Mike Young packs a lunch. Turkey on wheat. An apple. A couple of energy bars. And one low-fat, sugar-free brownie.
He packs that lunch every morning before his football team’s preseason workouts because that’s what his assistant coaches do and what his players do.
It’s a team thing, and Young takes the team concept very seriously because he’s come to realize his coaching today extends far beyond wins and losses on a football field.
“Besides my parents, all of the people I’ve come into contact with during my life, whether it was in 1956 when I had a paper route or when I went around and shoveled snow, raked leaves, cut grass, or played sports, have helped shape me and make me who I am today,” said Young, who is also the athletics director at Wheeling Central Catholic. “And I can only hope that I am one of the reasons why these kids will be successful in their lives. And I feel the same way about my assistant coaches.
“Because of my age and experience, I hope some of it wears off on them and that it helps them be successful, too,” he continued. “This isn’t just about winning, believe it or not. I know that’s all you hear about, but there’s much, much more that goes into coaching these days, and we take that role very seriously.”
Young began his coaching career as an assistant in 1971, and he has followed legendary coaches when accepting head coaching positions at both St. Clairsville High and Wheeling Central Catholic. After serving as a Red Devils assistant coach under George Strager for 17 years, he was named the head coach in 1988.
In 1997, he accepted a position as an assistant for the Maroon Knights under Jim Thomas, and in 2005 he took the helm after Thomas passed away suddenly. As one of Thomas’ assistants, Wheeling Central captured three Class A state titles, and Young has collected five more since. In 18 seasons as a head coach, the Wheeling native has won more than 150 football games and is one of only two coaches to guide both the West Virginia and Ohio squads in the annual OVAC Rudy Mumley All-Star Game.
“My intent was to work with those coaching legends, and it just so happened that I had the opportunity to coach those teams after they did,” said Young, who turned 67 years old this week. “I’ve coached with two of the winningest coaches in the Ohio Valley, and I’ve probably been involved with more wins than most coaches in the Valley because of whom I coached with during those seasons.
But Young has also evolved as an instructor because the game of football has changed, and so have the athletes and the American society.
“Every one of these kids has a different personality. It used to be that you taught to the crowd, and it used to be that everyone was one board, or they were told to get out,” Young recalled. “But now you have to coach to each one of your athletes individually. We have to make a positive impression on them because they are all looking for someone to love and care for them.
“Now, that’s a football coach talking, but that’s also life. That’s reality,” he continued. “Every one of these kids, because our society has become so rampant, is looking for guidance more and more from all of the adults they encounter during their lifetimes. We have great parents, but our parents are being pulled so far now that we all have to share that responsibility.”
When Young was growing up in the Upper Ohio Valley, he and his classmates played every sport they could, but no longer is that the norm today. Not only do student-athletes have a bevy of athletic options, but the majority of them also are now specializing in one sport instead of participating in them all as he did.
“The game has changed because it’s had to because of the injuries, but at the same time I’ve seen the athletes become much more skilled,” Young said. “Prior to the 1990s everyone played every sport, but then people decided they wanted to specialize. Specializing improved the game because the kids became more focused on the skills and the techniques involved with the sports, but that’s also happened with every other sport.
“I can honestly say that the biggest change as far as the kids are concerned is that they have so many other options today. They now have many more opportunities to excel at things other than football,” he said. “So the focus is not as intense as it used to be. It used to be football, basketball, and baseball for the boys. That was it. But now? Central Catholic High School is one of the smallest schools in the state, but we have over 20 different sports teams that compete during the year.”
He also realizes that his team members today have far more life choices than he did during his teenage years, and he accepts the fact that coaching today is about far more than teaching offensive and defensive schemes to his Maroon Knights.
“We’ve become an entertainment society. Everyone has to be entertained all of the time, and that’s why we have so many different stations on our TVs and why people spend so much time on the Internet,” Young said. “As for specializing when it comes to sports, if you love something, do it. Doing is making you a better person, so keep doing it.
“If what you are doing is leading you down the wrong path, you’ve got to turn and run from it,” he said. “If it’s a girlfriend or boyfriend or a friend, if they are leading you somewhere you know you shouldn’t be going, you have to recognize that, and that has to do with alcohol, drugs, and even sports in some cases.”
That is why Young has adopted his view on coaching today’s young people, and why he searches every educational resource in the Wheeling area so he may enlighten his football players about more than touchdowns and field goals.
“We have had the U.S. Attorney, Bill Ihlenfeld, come talk to these young men to talk about those life choices and about social media,” Young explained. “It’s a part of your teaching. It’s a part of coaching these days. I think a successful coach has to be a great teacher.
“A successful teacher doesn’t leave a rock unturned. You cannot think that they may already know something because it’s likely that they do not,” he said. “You have to find different ways and methods on how to coach so you can help the kids win but also to make wise choices in their social lives and on the field of play.”
No longer is the tackling drill once known as, “head-ons” an acceptable method of teaching prep football players today, and another big difference between now and when Young was playing in high school is that hydration is essential, and players in need of gulps of water are no longer looked at as weaklings.
“Concussions are a huge issue today because of what we have learned about repetitive hits and what that can do to the brain,” Young said. “We didn’t know anything about that years ago, but we do today, and we have to be very proactive about it. We are seeing more and more a negative effect with those who suffer those hits, and that’s something we have to avoid now for the safety of our athletes.
“We have to protect the well-being of our student-athletes, and that is why we now stay away from as much contact as possible and why we hydrate as much as possible. We are now doing more of what the pros are doing, and that means avoiding contact and limiting the number of hours of contact during practice each week,” he said. “I think it’s a good move, and we also have the impact tests now that measure a player before and after those kinds of hits.”
As the athletics director, Young’s duties include scheduling and procuring relationships within the Wheeling community. This season, in fact, the Maroon Knights will play their home games not at Wheeling Island Stadium but on the new all-purpose surface on the campus of Wheeling Jesuit University.
“It’s going to be a good move for us for a lot of different reasons, but one of them is that it will allow these kids to feel some ownership of their home field,” Young explained. “It’s a great facility, right now and we look forward to helping it grow in the future.
“And it’s a great facility for many others sports, too, and many of our athletic teams will be able to take advantage of that relationship, too,” he said. “Wheeling Island Stadium is a great facility; it really is, but there’s a lot going on there on a daily basis, and scheduling can be difficult. We’re looking forward to playing at Jesuit, and our fans, I believe, are going to like it, too.”
But no, the Maroon Knights will not line up against the Patriots of Wheeling Park High School this year, and the two traditional rivals will likely not play football at any time in the near future.
“I don’t think it would beneficial right now for either school because of the conversations and arguments that have taken place and because of some of the reasons why it’s no longer taking place,” Young explained. “There are issues about the number of players on each sideline, and Wheeling Central is a single-A school and Park is a triple-A school.
“Could we line up and compete year-in and year-out? No,” he said. “At different times could we? Yes. But who’s to say when that happens? We are impacted by injuries far more than the programs at larger schools. That’s simply the truth of this situation. Would it be good money? Yes. Would it great for the fans? Yes. Would it be the best thing for the kids? I don’t think so.”
The two high schools, Young said, may compete against each other in other sporting events, but nothing is scheduled at this time.
“As the athletics director for Wheeling Central, I do believe it would be beneficial in other sports if they were to line up and compete, but I also think that sometimes egos come into play,” he said. “To have bragging rights or not having the bragging rights – those are things that come into play. But I think it would have to be a mutual agreement between the athletics directors and the coaches.
“There would be drawbacks and benefits,” he said. “What we do know is that it’s not going to happen this school year. Will it in the future? That I do not know, but I hope so.”
The Maroon Knights finished last season with an uncommon 4-6 record with only three seniors on the roster. Young expects the 2015 season to provide improved results.
“I think we’re going to be pretty good,” Young said. “We were very young, and those young players got a lot of playing time whereas if we had more seniors, maybe they would have been playing junior varsity ball. But those young players have grown a year older, and they have that experience now.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the work these young men have put in since the end of last season, and I think we have good student-athletes, and that will help immensely,” the coach continued. “I think this could be a very productive year, and hopefully we can get Wheeling Central back into the playoffs. We’re going to play well, and we’re going to play hard together.”
He feels good. He still dreams about football. And he enjoys the interaction with his players and with all of the members of the Wheeling Central student body. Until something changes with those aspects of serving as the head coach of the Maroon Knights, Young knows his place, and he accepts the role.
“I can still keep up with my assistant coaches; I still have as much energy as before; and I still get as enthused as I always have,” Young said. “I love it. I still enjoy it, and as long as the positives continue to outweigh the negatives I hope to continue coaching for many more years.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)