MONROE — The activity that fills Monroe High School’s weight room at the crack of dawn may be a symbol of good days on the horizon.
New head football coach Bob Mullins has the Hornets lifting from 6-7 a.m. four times a week for a practical reason — he’s currently teaching at Princeton Middle School and can’t get to Monroe until close to 4 p.m. if he waits until after school.
But there is a toughness aspect as well, a building of commitment and work ethic that Mullins loves seeing at such an early hour.
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“We’re grinding away,” Mullins said. “That’s going to be a foundation of our program, that we want to outwork people. You’d be surprised how much enthusiasm is in there at 6 a.m. The buy-in has been really, really good. I’ve got a kid that’s put on 10 pounds of muscle since December. It’s crazy.
“I think if you asked the kids now if they want to lift at 6 a.m. or 3:00, I think overwhelmingly they would pick 6 a.m. They do the work in the morning and then have their whole afternoon open.”
December is when the 2000 Lakota West graduate got the job, and Mullins said he’s got about 50 kids regularly lifting in the morning.
The Hornets are determined to get back to winning. Monroe actually has a winning record in playoff games, going 11-9 in nine appearances (1983, 1986, 1993, 1994, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2014).
But the postseason has seemed like ancient history over the last three years. The Hornets have played 30 games during that time. They’ve won six.
“This is a very proud community,” Mullins said. “They’ve had winning teams here, and I think there’s still a lot of people around here that remember those days. The kids are really thirsty for success. You can tell that by watching them work.”
Monroe has managed a 22-49 record over the last seven years. There was a playoff berth in there, a 49-7 loss to Clinton-Massie in 2014.
Mullins, 37, finds himself doing things he hasn’t had to deal with in the past. That’s part of the deal when you become a head coach for the first time.
“I love doing it, but it’s hard to juggle everything that comes your way,” Mullins said. “When you’re an assistant, there’s a lot of stuff that you take for granted that the head coach has actually been doing.
“Something like the inventory of old equipment. I’ve never had to do that before. Now I’m jumping in there and saying, ‘How many footballs do we have? How many helmets do we have?’ It has to be done, so I’ll do it. But it’s kind of boring. I really love the weight lifting and football part of it.”
Mullins has already taken a big step in overcoming one difficulty. He’s been approved as an intervention specialist at Monroe in the coming school year. He’s thrilled to have a chance to be in the building.
“The hardest thing for me right now is trying to be in two places at once,” Mullins said. “For example, a conversation that would usually take five minutes to walk down to the athletic director’s office can end up taking all day.
“I was mentally preparing myself to teach at Princeton and coach at Monroe. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal because I’m used to doing it. I did it when I coached with Larry (Cox) and I did it when I coached with Rick (Haynes). But it was starting to get more difficult.
“Everything just took care of itself. I knew there were no guarantees. I had to go through the interview process just like anybody else and prove myself as a teacher. Monroe doesn’t just hire teachers to coach. They hire you to teach first.”
Part of a coach’s job these days is being a salesman. Mullins has to make sure Monroe parents understand the benefits of football and its role in character development. He also has to sell the program to some kids that aren’t playing now.
The Hornets don’t have a freshman team. That may mean little to the average prep football fan, but it’s a huge deal for a coach trying to build a program.
“We’re expecting to have about 62 kids in grades 9-12. I would love to have 70,” Mullins said. “My goal when I get in the building is to build those numbers to where we can bring the freshman team back.
“I’ve had meetings with the pee-wee organizations. I’ve had meetings with the junior high guys. I’ve challenged everybody at every level to increase our participation by five kids per grade. That goal is for the following fall when I’ve been at Monroe for a year. Five doesn’t seem like a big number, but that’s 20 more kids in the program if you’re talking 9 through 12.”
Mullins spent the last five seasons as an outside linebackers coach under Haynes at Lakota East, so it’s no surprise that Monroe’s plan is to use a 50 defense and a triple-option offense.
There has been a significant change. Mullins originally saw himself being the defensive coordinator, but he’s now running the offense. Brad Hunt, a Monroe graduate who’s been coaching in Dayton (Ky.), will be the D-coordinator and linebackers coach.
The rest of the staff will include Ryan Bentley (special-teams coordinator, quarterbacks), Corey Manning (defensive line), Mike Lovell (secondary, wide receivers), John Doran (offensive line) and Jeff Hanson (outside linebackers).
“I think we’ve put together a really good staff,” Mullins said. “We’re young. We’ll grow together. I think we’re going to have a lot of energy, and I think the kids will feed off that.”
Hanson is from Arizona and was an all-state nose tackle. He works at AK Steel.
“He applied online. He was the only one I didn’t have a previous relationship with,” Mullins said. “I interviewed him and really liked him. He doesn’t have a whole lot of coaching experience, but he’s very knowledgeable about the game. If you were an all-state player, you can come in and make an impact.”
Mullins has already installed the entire offense. Monroe will start using its 10 summer instruction days July 1, while the first official day of practice is Aug. 1.
The scrimmage schedule includes Goshen, Stebbins and a home contest against Reading a week before the regular season begins. The opener will be at Edgewood on Aug. 30.
Mullins said Collin Deaton and Alex Pitsch will compete for the starting quarterback job — their mobility will be a plus in the triple option. Tyler Tracey and C.J. Miles will battle for the fullback position, a key spot in this offense.
“The one thing about the weight room is you start at a certain place and work your way up,” Mullins said. “You get stronger and stronger and stronger and build some confidence about yourself. You start to feel like you can kind of do anything based on what you’ve been doing in the weight room.
“As the kids have started to grow in the weight room, my confidence as a coach has started to grow. You can see the kids starting to build that resiliency and that mental toughness that you need to compete on Friday night. We’re really excited to see what they can do when we start doing football stuff.
“It’s really good right now because I feel like our best players and our senior leadership are our hardest workers. When you get that, everybody else just kind of falls in line.”