OXFORD — It’s a different situation, school and program. But Larry Cox feels like he’s back in his element.
Cox, Lakota West High School’s head football coach for 21 seasons before taking last year off, has eagerly jumped into his new position as the head of Talawanda’s football program.
“Having that year away teaches you an appreciation of, more than anything else, being around kids,” Cox said. “I love being around kids and love being around teams. Every day is a new day. It’s neat to actually find that one thing to build on every day.”
Cox, 54, finds himself in rebuilding mode for a program that’s produced a varsity record of 5-35 over the past four seasons.
It’s a record that got J.D. Vonderheide ousted. He was 17-54 in seven years with the Brave and is now an assistant coach at Hamilton.
“If it was a perfect situation, I wouldn’t have been asked to come here,” Cox said. “But everything’s fixable.”
Cox said the work that needs to be done at Talawanda is mental in many ways. The Brave went to the Division III playoffs in 2014 and lost to Wapakoneta, but that 7-4 campaign seems like a long time ago.
Injuries played a significant role in last season’s woes. They no doubt contributed to a less-than-positive mind-set within the program.
“The thing that I noticed when I got here is that the kids carried themselves like they’re defeated,” Cox said. “So the biggest thing I wanted to change was, let’s just improve us. I tell the kids that pride is an acronym — personal responsibility in daily effort. If we’re doing that, then we’re building that pride and that self-esteem.”
He is still in the process of completing his staff. Andy Zimmerman, Colin Wallace and Sawyer Johnson are all committed, but four positions have yet to be filled.
Cox said finding coaches that aren’t in the school is a challenging task in part because of geography. Oxford isn’t an easy place to get to on a daily basis if you’re working or living somewhere else.
Officially retired for now but hoping to get a day job at THS, Cox commutes from his home in Liberty Township for regular workouts and bonding time with his players.
“To be perfectly honest, I think there’s more diversity here than what I’ve ever been accustomed to,” Cox said. “Between Oxford the city and the townships, there’s a lot of different beliefs and cultures and socioeconomics that you have to look at. That’s why I think you have to build relationships first.
“If we don’t build relationships with these kids, why do they want to play? These kids have to know that you’re in it for the long haul with them and you’re here for their best interests.
“And you can’t be afraid of parents. I think sometimes young coaches get the idea that it’s us vs. them. No, we’re all in it together. Sometimes we’ve got to educate the parents that we’re here for their kids’ best interests. Once we develop that buy-in factor, now at the dinner table they’re asking, how did workouts go today?
“I learned this in my time at Lakota West: You’re going to have good years, you’re going to have bad years. But as long as you’re taking care of the kids and you’re treating them right, it’ll be an OK year and the parents will be happy because they know you’ve got their kids’ best interests at heart.”
Numbers drive the sport of football, so naturally, Cox wants to increase participation in the program. He plans to resurrect the freshman team. His goal is to have 70 players in grades 10-12 and 30 players in each class in grades 7-9.
“There’s no pay-to-play here,” Cox said. “We offer more sports at Talawanda probably than any school in the (Greater Miami Conference), but I don’t think we have enough multisport athletes. We’ve got to get some kids crossing over and playing more.”
Talawanda hasn’t had much success in the Southwest Ohio Conference since it began competition in 2012. The Brave have placed higher than fifth only once.
Here’s a breakdown of the current SWOC schools and their conference football histories:
• Mount Healthy — 36-8 record, four straight outright championships from 2012-15
• Harrison — 33-11 record, co-champion in 2018
• Edgewood — 28-16 record, outright champion in 2016 and 2017, co-champion in 2018
• Northwest — 25-19 record, best finish was a three-way tie for second place in 2012, 2014, 2016
• Ross — 15-29 record, best finish was a three-way tie for second place in 2012
• Talawanda — 10-34 record, best finish was a three-way tie for second place in 2014
• Little Miami — 9-35 record, best finish was third place in 2018
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but at the same time, I enjoy coming here every day,” Cox said. “From the teachers and the staff in the building to the kids, they want to see change. They want to see improvement. Now I’ve got to sell what needs to be done to get there.
“The kids here are genuine. They want to talk to you. They say bye before they leave. There’s a core group of about 24 kids that are workout nuts. They love it. They don’t miss. Then there’s another 10 to 15 that are hit and miss. Then I’ve got kids playing spring sports.”
The quarterback position is unsettled heading toward the 2019 season. Cox said that’s a good thing because of all the talent at that spot.
Adam Crank started as a sophomore in 2017 and was still in that position to begin the 2018 campaign when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Game 1. Sophomore Tyler Teeters stepped in and threw for 1,165 yards and six touchdowns.
Crank is healthy now and participating in workouts, but Cox isn’t handing anything to anybody.
“We’ve got two quarterbacks coming back, and there’s a couple other kids that are pretty good athletes that have indicated that they want to play,” he said. “I feel like we’re probably going to have more depth at that position than I’ve ever had as a head coach.”
Cox has yet to choose a defensive coordinator, but he’ll run the offense. He hasn’t set anything in stone yet.
“It’s about fundamentals,” Cox said. “I’m not a tricky guy. I’m not that guru. We’re going to be multiple offensively until we find our identity. I would say we’re leaning toward an odd-front defense. We’re going to be good at blocking and tackling. We’re going to win because we’ve got a good team and we care about each other.”
He’s set up scrimmages with Wayne (more of a joint practice), Hamilton and Roger Bacon. The season will start at home Aug. 30 against Preble Shawnee.
On Sept. 6, Cox will face Badin — his alma mater — for the first time as a head coach. He coached against the Rams twice when he was a freshman coach at Wilson, losing both times.
“We have a lot of work to do to change our whole football culture,” Cox said. “It’s not like this is going to be a magical turnaround. As coaches, there’s got to be action to our words. We’ve got to step up to what we say we’re going to do.
“These kids have been torn down enough. I need kids who are going to give a consistent effort. I need coaches who can build skill and have thick skin and are ready to roll up their sleeves and jump in. The two most important things are consistency and intensity. Everything else will take off from there.”