|SM North was a well-respected program around the
Sunflower League in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The
above photo is from 2003, when the Indians went 6-4.
They haven't won more than three games in any single season since 2004.
Their former head coach, Don Simmons -- the fourth they've had in ten years -- just bolted after one winless fall at the helm.
And as we eye the start of the 2014 football season, and deliberate over which Sunflower League teams should be ranked where, we all have one common conclusion: SM North should be ranked last. No. 12. The basement. The cellar.
SM North has taken the torch as the Sunflower League's worst program. Yes, the school who boasts four state titles (1969, '70, '71 and '74), the third most of any Sunflower League program, has finally sunk to the bottom of the heap.
Leavenworth carried this label for years. Even the league's most hapless teams would chalk up a W against the Pioneers when examining their schedules before the season began.
But then something happened. In 2010 the wandering Leavenworth program found another wanderer, the enigmatic Kevin Kopecky, to coach the program for three years.
The Pioneers didn't break any land records, but Kopecky's willingness to take big risks, like starting freshman and switching to a platooning system, paid off. The Pioneers made the playoffs in 2011, then went 4-5 in 2012 -- the four wins that year were the same amount the program had won from 2005 to 2009.
Kopecky wandered off, but Leavenworth replaced him with a seasoned league veteran in Mark Littrell. The program landed another playoff berth in year one under Littrell. Now, having dropped to Class 5A, the Pioneers have expectations for postseason success for the first time in, well, what seems like forever.
The onus is now on SM North.
The Indians' win totals over the past nine seasons more closely resemble the amount of goals you expect to see scored in the World Cup: 1, 2, 1, 3, 2, 2, 2, 0, 0. And the most dubious element of all -- something which may be difficult for some of you to believe, especially if you're new to the league -- is that SM North had a really solid football program as recently as 2004.
As a matter of fact, 2004 was supposed to be the Indians year. They returned the state's best pro-style quarterback in Colorado commit Mack Brown, in addition to an outstanding supporting cast that included 27 seniors.
They fell short of expectations going 5-4, but nobody anticipated the program would fall off a cliff the following season the way they did.
The program lost both Browns -- Mack to graduation, and his father, head coach Sam -- following 2004. Mack's departure was expected, but Sam's decision to head north to coach his alma mater Excelsior Springs was a program-killer.
Sam took over a struggling SM North club in the late 1990s and within a few seasons he'd put the program back on the map. They went 9-2 in 2000, making it to Sub-State before losing to eventual state champion Olathe North.
In his final four years at SM North he managed three winning records, including a pair of 6-4 seasons. And who could forget the program's dramatic 7-6 victory over Olathe North in week one of the 2003 season, which ended Olathe North's 38-game winning streak.
The Brown's departures didn't seem like absolute death-knells at the time, but they proved to be.
SM North brought in Pitt State assistant Ryan Majors, a former SM West quarterback, to replace Brown. It looked like a solid hire, but Majors never gained any traction. His best season was a 3-6 campaign in 2009. Soon thereafter he threw in the towel, taking an assistant gig at William Jewell.
Dennis Grayless was next in line. A surprising hire given his lack of experience, the former Marine Drill Instructor and first-time head coach wasn't able to work any miracles with the program. He managed three seasons with the Indians, going 4-24, before pursuing other interests.
SM North went with experience last winter, hiring the veteran Simmons to take over. Simmons had produced some salty Blue Valley North teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and a decade's worth of playoff berths at Chanute High School in Class 4A following his time at Blue Valley North. He seemed like a tremendous hire.
The Indians finished 2013 winless at 0-9, but anyone with an iota of football intelligence could tell the program was on the right track. Simmons' departure is now potentially another crushing blow to a program seeking to gain relevance for the first time in a decade.
However, before we write the Simmons saga off as just another bleak chapter for SM North football, I would advise we take a step back and see how the next couple seasons play out.
Simmons started 17 non-seniors last fall, and because of this the Indians return a wealth of starting experience. Give them another season at the varsity level, and you could be looking at a SM North team capable of hitting the .500 mark in 2015 -- something that's seemed like an impossibility for years within the program.
Of course, that all hinges on who takes over for Simmons. If SM North can make another
Of course, that all hinges on who takes over for Simmons. If SM North can make another solid hire, the program should be able to climb out of the cellar given the depth they're developing.
Ben Bartlett, an assistant coach and SM North football alum has taken the interim head coach title for the time being. Given Simmons' late departure, I wouldn't be shocked to see the athletic department leave Bartlett on as the head coach for the upcoming season.
The good and bad news for SM North is that no matter who they finally settle on, be it Barlett or another coach, it can't get much worse.