The best coaching debuts in Texas high school football in 2021

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In Texas high school football, there are two seasons: Football Season, and Stepp Bomb Season.

For the uninitiated, a "Stepp Bomb" is a Texas high school football coaching change broken by Dave Campbell's Texas Football insider Matt Stepp, and considering he breaks about 90 percent of the coaching news in the state of Texas, the explosions tend to come fast and furious. That includes this year, where we're tracking all the coaching moves across the state — already more than 100 of them.

Last season, there was record movement across the Texas high school football landscape, with a whopping 217 UIL 11-man programs changing head coaches — that's a little more than 20 percent of all programs. Some coaches took over programs ready to compete; others knew they were in for a rebuild. But which Texas high school football first-year coaches did the best in 2021?

Most Wins

Like most things, the answer depends on the measurement criteria, so a few different ways to consider the question are prudent. Start with the basics: which first-year Texas high school football coaches won the most number of games in their debut season?

Just two first-year coaches took their squads to the state championship — Brock's Billy Mathis, who guided the Eagles to the 3A Division I state championship against Lorena in his inaugural season at the helm, and Liberty Hill's Kent Walker, who led the Panthers to the 5A Division II title game in his first full season as head coach (though he coached Liberty Hill in an interim capacity in 2020 after the death of his brother Jeff Walker). Another pair of first-year coaches took their team to the state semifinals — Mount Vernon's Brad Willard in 3A Division I, and Marlin's Ruben Torres in 2A Division I.

In sum, 17 of the 217 first-year 11-man UIL coaches won 10 or more games: Allen's Chad Morris, Brock's Billy Mathis, Carrizo Springs's Giovanni Gonzalez, CC Veterans Memorial's Benjamin Bitner, El Campo's Chad Worrell, Fort Bend Hightower's Cornelius Anthony, Harlingen South's Israel Gonzalez, Kilgore's Clint Fuller, Lancaster's Leon Paul, Liberty Hill's Kent Walker, Little Cypress-Mauriceville's Eric Peevey, Magnolia West's Ben McGehee, Marlin's Ruben Torres, McAllen Memorial's Moses Patterson, Mount Vernon's Brad Willard, SA Southwest Legacy's Robert Bruce and Shallowater's Rodney Vincent.

Most Improved Win Total

Of course, every coach steps into a different situation — some inherit a program already near the top of the sport, while others are starting at ground-zero with a full-on rebuild. So, which first-year Texas high school football coaches oversaw the biggest improvement in the win-loss record?

Little Cypress-Mauriceville's Eric Peevey was the architect of the most substantive leap by a first-year coach in 2021, taking over a Bears team that went 1-7 in 2020 and launching them to 11-3 and the regional final — the best season for the Bears since 1997. Israel Gonzalez at Harlingen South (2-4 to 10-1) and Greg Hardcastle at Dublin (1-8 to 9-4) each helped their new program improve by eight wins, while Marlin's Ruben Torres (4-5 to 11-4) and Forney's Jeff Fleener (0-9 to 7-4) sparked a seven-win jump. A quintet of coaches — Carrizo Springs' Giovanni Gonzalez, Fort Bend Hightower's Cornelius Anthony, Gregory-Portland's Brent Davis, McAllen Memorial's Moses Patterson and Somerset's Koy Detmer — gave their new school a six-win boost in their first year.

Of the 217 first-year 11-man UIL Texas high school football coaches, 112 improved their program's win total (51.6%); 28 won the same number of games as the year prior (12.9%); and 77 won fewer games in 2021 than the program did in 2020 (35.4%).

Most Improved Offense

Digging a bit deeper into the data to separate particular sides of the ball, which first-year Texas high school football coach gave their program the biggest offensive boost?

Eyebrows across the state raised when Chad Rogers left Denison for the tiny hamlet of Tioga, but there's little doubt he's getting results — his Bulldogs improved their scoring average by more than 26 points from 2020, far and away the biggest offensive improvement by a first-year coach. Jeff Caffey's Shamrock Fighting Irish and Dusty Ortiz's Odessa Bronchos each saw a 24.3-point leap from the year prior, while Alto's Lance Gamble sparked a 22-point improvement (though Alto is now looking for its third coach in three seasons after Gamble's resignation). Peevey at Little Cypress-Mauriceville and Aaron Vanacek at Thrall also oversaw 20+-point imprrovement in offensive output.

In total, of the 217 first-year 11-man UIL Texas high school football coaches, 111 oversaw offensive improvement from the year prior (51.1%) and 106 scored fewer points per game than in 2020 (48.9%).

Most Improved Defense

But what about the other side of the ball — which first-year Texas high school football coach helped his program's defense the most in his inaugural season?

Jeff Fleener first made a name for himself for his offensive prowess — he was the offensive coordinator for the Kyler Murray-led Allen Eagles — but it was the defense that took center stage in his first season at Forney. Fleener and his staff took a Jackrabbits defensive unit that finished 115th out of 122 programs in 5A Division II in 2020 (46 points allowed per game) and carving more than 22 points per game off their defensive scoring average, rising to a respectable 42nd ranking (22.5 points allowed per game). Rogers' renaissance at Tioga carried over to the defensive side, improving the Bulldogs' D by 21.9 points per game, while Scott Kissee at San Antonio Cole and Danny DeArman at Joshua also saw a 21-point improvement on the defensive side. Giovanni Gonzalez at Carrizo Springs took an average Wildcats defense (55th out of 92 programs in 4A DII) and turned them into the No. 1 scoring defense in the class with a 20-point improvement.

In total, of the 217 first-year 11-man UIL Texas high school football coaches, only 97 improved their program's defense from the year before (44.7%) while 120 saw their program's defense allow more points per game than in 2020 (55.3%).

Conclusion

So, considering all the data, who had the best first year for a Texas high school football coach in 2021? That's certainly up for debate, but consider this:

  • Only one first-year coach won 10 games, improved his team's win total by at least six games, and ranked in the top ten in both offensive and defensive improvement: Giovanni Gonzalez at Carrizo Springs.
  • Another four coaches satisfied three of those four categories: Eric Peevey at Little Cypress-Mauriceville, Ruben Torres at Marlin, Cornelius Anthony at Fort Bend Hightower and Israel Gonzalez at Harlingen South.
  • Another four coaches satisfied two of the four categories: Moses Patterson at McAllen Memorial, Brent Davis at Gregory-Portland, Jeff Fleener at Forney and Chad Rogers at Tioga.

One thing is known: the Texas high school football coaching carousel will continue to spin, and the next Stepp Bomb may be detonated at any moment.

 

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