Program Profile: Orono Spartans
Orono Football: One Team
The Orono Spartans’ football program was not in dire straits. They had not been under .500 since 2011, but shortly before the 2019 season began, the school felt the program needed to go in another direction. To lead the Spartans in this new direction, the school selected long-time Orono coach Joe McPherson. With football, the school and the community, the Spartans are working toward becoming one team.
McPherson grew up and started his football career in Nebraska.
“Growing up in Nebraska, obviously football was a big deal. I started playing in fourth grade and played through high school. I played linebacker on defense and pretty much everywhere on offense.”
A three-sport athlete in high school, McPherson went on to play baseball at Nebraska-Omaha. One of his passions – even before college – was coaching.
“I loved coaching. I started coaching while I was still in high school. After high school, in the summer, I helped with baseball teams and just loved coaching kids and being around sports. Even though my playing career was winding down – I enjoyed still being able to compete.”
Although he coached and still coaches multiple sports, football was never far from McPherson’s mind.
“Football was the sport I loved the most. Growing up around it, I knew one day I wanted to coach football. When I had the opportunity to coach football in Orono, it was a perfect opportunity to get involved.”
A few stops after college, McPherson and his wife did eventually land in Orono. The future Spartans’ football coach started his Orono coaching career with the wrestling team. Two years after settling in the community, he joined the football staff.
“The first year, I coached freshman football. The next year I coached the varsity linebackers. Two years ago, I became the defensive coordinator, and this year I became the head coach.”
A focused vision
The new Spartans’ football coach tries to model himself after a coaching legend.
“Living in Nebraska, we had one of the best coaches around in Tom Osborne,” McPherson explained. “Listening to him talk and watching how he carried himself and the respect he demanded from his players and the respect he got from the players, the school and the state; I looked at those things, and I wanted to be somebody people look up to. I work hard to make sure we treat our players with respect. I model that after Coach Osborne.”
Going into his first season leading the program, McPherson started by focusing on the big picture.
“The biggest transition becoming the head coach was figuring out what we wanted as a vision and what we wanted the program to look like,” McPherson said. “Some of the assistants stayed on the staff, but I had to make sure I hired coaches that shared the same vision for the program as I did.”
McPherson didn’t have much time to figure out what that vision was going to be.
“I didn’t get hired until April. We only had a few months to put a coaching staff together and get the transition fully engaged. We didn’t have a lot of seniors last year. The big thing was getting that transition done and making sure the boys knew where we wanted to go.”
With the team he had coming into the 2019 season, McPherson knew his young team would need focus.
“We needed to bring more discipline to the program. I knew this year; especially, we were going to have a tough road. We knew with the teams we were going to play; we were going to have to be disciplined mentally to stay with them. We had to keep building week to week.”
On the field, the new coaching staff tweaked the defense and made a significant change on offense.
“Being the defensive coordinator the year before, the defense stayed pretty much the same,” McPherson explained. “We play a base 4-3. We tried to keep some of the terminology the same. I already knew what I wanted to do on the defensive side. On the offensive side, we changed a few things because of our personnel. We didn’t have a lot of big linemen. We went to more of a triple-option kind of team. We tried to keep it simple because we were so young on that side of the ball. With the athletes we tend to have in Orono, the offense fits. We have athletic kids who are fast, but we are not that big.”
Because of their youth, 2019 might be considered a rebuilding year. The last ten years – however – the program has had a lot of success. Even the years they didn’t have a great regular season, they have almost always been a factor in the playoffs.
“Our regular season schedule is pretty tough,” the former UNO baseball player said. “I can’t remember a season – as a 4A school – that we weren’t playing 5A schools – tough 5A schools. That is why we have had success in the postseason. We get stronger as the season goes on. Over the last few years, the kids have worked their butts off to be their best at the end of the year. They know what it takes to win tight games and play their best at the end.”
On the practice field, McPherson and his staff continue to stress discipline.
“We practice with discipline and with a high tempo. We keep the guys moving during practice. We don’t have a ton of guys, so we have to keep things moving to get high reps. We had to make sure our guys were in great shape, moving and are efficient with our time.”
A Multi-sport approach
Coaching multiple sports – McPherson is the head wrestling coach and an assistant baseball coach – has given McPherson a unique perspective as a head football coach.
“With the different sports – especially wrestling – there is a lot of one on one time with the kids,” McPherson said. “I try to do that in football too – talking to as many kids as I can each day. I try to make each kid feel special. With baseball, it is not just teaching technique and scheme. It is about bringing the whole group together and how do we get the whole group to work towards a common goal. The amount of downtime you have during practice, it is important to keep things energetic. I have learned that through coaching baseball because that can be boring for kids if they are just standing around.”
McPherson owns a construction company and doesn’t work in the school system, but he makes sure he is a presence in the school.
“I am in the school almost every day during the year. Between football season, wrestling season, and baseball season, I am in the school a lot. I make it a priority. We have weekly meetings with our leadership team. It is important for me to be in the school so the players and potential players can see me, so they know we want as many kids out for football as we can.”
The one team theme comes into play when the coaches try to get those kids out for the sport.
“Football is the best team sport out there,” McPherson explains to potential football players. “There is no other sport like football when it comes to team — getting kids to understand that if you have 75 guys on a team and every single guy plays a role on Friday night. Playing Friday nights – there is nothing like it. You hear NFL guys talk about the best times playing football were playing on Friday nights.”
The one team concept has filtered down to the Spartans’ youth program.
“We have a great youth program,” McPherson told northstarfootballnews.com. “A couple of years ago, we started an in-house flag football program for 2nd and 3rd graders. Our high school kids mentor the youth program. We assign our varsity guys to different teams, so they go to some of the practices and the games. Our motto is one team. It is important to us that from the 2nd grader to the senior in high school, we are all one program – we are all one team. Our youth program is only getting bigger because of that.”
The youth program sets up to have the kids ready to go by the time they put on their first varsity jersey.
“We have been trying to implement the same terminology and a simplified version of our offense,” McPherson said. “As they go through the program, one of our goals is to get them to learn a little bit every year so by the time they get to 9th grade they have a great concept of what we do offensively and defensively so we are not teaching them the whole playbook in 9th grade.”
When the kids make the transition from junior high to varsity, they are coached by a staff that is a mix of experience and youth.
“Rusty Olson is our offensive coordinator. He has been with Orono longer than I have. Last year was his first year as offensive coordinator. Barry Wohler is the head basketball coach and is kind of a legend in Minnesota. He helps on the offensive side and works with the running backs and the quarterbacks. Troy Trimble is our defensive coordinator. He joined the staff two years ago. He is a younger guy and brings a lot of energy. The kids love him.”
The coaches will reap the rewards of having to play so many young players this year.
“We have a lot of experience coming back next year, and we are going to have some depth,” McPherson said. “We are going to have almost twenty guys with good varsity experience coming back. We have another fifteen guys who have a little varsity experience.”
Not just next season, but to continue to keep up the program’s success, according to McPherson, it all starts in the trenches.
“We need to improve on both lines. That is where you win games. Last year we had three guys playing both ways on the offensive and defensive lines. That is tough to do. We have to find guys who can step in and play on the line. That has been a big focus of ours.”
The biggest focus of the program has been connecting the varsity to the youth. The next step – it has started already – is to connect the program to the community.
“Our whole program has the concept of one,” McPherson concluded. “It is fun to see our youth and our varsity come together as one program. We are trying to bring that into the community, and all come together as one we can do some great things.”