Heading into the 2018 season, only two 8-man football programs in Colorado had ever won four consecutive state championships. That list grew this season when Sedgwick County won its fourth-straight title, defeating Hoehne in November to claim title No. 4. It meant the Cougars joined Hugo (1968-71) and Stratton (1992-95) as the only two 8-man teams to do so. The run is more remarkable considering that from 2004-14, Sedgwick County — which is a co-op between Revere and Julesburg high schools — had just two winning seasons. In 2012, they were 1-7. In 2013, they were 3-5. Then Chris Michel, who had been an assistant at both Sedgwick County and Merino, took over. His first team, in 2014, was 5-5. They've won at least 11 games in each season since — including the four championships. A graduate of Merino, Michel is no stranger to 8-man football. He played in three championship games from 2003-05 with Merino, winning two for coach John Barber. Michel was voted the 8-man coach of the year by his peers as part of the All-State teams. Now, he has been selected as the 2018 Denver Broncos High School Coach of the Year.
Years as head coach: 5 (54-7 overall record)
Years at Sedgwick County: 5 (54-7, 11-1 this season)
Previous stops: Merino High School assistant coach (2010-11); Sedgwick County assistant coach (2012-13); Sedgwick County head coach (2014-present).
Q: Well, how easy is it to win four state titles in a row?
Michel: (Laughs) Well, it's not easy to win one. It's definitely a difficult thing. You can't look at it as, "Let's go win four in a row." It's gotta be, "Let's make our goal this year to win a state title." You really have to try to clear the last one out of your mind, and you definitely can't look forward to the next one. I even try to not reference things from years before, other than things we need to improve upon. Sometimes you've got to be lucky to win a state title: getting to the end of the year healthy, and have some things fall your way. It's pretty crazy. I don't think I fully have a scope of what we did yet, and I probably won't appreciate it until I'm done coaching and look back and see how incredible that it was. It's a difficult thing, and every year, you try to reset, but the target definitely gets bigger and bigger every year, and you can see the teams preparing more and more, and everybody wants to beat us. Luckily, our kids love that. Our kids love having that target, and they really embrace that type of thing, but it definitely gets more and more difficult.
Q: Did you do anything when you took over the program as far as culture? What was your first move as coach?
Michel: My first year out here at Sedgwick County [as an assistant in 2012], the coaching staff had essentially left that year. The head coach retired, and one of the assistants had left and taken a job in Nebraska, and there really was only one guy left on staff — and he was a wrestling coach, he was really a football coach to help out. So my first year, he was the head coach and I was the assistant. He did a really good job of letting me come in and change things. I figured out very quickly you can't go 0-60 in one year. We had to change things slowly. So our first couple of years, we kind of just changed how we did practice, went back to the basics, and did a lot of fundamental stuff with those kids. You know, we struggled for a while, but I think it's kind of the change in culture, and we kind of got kids to buy in. My first year as the head coach [in 2014], we made the playoffs by the skin of our teeth, and we lost in the first round to Granada. It really kind of left a sour taste in those kids' mouths, and the next year we came back and went 13-0. That's kind of what really started it. We ended up with a great group of seniors, we had eight seniors that year — which is a lot for us, we've had about four to five seniors every year after that — but they really did all the work, they paved the way and set the tone and made this culture of hard work in practice. Getting kids to buy in was kind of just the thing. And you've got to have success. Success breeds success. After we got kids to buy in, it's not easy, but the kids understand the expectation, so from that aspect, it gets a little easier, I guess. I don't know if there was any one thing I did — maybe going back to the basics. And then after I became a head coach, I just kind of went out and found some coaches that I thought could fit our program, some guys from the area that were on some successful teams. Now, I've got a kid on my staff who was actually a player on that first championship team. So it's cool to see him come full circle from a player to a coach. Really, I just try to surround myself with guys that know more than me.
Q: Is there a challenge of playing as a co-op? You know, combining two schools and bringing those kids together?*
Michel: I think one of the biggest challenges is there's a lot more red tape. You have two administrations, you have two schools. So it's figuring schedules, logistics and things like that — two leave times, two everything. That poses some sort of challenge. And the other thing is a lot of these kids don't see each other all day. You don't have the luxury of kids are in class and they're here. But I think athletics, and success of all of our sports — football, basketball, baseball, track — have really kind of lessened the divide between the two schools. I think before I got here, there was some growing pains between the two schools and the two groups of kids. Because you go from being cross-county rivals to sticking them on the same team, obviously people have the same goal, but when you reach adversity, fingers start to get pointed, things like that. With our success, it's really helped not only our co-op, but I think our community in general. Luckily, and I think that's an advantage for me: I'm not from here, I've never been here when it was separate, so I don't know anything different. If you ask our kids now, they would be like, "What are you talking about? There's no difference." They don't say, "Oh the Revere kids do this" or "The Julesburg kids do that." So, according to our kids anymore, there really is no difference. And these kids are kind of that first generation that don't know any better. 2006, I think was the first of the co-op. They can't even remember when there were two separate schools. So that makes it nice. We kind of make it work out here. And you have to, you've got to adapt or die out here in these small communities.
Q: What did you learn from your playing days at Merino, and have you brought anything to your time as a coach now?
Michel: Obviously, I played for coach Barber, and he's a legend. He's the guy. I don't know how long he coached, maybe 13 years, and he played in 10 title games? Obviously I learned a lot from that. Some of the aspects we do in practice, and things like that.
8-man football is a very different game now than it was then. Back then, you could count on one hand the amount of teams that threw the ball more than five times a game. It was I-formation, line up and smash against each other, and whoever did that the best was going to win. So the game has changed.
The one thing I took is the amount of work that my coaches put in. Like Rocky DeSanti, he's still at Merino, and that guy has probably forgot more about 8-man football than I'll ever know.
I did my student teaching there for two years, and I actually coached with those guys, with the exception of Barber — he had retired before that — so I was on that staff. I got to see the other side of it. I went to the coaches meetings and I saw how much film they watched, so I guess just the hard work, the amount of work and film and prep and things like that that those guys put in. That's the biggest thing I took.
And just what it takes to win. The hard work and the things I try to instill in my kids are things that we did — maybe not Xs and Os, but the mental preparation.
Q: Is it any different when you guys play Merino? What's that like?
Michel: As far as the kids go, you've got to treat it like any other game. Everybody in our league is essentially a rival. Our league is so tough that every week is a rivalry game. Their coaching staff consists of a guy that coached me, and a guy that I played with, so I definitely have some personal connections. But the weeks that we don't play them, I talk to Rocky, and we talk about different teams and stuff like that. Obviously, you never want to lose, ever, but you definitely don't want to lose to the school you went to. But that school and that community has still been great. A lot of times, win or lose, a lot of people tell me after the games, you know, "nice job" and "congratulations" and things like that. It's just like any other small town: Good people, good kids.
Q: In talking to people about you in terms of the type of coach and person you are, they said one thing that struck them was that after a championship game, you went and talked to your kids, and you didn't talk to them necessarily about winning the title. You were talking to them more about life. Can you tell me a little bit about that approach and that philosophy, and why in those moments you use that opportunity to talk about stuff other than football?
Michel: As an educator and as a coach, I think you have an ability to hopefully influence somebody's life. You get to play football for four years, and then you've got to go to school and get a job, and be a husband and be a father. You hope that they take some of those lessons, the hard work, the appreciation of things, and you hope that they take that on. Football is a sport that exemplifies all of that. At least I hope, as a coach, that some day they're either going to look back and say, "Wow, this isn't near as hard as our two-a-day practices or our hard practices were, I can do this," or, "This is what coach was talking about what it means to be a good man." That's one of the things that I got out of high school football, was how those things translated into being a good man, a good husband and father. So I think when you win, and more so even when you lose, that those are great opportunities to talk to those kids about how that's going to relate to the rest of their lives. That's why people teach, and why people coach, is to help young men and young people. I think those are just opportunities to look at how that's going to affect the rest of their lives, and that's the way I can hopefully do a little bit of good in this world.Heading into the 2018 season, only two 8-man football programs in Colorado had ever won four consecutive state championships. That list grew this season when Sedgwick County won its fourth-straight title, defeating Hoehne in November to claim title No. 4. It meant the Cougars joined Hugo (1968-71) and Stratton (1992-95) as the only two 8-man teams to do so. The run is more remarkable considering that from 2004-14, Sedgwick County — which is a co-op between Revere and Julesburg high schools — had just two winning seasons. In 2012, they were 1-7. In 2013, they were 3-5. Then Chris Michel, who had been an assistant at both Sedgwick County and Merino, took over. His first team, in 2014, was 5-5. They've won at least 11 games in each season since — including the four championships. A graduate of Merino, Michel is no stranger to 8-man football. He played in three championship games from 2003-05 with Merino, winning two for coach John Barber. Michel was voted the 8-man coach of the year by his peers as part of the All-State teams. Now, he has been selected as the 2018 Denver Broncos High School Coach of the Year.
Story by Ryan Casey/CHSAANow
Photo credit: Dustin Price