Red Wing's reclamation project
Red Wing assistant coach Sam Westphall wistfully recalls numerous early morning phone calls from Andrew Ubbelohde during his playing days, many of which woke him up from his summer slumber. Despite the disturbance, Westphall and the rest of the Wingers leaped at the chance to follow the player whom many consider the best leader in the history of Red Wing High School.
Thus began the glory years of the football program at the turn of this century.
Ubbelohde, a 2002 graduate who's now a Cobra pilot in the U.S. military, also remembers those days fondly. The mornings would usually begin with an hour or two of speed and agility training as the sun crept over the horizon. That was followed up by a trip to the weight room.
The "off" days consisted of running up the hill behind the Red Wing Athletic Field and playing in a local basketball league at night.
Captain's practice would begin a few weeks before fall camp started. With Ubbelohde in charge, former head coach Paul Schmit added that voluntary activity to the summer schedule, assuming it would be well-attended. It was an astute move.
"It amounted to what we all made of it," Ubbelohde said. "We just had that common goal driving us."
The Wingers finished 18-6 in Ubbelohde's final two years, earning a share of the Missota Conference title in 2001 and qualifying for the state tournament both seasons. They haven't had a winning season since.
Red Wing has won 18 games in the last seven years, including just three in the last three years. The team enters the 2009 season having lost 13 straight games.
Where did things go wrong? That depends on whom you ask.
Many point to the revolving door at head coach since Schmit stepped down after the 2006 season.
Others cite the startling lack of numbers, which played a key role in Red Wing's bowing out of the conference's junior varsity program late in Schmit's 19-year tenure. The population boom around the Missota Conference hasn't occurred in Red Wing, where enrollment has fallen by about 20 percent (see box) since 2001. The addition of varsity soccer in 2004 has drawn from the same talent pool over the last few years -- as have fall hockey, baseball and basketball.
A number of other factors have also contributed to the recent decline.
"It's kind of like the economy right now," said Schmit, who has returned as a varsity assistant this fall. "Some will say we've hit rock bottom and we can only go up."
The transition process
To many, the biggest issue has been continuity. Schmit's staff was in constant flux after the state tournament appearances and it resulted in a 2-8 record in each of his final two seasons.
Kevin Horvat installed his own ideas, philosophies and assistant coaches for one season before current head coach Matt Schultz came on board with even more changes. Getting the players to buy in hasn't been easy.
"No one wanted to go to (football camp at) Winona State last year," senior captain Justin Lance recalled, laughing. "We were all like 'Who are you?'"
For all the resistance Schultz met with initially -- and it was stiff -- his ideas seem to be catching on. Participation at the Winona State camp rose from 10 to 20. Attendance in the weight room grew from a handful to nearly 30.
Summer camp drew almost 50 after about 30 showed up the year before. Captain's practice started back up after a few years without it.
"I think people realized we can't just show up and play anymore," said junior captain Coleman Kelly, who will be sidelined for the first month of the season with an ankle injury.
Nearly 40 freshmen are being indoctrinated into Schultz's system this fall. Thirty went through the growing pains a year ago and came back for more. If attrition doesn't hit too hard over the next few years, the Wingers could be looking at a numbers renaissance.
That's the first step to rebuilding the program, according to Schmit.
"At ninth grade, you'd like to be able to keep 50 percent of your kids (for their senior year)," said Schmit, who spent the last two years helping with the freshman team. "I don't think Northfield or Hutchinson has any problems with that. I think at Red Wing, we have to keep 60 or 70 percent to be competitive. If we can keep those numbers, we'll be fine."
The current senior class has retained eight of 18.
'Bringing it back'
The current seniors were in elementary school when Ubbelohde's Wingers made their run to the Metrodome. They were too young, however, to attend varsity games consistently or recall specific memories of the glory days.
They do recall the times he showed up at preseason practices to speak to the team. Many still find his signature phrase -- "Stay hard" -- amusing, but Ubbelohde's football career was no joke. The two-time All-American linebacker for the University of St. Thomas set the achievement bar high.
Some Wingers think they may be approaching that standard again. Finally.
"I kinda set the theme this year of 'Bringing It Back,'" said senior running back/linebacker Dionte Emerson, whose father played football at the University of Minnesota. "I'm really confident in our team this year."
New offensive and defensive philosophies have been tailored to fit Red Wing's personnel this fall. (See inserted football section.) With improved numbers, better offseason preparation and a renewed enthusiasm for the game, Schultz hopes to see noticeable improvements this fall.
"It's a process building what we're trying to build," said the second-year head coach. "The nice thing is we have great kids who make good decisions."
But learning to win might be the most difficult obstacle the Wingers face. Many in the program haven't tasted success in a long, long time, and a lack of confidence can be contagious. Schultz has read Tony Dungy's book "Quiet Strength" to the team during breaks in practice in hopes of addressing this issue.
Whether or not that's enough remains to be seen.
"A lot of this game is mental," senior captain Dan Horvat said. "If we win initially, I think we can build our confidence and have a good year. But first we have to believe we can win."