New coach stresses continuity

Thursday, August 28, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com Jackson head coach

(Editor's note: Reporter Christopher Smith spent Aug. 11, the first day of fall practice, with Jackson's new football coach, Van Hitt. Here is an account of Hitt's first day of practice as Jackson's coach)

By Christopher Smith

Southeast Missourian

JACKSON -- Van Hitt stood alone on the 10-yard line with his arms crossed, watching assistant coach Jerry Golden direct special-team drills at midfield during the morning practice of a double session Aug. 11.

The 61-year-old Hitt has served as a member of the Indians coaching staff since 1979, but this practice marked his first ever as head coach.

The 1965 Jackson graduate turned his head back, glaring into the end zone where some of his players, including fullback Andy Winkleblack, were resting.

"How much do you weigh?" he shouted to Winkleblack, who dieted during the offseason, losing 30 pounds. "You don't have to give me the exact ounce. Roughly?"

FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com Jackson coach Van Hitt talked with his players on the first day of football practice Aug. 11.

"220," Winkleblack replied, hesitating momentarily and then continuing, ".3"

Hitt smirked, then returned to watching practice, yelling to a punt team member to do a better job of staying in his running lane.

Golden soon began calling the players he had selected for the hands team.

"Wren, Bucher, Cole, Winkleblack --"

FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com ABOVE: Jackson coach Van Hitt sent Tyler Eftink, left, out to catch footballs on the first day of practice. BELOW: Van Hitt threw a pass to one of his players.

"Winkleblack?" Hitt shouted. "Winkleblack? Hands team?"

"I just want him to be able to block and knock somebody down and somebody else can get to the ball," Golden yelled back.

"Well," Hitt replied. "Maybe that will give him a chance to get on the field."

Meanwhile, senior quarterback Marcus Harris approached Hitt and stood right next to the new head coach, who continued to watch Golden run drills.

"You know, why did he put Winkleblack out there?" Hitt asked Harris.

"He's a big body. If the ball hits him, it's just going to stop," Harris said. "[But] I don't know either."

"School starts a week from today," Hitt said. "Your last big run."

"I've got you for advisory period," Harris responded.

"You do," Hitt said. "What time is that? Fourth hour?"

"It's fifth, maybe."

"Well, good," Hitt said. "I may put you in charge."

"I don't know if that's a good idea," the senior quarterback said.

"I don't know either," his coach agreed.

"Bucher's in there, too," Harris said.

Hitt dropped his head, glaring straight at the ground, smiling and shaking his head.

The first session didn't last too much longer. Hitt eventually instructed his players to line up on the goal line, splitting them into four groups: linemen, receivers, quarterbacks and defensive backs.

"Here's the deal," Hitt shouted to the first group, his linemen. "You're going to run 40 yards. Down and back six times. Now that's six times down and back hitting it. If we do it the first six times, we're all done. Understand?"

"Yes, sir," his players replied.

"All right, here we go," Hitt said. "Hands on the line. Set, hut."

The linemen sprinted downfield. Hitt then sent the receivers, before he and some of the other coaches noticed some players had not sprinted the whole 40-yard distance.

"Everyone back," Hitt shouted, also whistling, which he prefers to do himself, despite at home having a closet of whistles that people have given him throughout the years.

"You didn't hear me," Hitt yelled as the players returned the goal line. "I said, 'Twelve good ones.' Here we go. Down on the line. You bust your butt."

Hitt sent the groups again, and as drills continued, some players became winded, some rested their hands on their knees and one player even vomited.

"It's not hard to pick out the guys who showed up this summer," Hitt commented.

Not much has changed for Hitt and the Jackson football program since Hitt accepted his position Feb. 27 following the resignation of Carl Gross, the coach for 19 years.

Hitt was defensive coordinator during Gross' 19 years as head coach and Hitt's main task remains running the defense. He provides opinions and suggestions to offensive coordinator Nathan Norman, and Golden, the special teams coordinator, but Hitt typically stands back at practice and lets them coach their own units.

Hitt has kept many of his responsibilities similar to what they were when he was an assistant. He has kept the coaching staff working the way it did when Gross was in charge, as everyone has his own tasks and is not afraid to provide their opinions.

Furthermore, Hitt has tried not to alter his personality. He enjoys joking with his players, but also can turn serious quickly.

He wants to change as little as possible because the program was successful under Gross.

Same old Jackson

Hitt stood back calling the plays for the scout defense as it ran against the first-team offense during the second session.

"On the ball," Hitt yelled to the offense after it ran a play incorrectly.

"You do want them on the ball, coach?" Hitt asked Norman.

Norman did, so the offensive players returned to the scrimmage while Hitt stayed at his original spot behind the scout defense, just observing as Norman and Bob Sink led the walk-through and showed the offense what it did wrong.

"On [this play] everybody steps with the inside foot," Sink said to his linemen.

Hitt does have input on the offense, but mainly he lets Norman run the show in the same fashion Gross let Hitt take control of the defense in years past, Norman said.

"He's been doing kind of a hands-off approach," Norman said of Hitt, describing the transition from Gross to Hitt as a seamless one.

Golden said that if Hitt has a concern with the offense, he typically won't stop practice, but will wait until later to discuss it when the coaches meet after practice.

"He allows the coaches to coach," Golden said of Hitt. "But as far as letting the coaches coach, that's always been done since I've been here. ... He respects us. I think he thinks we're knowledgeable and he's just going to let us coach. If there is something that's not going right in practice, we'll come back [to discuss it] as a staff."

Hitt has more responsibilities than before, including passing out game jerseys, scheduling bus rides, organizing team pictures and collecting physical forms.

But Hitt insists that his job hasn't changed much because the coaching staff operates in the same fashion as when he was an assistant.

"I didn't have any different feeling out there today than I had a year ago," Hitt said. "I'm still coaching with the same guys. Here everybody has a coaching position that they are in charge of and it's their responsibility to get them coached up and ready to play on Friday night like we've always done in here. It's kind of like deja vu all over again out there today."

Every member of Hitt's coaching staff was an assistant last year. The only notable change is that Norman was promoted to offensive coordinator, taking over the play calling from Gross.

All of Hitt's assistants, except Sink, graduated from Jackson and had Hitt as a high school assistant coach while a student at the school. So the coaches not only know each other well, but they also know how the program has operated in past years.

Hitt has the type of trust in his assistant coaches that gives everyone an equal share of responsibility when the team wins or loses on Friday nights. He said every coach puts in an equal number of hours of work during the season. He does not expect his work hours to increase during the regular season now that he is head coach.

Hitt runs the off-the-field business in the same way as Jackson has in the past, too. He said the staff always has been open with one another and he wants everyone to have opinions on every facet of the team when the coaches sit together after practice or when they get together for coaches meetings.

The coaches are not afraid to have differing opinions. Hitt encourages debate, and when discussing the offense, he stills talks from a defensive perspective.

"Nobody has any big egos around here," Hitt said. "You're not worried about somebody stepping on your toes. ... We're pretty much an open staff. If anybody has a problem or a question, it's addressed, we deal with it, and we go on."

Hitt did work as a high school head coach at Herculaneum in 1972 and 1973.

He said that once he returned to Jackson in 1979, he never aspired to be a head coach again. But when Gross resigned during the offseason, he felt applying for the position was what was best for the program. He felt the need to keep everything intact, including the coaching staff. He said he has seen the success of the program, which posted a 137-69 record and won eight district titles under Gross, and he felt the need not to change much. This also is important after the team went 10-0 during the regular season before losing in the playoffs to eventual Class 5 state champion Waynesville.

Jackson again could be a top Class 5 team, returning key members of last year's squad, including quarterback Marcus Harris and top running back Adam Zweigart, who rushed for 1,751 yards on 215 carries.

"As far as aspiring to be the head coach here, no, that wasn't one of my aspirations," Hitt said. "It just worked out that way. Just the way things were here with our staff, I just felt this was best for us right now -- me taking over the head job and everybody else staying at the positions that they were in."

Same old Hitt

Hitt walked back to the end zone where some of his players were resting while Golden ran special-team drills during the first session.

He approached both Winkleblack and senior starting tight end Kevin Pridemore.

"Pridemore, you know what Saturday is, don't you?" Hitt asked.

"Picture day," Pridemore replied.

Hitt signaled to Pridemore he needed to shave his facial hair.

"He hasn't shaved since last [picutre day]," a player chimed in. "And that's all he's got."

Everyone, including Hitt laughed.

Another reason Hitt felt compelled to apply to be head coach is because he still loves the game and working with the players.

Hitt enjoys having fun with the players, but can be strict with them. Players said that Hitt has increased the length of practice and made conditioning much more difficult.

"It's a little different this year," senior Drew Bucher said. "Everything is more strict. If we mess up this year, we pretty much have to run. The conditioning is a lot tougher than it was in the past years. ... He [Hitt] normally comes in and he'll joke around with us. But then whatever time it is to get serious, he means business."

Hitt said he hasn't had to change his personality to adapt to his new job.

"I can get angry if I need to," Hitt said. "If something makes me mad, I can get after it a little bit."

Norman said Hitt can be laid back at times, but he would not describe him that way.

"He's a pretty intense guy and he wants it done right, which is kind of the same way with everybody out here," Norman said. "That's how I would describe him: if we're going to do it, we're going to do it the right way and get the job done."

Hitt admitted he has remained out of the spotlight during his assistant coaching career at Jackson. He always has been No. 2. And now when he's finally coming on the scene as the face of the program, expectations are great, with some believing a state title is in reach this season.

Hitt said he does not feel any added pressure. He has been through it all as an assistant coach.

"We've had good years followed by good years and we have had good years followed by not so good years," he said. "I definitely feel like this is going to be another good year for us. If we continue to work like we're working right now and worked over the summer, we should have a very good year. I'm not saying we're going to go undefeated. That I don't know. But we will play hard and we will be competitive."

Hitt said he does have one certainty -- Jackson fans will not see much change with the Indians.

"A lot of people who follow us closely, they know how football is in Jackson and it's going to continue that way," he said.

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