Rockford’s football team maintains winning culture
Rockford High School football coach Ralph Munger isn’t much of a numbers guy. He has trouble recalling the number of years he has led the varsity program and how many championships it has won along the way.It’s likely Munger is only being modest, but there’s no doubt that his passion for the sport and strategy for developing a winning program has made the Rams a feared contender on the football field.
“We’ve had our fair share of success, and we’ve been very blessed,” Munger said. “But I’m not a stat guy. We’re just going to line them up and play.”
The Rams have made 18 consecutive playoff appearances and won three state titles in five trips. Munger admits he’s been fortunate to have talented players, and pays much of the credit to the school’s administration and his staff that puts him in a position to succeed.
Consistency has been one of the program’s strong suits over the years. Munger said there are about 22 coaches on staff in grades seven through 12, and about half of them are former players. That means the program philosophy is well understood and those leading the teams from middle school up to varsity know how to best develop prepare players for what lies ahead.
Munger isn’t the only coach to praise the work of school administrators. Several leaders in the athletic department are grateful sports are placed in such high regard and treated as an extension of the classroom. In an era where school district budgets are cut on a yearly basis, the Rockford School District has managed to keep athletic spending largely unaffected. That sends a positive message to those on the playing field.
“Like every program, it starts with your administration and the people here do a great job,” Munger said. “And we’ve been blessed in our coaching ranks. Obviously they know how to deal with everyone, including the parents, and that’s critical in any program if you’re to have success.”
Parents have been a valued part of the football program for many years, and their volunteer work keeps things in order on game day. Munger said communication is a large reason his staff has developed such a positive relationship with parents.
It sounds simple, but unexpected outcomes are what often lead to confrontations between parents and coaches. Munger’s staff makes sure parents and the athletes are educated about his team and what they can expect throughout the course of the season.
“We have good people, and that’s the bottom line,” Munger said. “We have parents that are interested in being a part of their young man’s experience, and the parents trust their sons to our care and our coaching at all levels. I think that has a lot to do with why we’re able to maintain high participation numbers and ultimately have some success.”
Spotlight on head injuries
Few issues in contact sports receive more attention today than head injuries and the preventative measures teams are taking to limit them. Some programs invest in state-of-the-art equipment, while others stress proper tackling fundamentals. Either way, the issue never strays far from a coach’s mind.
In Michigan, coaches must complete a concussion awareness online training program. All student-athletes also are required to return signed forms to their schools, indicating they were provided with educational materials on the signs, symptoms and potential consequences of concussions.
The issue has been a topic of heated debate from the professional level all the way down to youth leagues. Munger said a lot of it comes back to common sense. If an athlete takes a brutal hit to the head, it’s best to play it safe.
“I would like to think if I’ve ever erred it’s been on the side of caution,” Munger said. “Concussions are nothing to mess with. We’re advised on the warning signs and things like that, so we’re much more aware today and I believe our athletes are as well. If someone gets their bell rung or something of that nature, we never take our chances.”
Several studies released over the last few years indicate proper strength training especially of the neck is one of the most effective ways to proactively limit concussions. They also advise coaches to make sure athletes are using proper form.
Munger said he has always considered those methods. He also tries to stay educated on the best equipment on the market.
“Our strength program is very important to us, and with regard to drills and technique, we always make every effort to stay current,” he said. “We want to help keep young men out of harms way.”
Finding playing time
Football coaches are all too familiar with gripes over playing time. With a limited number of starting positions and large roster sizes, gridiron coaches often have a very distinct approach to dealing with complaints from athletes and parents.
Munger said they don’t happen often, and that’s partly because he makes every effort to get as many athletes on the field as he can. Several positions are platooned, and when games are won or lost he’ll call on the players that don’t see the field very much.
That all must be done within reason, he said. Munger understands parents come to games to see their child play, but he doesn’t want to put his athletes in positions to get hurt or embarrassed. He has to weigh each situation independently and determine the best fit for each one of his 67 players.
“I want them to play and feel good about their efforts,” Munger said. “It’s a learning experience, but I also want them to compete, and we’re big on that. There’s a right way to compete and a wrong way. I don’t tolerate the wrong way very well.”
Much like his strategies for forging positive relationships with the parents, Munger said it’s all about establishing an open line of communication. If a player has a question about how he can improve his playing time, Munger will speak with the position coach to find to answer.
Open dialogue and cooperation are a theme throughout Rockford’s football program. It’s the kind of culture Munger has developed for more than two decades, and his reputation on and off the field show it’s working.
“There are no free rides, and everyone has a role,” he said. “We reward those who work the hardest.”