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Jackson promotes Hitt to head football coach
Van Hitt, an assistant football coach at Jackson High School since 1979, was named the Indians head coach Wednesday.
Hitt replaces Carl Gross, who retired Jan. 24 after leading the Indians to eight district titles over 19 seasons.
Hitt, a 1965 graduate of Jackson and a former football player at Southeast Missouri State University, has been the Indians' defensive coordinator for 19 seasons.
"I'm excited because basically we're going to keep everything the same," Hitt said. "We want to continue the program as coach Gross had and which he has instilled in us through the years. And we have a unique staff here, I feel like. And we just want to continue on the same path we've been on.
"There are not going to be any major changes at all in our program."
Jackson athletic director John Martin said that the school's search was focused primarily on finding the best candidate who was already a member of the program's coaching staff. Martin added that only two assistant coaches applied -- Hitt and Nathan Norman, a 1996 Jackson graduate who played college football at the University of Arkansas,
"We like the experience and the leadership he's going to bring to our program," Martin said of Hitt. "As a defensive coordinator he's done an awesome job. The leadership he brings and the in-game adjustments he can make and does make are vital to our program."
Martin also stressed that Norman is an important member of the Indians' staff.
The Jackson School District had a board meeting Tuesday, when the recommendation was made by the administration to name Hitt the head coach. The recommendation was accepted unanimously.
Martin said it was important to find a coach within the system.
"There is a rich tradition of Jackson football here, and [we wanted to maintain] the stability we've had in our staff the past several decades," Martin said. "Coach Hitt has been the rock. .. [He] deserves to be the head coach."
The hiring committee included Martin, assistant principal Vince Powell, superintendent Dr. Ron Anderson and assistant superintendent Dr. Rita Fisher.
Hitt said he plans to continue his duties as defensive coordinator, and indicated he will likely name Norman the offensive coordinator.
Gross was previously the offensive coordinator for 19 seasons in addition to his head coaching responsibilities.
"Nathan Norman will take the offensive coordinator's job with a lot of input from [assistants] Mike Gross, Jerry Golden and Bob Sink, who will all work on the offensive side of the football," Hitt said.
Hitt, who holds both his bachelors in education from Southeast and his master's in education from Northeast Missouri State, is the director of Jackson's alternative school.
He plans to speak with his players next week.
Hitt said he will also meet with the coaching staff sometime in the next couple of days, although he already visited with them before his hiring.
"We [the coaches] got together and talked about it before this decision was made, and everybody is on the same page when it comes to football," Hitt said. "We're all in the same boat headed in the same direction, and there are not any egos involved in it. We all work very closely together to keep the program going in the right direction."
Martin added: "He [Hitt] and I have to sit down and talk. We've got some coaches we have to rearrange a little bit and possibly move up from the junior high. He's got to visit with his staff and see how things play out as far as who is going to be coaching what positions."
After 29 seasons as an assistant, Hitt said he applied for head coach because he thought having some one take over that already knew the in and outs of Jackson football was what was best for the team.
"Coach Gross coordinated the offense and I coordinated the defense for the last 19 years, and I felt like this would be the best transition for our program -- for me to take over the head coaching job and allow another individual on the staff to coordinate the offense," Hitt said.
Hitt said he knows he has big shoes to fill. Gross not only won eight district titles, but he also posted a 137-69 record. This past fall, Gross led the Indians to a 10-0 regular season and a Class 5 sectional playoff victory over McCluer North, before losing to Waynesville in the state semifinals.
"[Gross] let his coaches coach," Hitt said. "He didn't try to run everything himself. Some coaches want to coach every position and make every decision on who should do what, when and where. And Coach Gross wasn't that way. If you coached the defensive line, then it was your job to coach them and it was your job to pick who played. And that's the way we will continue to do things."
The Jackson football team will have a much different look to it next season. The Indians' offense will graduate the entire offensive line, including first-team all-state guard Brian Hill. The offense also graduates its two top wide receivers -- James Perkins and Carr Trophy winner Matt Lang.
The offense does retain quarterback Marcus Harris, fullback Andy Winkleblack and Southeast Missourian Player of the Year and first team all-state running back Adam Zweigart, who rushed for 1,751 yards.
The defense loses six of 11 of its starters to graduation.
"As you look at the upcoming team, we have definite voids in the offensive line and the defensive secondary," Hitt said. "But hopefully we will fill those."
Overall, Hitt is just excited to have the opportunity to coach his alma mater.
"I'm excited because Jackson football means so much to me personally," Hitt said. "We want to continue in the direction we have been going, and I think it is a good direction."