Take 5: Q&A with new Summit High head coach John Shirkey
September 22, 2016
It's been a tumultuous past few seasons for the Summit High football program. In just three years the team has been through three different head coaches, meaning this year's crop of seniors hardly had time to learn their coach's name, let alone learn a single scheme, playbook and gridiron philosophy. That puts a team on its heels before players even take the field, and it's shown in a less-than-stellar record.
John Shirkey wants to change all that. The native of Michigan and Minnesota (he claims both) moved to Colorado this January and immediately looked up the local high school program. He played tight end for Bethel University, a Division III college in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has experience coaching everything from middle school to high school football. His last job was at tiny Thief River Falls High School in Minnesota, right on the Canadian border, and he was anxious for a change of scenery.
"Minnesota is about as flat and cold and desolate as it gets," Shirkey told me over coffee in Frisco earlier this September, when the Tigers were 2-0 for the first time in several seasons. "We decided we'd either want to move to the mountains or the ocean and this presented the best opportunity for us. I don't do heat and humidity well, so this was the best of both worlds."
Lucky for Shirkey, Summit was also in need of a change when new papa (and former Tigers QB) Landon Greve left as head coach after a single season, and so the school was ready to offer him the gig. It's his first time at the helm of a program, but he's ready for the challenge — despite the fact he inherits a young and relatively untested team with nearly 20 freshmen and just eight seniors.
Before his team suffered back-to-back losses — a 17-14 heartbreaker to Niwot at home and a 33-14 collapse against Skyview away — the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Shirkey to talk about his team, his coaching staff and why a winning program starts with the locker room culture.
Summit Daily News: You're relatively new to town but hardly new to football. Did you know you wanted to coach high school when you moved to Summit?
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John Shirkey: I knew I wanted to coach. I joke that when I move to someplace, my two criteria are: Is there a golf course, and is there a high school program? I didn't really know what was going to be available to me, so I met with (athletic director) Amy Raymond, gave her my background, and I guess the timing was right. They were looking for a change and new head coach, and this is my first time taking on that position. It's on my list of things to do and I wanted to take it over.
SDN: What intrigued you about the Summit program? It's been through a ton of change in the past five years.
JS: One thing that struck me immediately was community support. We have incredible input from the community, from boosters to people just wanting us to do well, and that really is unique for a school. It allows me as a coach to do fun things, like have a pre-season camp where we went rafting. That's one benefit of the landscape of Colorado — we can go rafting — but it was also something the community supported us through. We couldn't have done it otherwise.
I was here during basketball season (last winter) and I saw that we have great athletes here. You have that outdoor, active lifestyle, and it's certainly the most athletic team I've ever coached, top to bottom.
SDN: How about the ups and downs with this program? Did that fit into your decision?
JS: Well, I wasn't here, so I don't know the previous coaching staff, but one of the things I believe in is consistency. You need to set those expectations from the start and hold to those, no matter the outcome. I think that a lot of times, especially at the high school level, coaches struggle to set a clear course and stick to it. They get stuck in the flavor of the week: How many changes can we make, how can we move these kids around? My perspective is to find what we can get good at and build an identity around that. Now, that's not to say past coaches didn't do that. It's just my approach.
SDN: What is this team's identity, then?
JS: I like to eliminate feelings of seniority. Everyone needs to pull their weight, play equally (and) be one team to be successful, and I think a lot of that is getting them out to do things that aren't just related to football. It's about getting to know the guys on the team in a different way, and that translates into the field, like when we went rafting. You sat in the raft with this guy and went through rapids, and now you trust him.
SDN: You're two games into the season at this point. What do you like about this year's team?
JS: We've been getting better every week. We played a zero week game, and that's tough to do. We're also really young, with 19 freshmen on the team, and our focus is to get better every day. Of course, it helps to win. Our first game we weren't very good on offense, and last week it feels like things were clicking for them. It seems like they're starting to understand why we do things, how we do things, and now it's time to refine that a little bit.
SDN: How can the team still improve?
JS: I think it's consistency. Again, like most high school teams, that's something you get early in the season. I'm an offensive guy and work a lot with the offensive line, so it's helping those guys to know and understand the scheme, all while they can think on their feet. It's about getting kids in the right position and then letting them be athletes. The next steps for us come from that: being confident in the lineup so they can use those instinctual skills a little bit more. That's when they're the most successful.
SDN: What were your goals for the team and season when you took the job?
JS: One thing — and this isn't football-related — but high school football is a part of who I am. With the ups and downs in the last several years, the view of the football program changes. It ebbs and flows, and the kids see that too. It didn't feel like there was a sense of pride in the program, and even in the community. People were saying, "Good luck," when they found out I was head coach.
This isn't that big of a place. High school football can have a huge impact on a community. It can have a huge impact on the culture in a school. People want to be excited about high school football, and for me, I wanted to help the kids realize they can help change the culture and perception of what the football program was. Ultimately, I believe that the football side of it will take care of itself. At this level, we aren't professional athletes — the Xs and Os aren't as important as kids who can buy in and handle that adversity when it comes, and it will come. You can't shut down and crawl into a hole.
SDN: Have you seen that shift take place?
JS: Certainly. It's a process, but we have a great group of guys. We have eight seniors, which can be good and bad, and I think that's due in part to some of the turmoil in the past. I'm the third head coach these seniors have had during their careers and they need certainty. I think the ones we have, though, are the guys who care about football, and they've really bought into that idea of changing the perception. That was something they had in mind too. Even at school, they had kids making fun of them for playing football. It's hard when you aren't winning games.
SDN: Looking ahead, what can this team work on to continue winning?
JS: We don't play any league games until the second half of the year, which is great for us. We can use these early games to get better, build that consistency. People have told me about the Rifles of the world, and how Palisade is consistently good. I'm just looking forward to the second half of the year and see, at least in terms of size, who we need to compete against.
SDN: Finally, goals for the season: Where do you want to see this team at the end of the year?
JS: I'm not a big numbers guy, because again, that will take care of itself. What I really want to see is a group of kids who were excited to be part of the program and have fun competing. That was lost the last few years, I think. Winning helps, but if you aren't having fun it can be a grind out there. If they're building relationships — if they're getting excited — it will fall into place. Size has always been an issue for us. We have 40 or 50 tops. Football is a huge numbers game, whether it's having bodies for health reasons or competition at spots. That breeds improvement.
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