WEST CHESTER TWP. — The idea seemed far-fetched enough that Elgin Card, when presented with it, responded with a laugh.
Card, Lakota West High School’s principal, was in the car with West athletic director Scott Kaufman on Dec. 2. It was a long ride back from Canton, site of the seven state football championships, and football was the primary topic of conversation.
West was accepting applications for its head football coaching position, and the deadline to stop taking them and start going through them was two days away. Kaufman said he had a short list of men he’d like to fill the position. Card asked who was No. 1.
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“I said Tommy Bolden,” Kaufman recalled, “and he just started laughing. He said, ‘He ain’t coming here.’ And I said, ‘How do we know unless we ask?’ He said, ‘All right, call him up.’ ”
That’s how quickly and simply a whirlwind can begin.
A call was made to Dan Bolden, Tom’s brother, asking if they could all get together for dinner. The Boldens quickly responded affirmatively. The next day, they met with Kaufman and Card at Outback Steakhouse.
Several days later, West made the stunning announcement. Bolden was leaving Colerain, his alma mater and where he’s presided over a prep football empire for more than a decade, to become the head coach at West.
Outback may come to be remembered as the place where Firebird football found a new life.
“I had a nice ribeye,” Kaufman said. “I said, ‘I’m breaking my diet for this one.’ ”
“I even picked up the whole tab … and it was worth it,” Card said. “The best whatever $80 I’ve spent in a long time.”
Taking A New Path
For 49-year-old Tom Bolden, leaving Colerain is more than just taking another job.
A large part of his life has been dominated by Colerain. He’s a 1988 CHS graduate and has been part of the Cardinal coaching staff since 2002, the last 12 as the head man.
His head coaching record is 142-21. Twelve Greater Miami Conference championships. Eleven playoff appearances. Three regional titles. One state runner-up finish, which happened Nov. 30 when the Cardinals lost to Lakewood St. Edward in the Division I state final.
Leave for West, a school known for producing college recruits, but not great records on the field?
“There’s still something kind of surreal about it, to be honest with you,” Bolden said. “Sometimes as you get older … I don’t think of myself as an old guy, but you start to see things into the future and it becomes less about you and more about your family and everything else. That’s kind of where it went.
“I like winning, and I’m going to come here and I’m going to win with these kids, plain and simple. It has nothing to do with anyone at Colerain, anyone in that community, anyone within that district, any of those kids. That’s the toughest thing for those kids to understand.”
Meeting with his Colerain players … that was a tough one. A lot of tears on both ends. Some players simply didn’t understand why this was happening.
Bolden said it was the hardest thing he’s ever had to do, but he did it. He got through it. And then he truly started to feel the adrenaline rush that comes with tackling a new program.
“I like doing what I do,” Bolden said. “I like challenges. I love winning. I love coaching. And this is the next chapter for me.”
West went 4-6 in 2018 under interim head coach Jeff Wadl, who took over when Larry Cox resigned in May. Cox had been the program’s only head coach since the school opened in 1997.
The Firebirds have won eight games the last three seasons combined, so clearly this isn’t Colerain. But Bolden said his approach won’t change in his new job.
He’s always been a booming presence in the GMC. He talks fast and loud and with a personality that can sometimes rub opponents the wrong way.
Kerry Coombs was that way too. He’s the guy that built the foundation of the Colerain program. Bolden coached under him, then took over when Coombs moved to the University of Cincinnati.
“I am who I am,” Bolden said. “I don’t make any apologies for that. I’m going to have fun doing this. You come Tuesdays during two-a-days, it’s tank-top Tuesday with the coaches. We have different themes.
“I always tell (the players) I’m going to kick ’em in the butt when they need to be kicked in the butt, but I’m going to love ’em even harder when they need to be loved.
“I’m going to be who I am, and I’m going to do everything I can for these kids. At some point football’s going to be done. The key is — and my job is — win a lot of football games, have fun doing it, and make sure that when they leave here they’re better sons and eventually they’re going to be great husbands and great fathers and great community members and keep this thing rolling for all us old folks.”
On the field, West fans can expect Bolden’s team to utilize the 50 slant-and-angle defense. It was a staple during his time at Colerain.
The Cardinals were also known for their triple-option offense. West fans may see some of that as well.
“Offensively, we will do some things similar to what we did (at Colerain), but we’ll expand on that a little bit,” Bolden said. “Yeah, it was the triple option, but it was pretty multiple. I think we could be a little more multiple in a lot of things that we do here.
“We’re going to play fast and loose and score a lot of points. If we gotta run some triple to do it, we’ll run some triple. If we gotta get in the gun to do it, throw it around a bit, we’ll do that too. We’re going to formation teams to death and do a lot of different things to ’em.”
There will be a certain awkwardness when he faces Colerain, but that will be down the road, at least in terms of a real game. The Firebirds and Cardinals aren’t scheduled to meet during the 2019 regular season.
The Lure Of Lakota West
Bolden will finish out the school year as a physical education teacher at Colerain. He’ll be in the building at West next year as the high school building coordinator and assistant to the administration.
What exactly will that mean on an everyday basis?
Bolden’s take: “It sounds like I’ll be doing anything and everything.”
Kaufman’s take: “He’s going to be helping with just about everything. He’ll be heavily involved with the kids all day long, involved with the cafeteria, involved with the maintenance, involved with our custodians. He’s going to be real active within keeping the building going.”
The search for a new coach brought more than 60 resumes from as far away as the Czech Republic, and Kaufman wasn’t surprised. He believes West is an attractive destination in every way.
“I truly believe we have it all,” he said. “We’ve got great kids. We’ve got a great history. We’ve got great facilities. We’ve got great programs. We’ve got great staff. What’s not attractive about that? Even going back to my time at Princeton, everybody talked about how West would be the place to be. That’s why I am here.
Kaufman said the list of potential candidates was impressive. But he liked his short list more, so he started there.
“In every search I’ve ever had, you always have a short list, no matter the sport,” Kaufman said. “You go after your short list, and if you can’t get them, then you go into your resumes. We just got lucky. The last time I got the No. 1 guy on my list was (basketball coach) Bill Brewer (at Princeton).
“When you’re in a situation to have an opportunity to get the best, you go after it. I’ve been told no a lot, but boy, when they say yes, it’s really, really cool. It’s a magical moment for our kids.”
Bolden was introduced to the community Tuesday night in the West cafeteria. He was in his element … talking, smiling, shaking hands and generally making sure that everybody knew he’s going to do things his way.
“He’s like a gnat to a light,” Kaufman said. “I mean, you hear him and you just can’t help but listen to him intently. Tom had me ready to put on shoulder pads. Now you don’t want to see me in shoulder pads, but he had me ready to put ’em on.
“When you see him interact with kids and even being an opposing AD watching him … yeah, you see some of the craziness on the sidelines, but then you see him get close and put his arm around a kid and coach him up. There’s something special there. Is there anybody that’s been more successful than him over the last 12 years consistently? The answer is no, so there’s something to his equation that has worked very effectively.”
Kaufman is a happy athletic director these days, and not just because of Bolden. The hiring of Bolden and Jim Leon for boys basketball has given West what Kaufman calls “a great 1-2 punch” in terms of head coaching duos in Greater Cincinnati.
Lakota superintendent Matt Miller threw his full support behind the push to get Bolden.
“He flat-out said, ‘Go get the best,’ ” Kaufman said. “It doesn’t happen if we don’t have a superintendent and HR director and board of education that get it. It was the perfect storm, a whole bunch of circumstances that just fell together at the right time.”
Digging In For The Future
Bolden can’t wait to immerse himself in the nuts and bolts of running the West football program. He said the weight-room work will be done with resolve.
Would the situation have played out like this if Colerain had beaten St. Edward for the state title? Bolden said a championship likely wouldn’t have changed the path he’s chosen.
“I think it was something that was going to happen,” Bolden said. “I think time is time, and I think that’s how it worked out.”
Card admitted he takes a little more interest in football for one big reason — he’s a former football coach.
“With me being a football guy and my dad being a coach, it just brings great joy to see the excitement it’s brought to our parents, our kids, our school and our community,” Card said. “We expect big things, and Coach Bolden knows that. It’s important to build character for our kids, but it’s also important to win. I hate losing probably more than I love winning. Me and Scott say that quite often, and we really feel that way.
“One of the things I wanted out of this was somebody who brings credibility to the program and to Lakota West High School and someone who’s going to bring some toughness, and I think we hit a home run with those things. I’ve seen him from afar when I coached at Princeton and when I coached here and now as an administrator, and his relationship building has been great.
“He’s going to get in his kids’ rear end, but they love him. That’s kind of how I try to operate as the principal. If you do the right things, I’m going to love on you. And if you don’t, I’m going to get on you and I’m going to love you the next day.”
Card said his coaching background will lead him into some Xs and Os discussions with Bolden. Kaufman isn’t as focused on such matters. He’s just happy that he trusted his gut.
“It’s one of those lessons I learned from my dad when I was little. He said, ‘Never be afraid to ask,’ ” Kaufman said. “I still don’t know that I know what it took to get this done, but all I can say is it started with, ‘Hey, you want to have dinner?’ ”
The Tom Bolden File
Residence: Colerain Township
Family: Wife Lisa, sons Jacob (28), Kyle (19), Luke (17) and Mitchell (14)
High School: Colerain, Class of 1988
College: Bachelor’s degree in kinesiology/exercise physiology from Wittenberg University, teaching certificate from Xavier University
Prep Coaching History: Seven years as an assistant at Northwest, five years as an assistant at Colerain, 12 years as head coach at Colerain (142-21)