By David Fong
TROY — Matt Burgbacher had just led his team to a victory over its bitter rival.
The Trojans had won a third straight conference championship.
A spot in the playoffs was secure.
And so how did the Troy football coach celebrate all of these accomplishments? After the team buses got back from Piqua’s Alexander Stadium, Burgbacher went through the team locker room, picking up his team’s dirty jerseys, pants and girdles. While everyone else in the program had gone off to celebrate and the clock inched past 11 p.m., he dumped all of the dirty clothes into a washing machine, poured in some detergent and got to work on a load of laundry.
“As coaches, we would never ask the kids to do something we weren’t willing to do ourselves,” Burgbacher said. “Why would I ask a kid to pick up a piece of trash off the floor if I wasn’t willing to do it myself? Why would I ask a kid to sweep out the locker room if that’s not something I’m willing to do? We talk to the kids all the time about doing the little things right. We want our kids to take pride in everything they do. As coaches, we try to live that so the kids will see it for themselves.”
For the past three years, Burgbacher and the Trojans have had almost nothing but success on the football field. As far as Burgbacher is concerned, that success has come largely because of what Troy’s players and coaches are willing to do off the field. It hasn’t always been easy — many forget that, before Troy’s incredible three-year run, which will continue Friday when Troy (10-1) takes on Cincinnati Anderson (8-3) in a Division II regional semifinal playoff game, the Trojans went 2-8 in Burgbacher’s first season.
While that first season may not be as memorable as the past three, however, it set the tone for future Trojan success. Burgbacher didn’t come to Troy after an ultra-successful stint at Fort Loramie to build up a team, he came to build up an entire program, one that would hearken back to previous Trojan greats decades before.
“First and foremost, the thing we had to do was build a relationship with the kids,” Burgbacher said. “I think there were some trust issues at first. They didn’t know anything about me and I really didn’t know anything about them. We had to get them on board with our philosophies. We wanted to get them on board with all of the things we were trying to do. I think once the kids found out what we were about, we were able to build not only that trust with them, but we were able to set the expectations for them.
“It didn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure. There was a definite feeling-out process on both sides. But I think once they started buying in to our vision and everyone was able to get on the same page, it definitely made things easier. Things have gotten a little easier every year. All of the kids in the program now — from varsity to junior varsity to freshman to junior high football — know what the expectations are.”
Winning the hearts and minds of the players was step one. Step two was hiring assistant coaches and building a staff that shared the team’s vision. The first piece of the puzzle was already in place, as his father, Charlie — who had a hall-of-fame career as the head coach at Tippecanoe — quickly came on board as the Trojans’ defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach.
“The second thing you’ve got to do when you are building a program is hire great assistant coaches,” Burgbacher said. “The only coach I had really worked with before when I started was dad — and it had even been six years since I had coached with him. But I knew I wanted to get guys who would know more about coaching their positions than I did. I am not a micro-manager. I want to be able to tell my guys what we want to do, then let them coach their positions so we can do it. I have trust in our guys.
“Football is different than a lot of other sports — we are the only coaches our kids are going to work with. It’s not like our kids can go play AAU basketball or club soccer or do the Junior Olympics once our season ends. We have our kids all year long. We’ve got to do it ourselves. I needed guys who were going to show up every day looking to coach. Our coaches are gamers. They don’t just show up on Friday, ready to coach. They are coaching our kids on Saturday, Sunday, Monday … every day of the week. It’s not like we can relax on Monday and plan on getting after it on Tuesday.”
Everything else would eventually fall into place — there have been some changes on staff in the past four years — as he built a staff that consisted almost exclusively of former Trojan players. On offense, Tyler Wright is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Scot Brewer coaches the offensive line and Gene Steinke coaches the running backs. All three are Troy graduates. Burgbacher does coach the receivers.
“Coach Wright is a great, young mind,” Burgbacher said. “He was able to take some things we were already doing and add some wrinkles. He brings great enthusiasm and energy to everything he does. Coach Brewer had some experience coaching the offensive line, but most of his coaching experience was on defense. Coach Steinke had mostly been a defensive coach, as well. But I think it’s great to have two defensive guys coaching our offense, because they can look at a guy and say, ‘Here’s what they do, here’s why they do it and here’s how we can beat it.’ All of those guys do a great job working with our kids.”
On defense, the elder Burgbacher remains the defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach, Dan Gress coaches the defensive line, Jason Manson coaches the outside linebackers and Ben Merkert coaches the defensive backs. Aaron Gibbons is the team’s strength and conditioning coach. Both Manson and Merkert at Troy graduates.
“Coach Gress was a hall-of-fame linebacker at Northmont who went on to play linebacker in college at Kent State. Now he’s coaching our defensive line because he’s a student of the game,” Burgbacher said. “He’s done an amazing job with our defensive linemen; they are our first line of defense. Our outside linebackers coach was a hall-of-fame player at that position at Troy. He knows what it’s like to play the position and he is able to work with the kids on the little things, like hand placement. Coach Merkert played defensive back and knows more about pass coverages than I’ll ever know. We’ve got on inside linebackers coach who played the position in high school and college. He’s obviously very familiar with this defense.
“Then we have Coach Gibbons, and I’ve said this before, but it all starts with him. He’s the one who works not only with our kids, but with any kid who wants to be better physically and mentally. That’s what he does so well. He not only makes kids stronger and faster, he also gives them confidence and makes them tougher, mentally.”
For Burgbacher, all of those things have put Troy in its current position as one of the top teams in the area. It wasn’t about building a team; it was about building a program.
“I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish here,” he said. “And when I say, ‘we,’ that’s exactly what I mean. It’s not what I’ve done. It’s what our kids and our assistant coaches have done. We’ve worked very hard to get ourselves in the position we are in and have the opportunities we have.”
Because those are things that will never come out in the wash.
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong