It’s been a while since first-year Cleveland Blue Raiders head football coach Marty Wheeler has sat in a new office, but after a decade at Covington, he has decided the time to explore new …
It’s been a while since first-year Cleveland Blue Raiders head football coach Marty Wheeler has sat in a new office, but after a decade at Covington, he has decided the time to explore new territory has come.
That territory has come in the form of new faces and a new city at Cleveland High School, where he is still in the process of learning new faces and names and new streets and landmarks. The one thing that remains the same is Wheeler’s desire to put a good football on Raider Field this fall.
“The first thing that stands out is the tradition here and all the success they’ve had over the years. That’s what we’re trying to work toward, restoring that tradition and putting a product on the field that not only competes, but that our community and our school can be proud of when they come to watch on Friday nights,” he said after a recent summer workout session.
"I haven’t been here very long, but I think we’ve got some kids who want to work hard. Their attitudes have been really good so far. That’s been a pleasant surprise. You always wonder about that when you go somewhere new. I had been at Covington for 10 years, so it’s been a while since I’ve had to experience a new environment. I think a lot of times everybody gets caught up in the transition for the players. But, the anxiety is just as high on my side as well, because you are dealing with new guys and getting to know them.”
The transition has been going smoothly for not only Wheeler, but for the Raiders who are getting to know their new coach who is coming off a state runner-up finish to Alcoa last fall.
“It’s getting better every day. I’m starting to actually get to know these guys and they are starting to know me. We are going to push them. We demand a lot, but we care about them,” he acknowledged.
“Nobody is really interested in how much you know about football. What they are interested in is how much you care about them. That’s really what we try to work toward. That’s our biggest goal here. We want our guys to understand the importance of what matters most and what matters most is them becoming a productive citizen once they leave here. A good husband, a good father and someone who can represent their family the way they are supposed to when they get older.”
One of the main focuses is getting the team to buy into what the staff is selling and one of the biggest selling points is taking responsibility for yourself and understanding every decision comes with a repercussion.
“The wins and losses in football sort of tend to take care of each other when you’re addressing things. It’s not necessarily how you go block this kid or tackle this kid. You are going to do that the right way by being the kind of person we want you to be,” said the coach. “You have to understand there are consequences for mistakes. It’s called accountability.”
At the first team meeting, Wheeler started the change in mentality both individually and as a team with emphasis on the things that can be controlled. He said there is no good that comes from worrying about things that can not be controlled.
“We’re all learning it together. It’s just the littlest of things. What we’ve got to do here is pay attention and understand that little things matter a lot. Your body language, your attitude; those are things that you can control. What they can control is their attitude, work ethic and how focused they are,” he said.
Wheeler admitted he hasn’t always carried his current philosophy. As a younger coach he spent too much time fretting about how many games could his team win instead of emphasizing working hard every day to get better and better as a person and athlete.
“We are going to instill in our players the things I feel people have lost sight of at times. This is a ‘what have you done for me lately?’ society. It’s all about results and I understand that. In this business it is all about results. But, we’ve got to focus on what we can control and the results will just sort of take care of itself,” he specified.
While the Raiders are working hard to learn new routines and get stronger in the weight room, Wheeler said the summer workouts are not necessarily obligatory. He does emphasize the workouts must be completed in order to see the field on Friday nights.
“The word mandatory I wouldn’t use. But, you are required to make a certain number of workouts before you play. If you make those workouts before we start camp then you are solid. If you don’t you’ve got to get those workouts in between practices,” he noted. “The kids choose how they want to go about doing that.”
Naturally, the coach recommends getting the workouts finished before fall practice begins. Raiders who complete the required workouts will have their pictures displayed inside the school building.
The Raiders are working Tuesday through Thursday for three hours and are ready to enjoy the summer after 10 a.m.
“At 10 o’clock ever day, you’re done. It’s only three days. We're quality, not quantity. What that has done is change attendance at workouts drastically. Guys are here. Participation is going well.” Wheeler explained. “When we can get into helmets, shorts and shoulder pads, it’s going to be mandatory. You’ve had your time to get in those workouts and if you haven’t made them you will have to get them in. But, I want them to have some time to be kids. I want our coaches to have time to enjoy their summer.”
The biggest things the new Blue Raider coach has had to do after being at the same place for a decade is get himself to understand how things were in the beginning when he was a fledgling coach. He is again working to rebuild attitudes and confidence as the team works to get into shape and learn a new way of doing things.
“I had to go back to the beginning of that and remember how it was. Even though it wasn’t what you want in the beginning, they were making strides. It’s going to take a little time for these guys to get where I want to see or look. I don’t think I will ever sit here and say things are going great, because I always think we can do better,” said Wheeler. “But, if you are an outside guy looking, I you can say we are making progress. It is yes sir, no sir. That don’t cost a dime. I see it is becoming a habit with a lot of our kids. Eventually it will become the norm. It will become the norm by making an adjustment on your own, or me finding something to get you to understand.”
So far Wheeler is pleased with what he has seen, especially with the little things that eventually translate into victories. He said the team is picking it up by running on the field and not walking.
“Habits are really easy to get into and really hard to get out of,” he explained. “I don’t lay in bed at night worrying about injuries, but the biggest thing is not practicing full speed. Dragging around, taking a play off is when you get hurt. If you are going full speed most of the time I think it handles itself. Our kids are learning how too practice. Our coaches are learning how to practice, including me.”
While the focus of the summer workouts are learning how to practice and building new attitudes, the coaching staff is not particularly worried about hurrying to throw new plays at the Raiders as the learning process continues.
“I’ve been really pleased with the way our coaches have approached that mentality. They aren’t trying to get in too big a hurry and throw all these plays in. The pace of what we are installing is going really well. I like the way our coaches are approaching that. I like the way our kids are responding to the coaching. It’s a new day every day,” said Wheeler, who admitted he was a bit frustrated at the beginning of spring practice.
“It didn’t look very good,” he said. "But, I don’t know what I thought it was going to look like. I told the kids not to let my frustration, frustrate them. But, I was excited for spring practice for the first time if five or six years. I don’t know if its productive or not all the time. But, in the situation I came into, yes. It’s all about expectations and our expectation will be high. They should be.”
Aside from concentrating on getting the Blue Raiders in shape to be ready for fall camp, Wheeler said he is happy to be reunited with his family after three months apart.
“We’ve been separated for three months and that was tough, on both sides. Not just their side, but mine also. To have them all here is starting to feel more like when you take a job, what you want it to feel like. It didn’t feel that way in the beginning,” he said. “The community in Cleveland went out of its way to help me feel welcome here. My family has never lived anywhere but Covington, besides me. This is a major move for them. They (the community) has done everything on their end to make it as pleasant a move as possible. I will always be grateful for that.”
As far as what to expect from the Blue Raiders, Wheeler is candid about not knowing what he will see when the first kickoff of the season comes about. Right now the focus is on taking care of business individually and as a team, working the older Raiders on offense, and younger players on defense for 30 minutes, then swapping out.
“I’m not sure what we’re going to look like. I know I say that every year, but I really have no idea. I’m anxious to see what we look like.”
“Facility-wise we are set up much better than where I’ve been. We’re working on everything. We’ve got our guys divided up. We’ve got 30 minutes on either side of the ball. We’re trying to cover fundamentals of every position and also installing our offense and defense. I’ve been pleased with how that is going so far.
“The kids are learning a new offense. Defense is not as much a transition. But, we’ve probably got more kids returning from last year on offense than we do on defense. Right now it doesn’t look exactly like I want it to look, because we are in the process of hiring a couple more coaches. I feel real good about that. Hopefully, we should be pretty solid and good to go.”
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