up by strong evidence. Drive into any small community in this country and you will, invariably, be greeted by a sign touting one or more state championships by their high school teams or individuals. Close to the middle of town will be a water tower that will be more likely to bear the school’s mascot than the name of the town itself.
Talk to longtime residents and they will fondly reminisce about the great high school teams of the past, the glory days, and rattle off names of the players on those teams like they fully expect you to know who they are talking about. Their pride is deeply rooted in the success of their youth.
Mike Vicars, a native of Liberty Center and head football coach at Swanton High School, is fully aware of this phenomenon. Understanding the dynamics of how emotionally invested the locals are in their school sports has helped him build a resume that is almost as unpresented as it is impressive. He has gone into towns and high schools with moribund football programs and raised their level of expectations, turned them into not only winners but powerhouse teams and, at the same time and maybe most importantly, raised the level of school and civic pride. “That’s what is really rewarding about it,” explained Vicars. “If anybody ever asks me about it, other than the relationships, it’s not the conference championships, it’s not making the playoffs all those different times, it’s the joy that comes back to the community. I think that’s what is really cool.”
Two years ago a position in Swanton schools opened up that placed Mike in exactly the job he wanted, Director of Student Services, which would allow him to change the lives of young individuals, setting them on the right life path. Coincidentally, the head football coaching job was open as well and he jumped at the opportunity. It was a perfect fit.
In coming to Swanton, Mike took over a program that was approaching two decades of not just losing, but losing in humiliating fashion, averaging less than two wins a year and had accepted a culture of losing and an attitude of not being worthy. It was a culture that had permeated not only the program but the school and the community as well and had festered into a self-fulfilling prophecy. He knew his work was cut out for him.
“It’s easy when you’ve been run down for so long to have that really inferiority complex. For me it’s a little easier to have that positive attitude, that self-worth meter because it’s in my background. I’ve never experienced where they(Swanton) were.”
Mike never took over a program with Swanton’s long suffering history but, in the beginning, he established one very similar. Starting at the tender age of 23, he coached Holgate then Ada and accumulated a record of 5-45 in five years. He realized it was not just the cards he was dealt but the way he was playing those cards.
Where many would have walked away, Vicars doubled down and sought out successful coaches from Ohio and Pennsylvania and began to learn the defensive and offensive techniques that elevated their teams as well as the intangibles that proved to be difference makers under the Friday night lights.
The transformation was stunning. He finally won a league title with Ada and moved on to Delta where he took a team that had seven winning seasons out of the past 50 and took them to the playoff seven years in a row and added two league championships for good measure.
Vicars moved on to the Genoa Area Schools, dropped his first game and proceeded to win the next 48 straight regular season games, winning four league titles and moving on to the final four twice.
Along the way Vicars developed an inspirational and motivating philosophy that was summed up in three words, “Be the Best”. A simple yet profound and compelling message that became a rallying cry for his teams, for his school and, ultimately for the community. He instilled this into his players and it rippled through each town in which he coached.
He also began to have post practice meetings on Thursday night get togethers where players could express their feelings on any subject. It served as a bonding experience for the team and brought the team together as one. “It was a true brotherhood that would develop,” said Mike.
And once again in Swanton, the Vicars effect worked beyond anyone’s expectations. In his first year, 2014, the Bulldogs went 6-4 ending 18 consecutive years of futility. Building on that success, the 2015 season proved to be historical as Swanton went 9-1, won its first league title since 1995 and won its first playoff game in school history.
Just to be clear, Mike Vicars came into a situation that was finally beginning to change. “Things were slowly getting better,” said Brad Christenson, head of the Swanton Athletic Boosters, “But Mike took it to a higher level. The attendance increased and the proceeds from our 50/50 raffle, which helps finance most of the Swanton Middle School athletics, skyrocketed.”
And it was not just the development of a winning football program that motivated Coach Vicars. It was the student, the individual, and the success that he had that pushed him. “Mike is one of those guys that truly believe his success is largely dependent on his ability and success for the student athletes experiencing great things. It’s not an odd thing in education”, said Jeff Schlade, Swanton School Superintendent. But he gets the press for it because he’s out there on Friday nights. You walk through our building on any given day and our teachers are doing the same extraordinary things by putting the success of their students up front. They just don’t get the glory.”
It goes beyond the success of the school. There was an economic boost as well. More people coming into town to see two good teams battle meant more people were visiting the local businesses as well. “We can tell when they win,” said Boyd Ratliff, owner of the Swanton Sports Center, a bowling center and a banquet hall, “This place just fills up after games. They are in a good mood because it hasn’t happened in so long. It’s great to see.”
Businesses selling Bulldog wearing apparel also saw a big jump in sales. Purple and white became common colors in wardrobes around the community as the Swanton pride infectiously spread. The dark days were finally gone.
What will never be gone, however, are the accomplishments of the 2015 Swanton football Bulldogs and the impact the team had on the community. Far greater is the lasting impact Coach Vicars will have on the individual players, the lessons he taught them and the confidence he instilled in them that will serve them well in all aspects of their future lives. Maintaining that winning spirit is Mike’s next challenge but if his track record is any indication, the sun will continue to shine.
Bill O’Connell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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