Many scoffed when Lubbock Independent School District Athletic Director Mark Bell, himself on the job for only about a year, brought in a complete outsider to take over the position of head football coach at Lubbock High.
Not just an outsider to Lubbock or the South Plains. An outsider to Texas, period. Jason Strunk was an assistant coach at Purdue University and had coached high school football in Pennsylvania and Florida, but was always intrigued by the aura of Texas high school football.
But this was no ordinary job in Texas. Ball was asking Strunk to do what no other coach had done since the Vietnam War — make Lubbock High football a winning program.
To do so, Ball knew he needed to go outside the box, or state, in this case.
“I really felt like I had to get somebody that wouldn’t be affected by all the other negative stuff,” said Ball, himself a former Texas high school football coach. “Anybody who had coached in this state knew about the losing streak and the playoff drought, that everybody says these kids can’t win, these kids can’t do this. So I felt like I had to get a guy that none of that would affect, and Jason disregarded all that stuff.”
Not only did he disregard the negativity and the naysayers, he actually let it all motivate him, and in turn, motivate the players.
“I just came in and went about my business with who I am and not what Lubbock High is meant to be,” Strunk said. “That’s important. I just tune all that out and not let it bother me. I am intensely driven, whatever it is, that if I get negative
feedback, I do what I can to prove people wrong, and that’s what I like about this year.”
In two seasons, Strunk proved almost everybody wrong by taking the Westerners to the playoffs for the first time since 1975. Lubbock High will play its first playoff game in 37 years today at 7 p.m. at Dick Bivins Stadium in Amarillo against perennial nemesis Amarillo High (8-3), which LHS (3-7) has not beaten since 1973.
Sounds like another opportunity.
Track record for
One of Strunk’s characteristics that made him so attractive for the job — and attracted to the job — was his short but successful history of turning programs around quickly.
He’d done it as an assistant back in his home state of Pennsylvania and as a head coach in Plant City, Fla., before becoming a quality-control coach at Purdue. In both those high school stops, Strunk turned a losing team into a winning team the very next season.
But Lubbock High was different, and anyone who he talked to usually told him as much. Once he got into the job, he could see just what everyone was talking about between the numbers game, the academics at Lubbock High that affected enrollment and the quality of athlete that came through the doors at Chapman Fieldhouse.
It never affected, however, his confidence.
“This was uniquely different,” Strunk said. “Maybe because it’s Texas. I don’t know. But it’s also more of a sense of accomplishment with this program because we got here so fast. I’d hoped to be a playoff team in one to two years and people thought I was crazy. But you have to have that mentality, and it’s much more satisfying knowing that we did it so quickly.
“The drought here was much, much longer and the doubt was much, much steeper here.”
Slowly but surely, the signs of change came along and the mountain leveled out by getting the community involved. He instituted midnight practices for the first day of two-a-day workouts in the summer and turned them into an event. But most of all, he continued to stay positive and on message even in the face of losing his first 13 games as a Texas high school football coach.
Then, suddenly, on a rainy night in Andrews, it happened. The Westerners beat the Mustangs to end a 25-game losing streak. Even though LHS lost the next week, the turnaround had begun.
Two weeks later, the Westerners beat Plainview for their first district win since 2009. Two weeks after that it was a 33-0 shellacking of San Angelo Lake View, and suddenly the word playoffs began to be tossed around the LHS campus with the same frequency as answers to a chemistry exam.
And Lubbock High’s alumni and community began to take notice as well. Strunk said he even received a letter from Texas Tech head football coach Tommy Tuberville once the Westerners qualified for the postseason two weeks ago.
That community made a tremendous showing for Strunk and the Westerners last week for the annual Battle for the Silver Spurs against Monterey High, filling the home side of the stands from end to end. Perhaps that’s the biggest sign of the impact of what Strunk and his staff have done in turning Lubbock High around.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Strunk said. “It’s fun for the program. I told the guys there’s a lot of black and gold tradition around here and the alumni want to come back and be a part of it, and it’s up to them to find a way to get them back. The kids need to know that the people are behind them, the community is behind them and care about them.”
Even former players who had not thought of their alma mater in some time suddenly began to take notice again.
Gary Graves is the director of maintenance for the Post Independent School District, where the Antelopes themselves are having quite a turnaround.
“It’s exciting,” said Graves, who was a starting defensive end on the last LHS team to make the playoffs in 1975. “It made me realize how old I was because I didn’t really know it had been that long since (LHS had made the playoffs). It’s exciting to think I was on the team the last time that happened.
“It’s your hometown and you’re proud to be from there.”
Strunk insists the job isn’t finished yet. Not this year. Not in the future. Not by a long shot.
Even though the streak against the Sandies is longer than the playoff streak was prior to this year, Strunk is not conceding anything to Amarillo.
After all, no one’s expecting LHS to win, so it just adds fuel to Strunk’s fire.
“We’re not just out here having fun,” he said at Wednesday’s final practice of the week. “We made the playoffs, but we want to go up to Amarillo and put on a show. With the way we played Friday night (a 49-14 loss to Monterey) this gives us a chance to redeem ourselves and a chance to knock off one of the best 4A teams in the state. That’s what the playoffs are all about. That’s what would make this year cool.”
But what about beyond this year? Don’t expect Strunk to rest on his laurels or allow next year’s team to do the same. By making the playoffs this year, now he expects to do it every year, so the next logical step is competing for a district championship.
“I told (Strunk) I wish I’d gone to Las Vegas and bet on them winning three games, because I guarantee I would have gotten some good odds on that.” Ball said. “We’re all really proud of what he’s done.”
Just don’t tell him he can’t do it.
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