Cover photo from Woodbury High School Activities Organization
In any athletic program, success is hard to come by unless everyone is on the same page. Unless the kids, coaches, and community are all in alignment, there might be short-term success but in the long-term programs typically don't have sustained success.
Woodbury head coach Andy Hill recognizes this and is focusing on building a football culture that he not only hopes will lead to more success on the football field, but also in life.
Hill is building a culture of alignment.
Hill grew up in the Woodbury area and although football eventually became his life, his football career almost ended before it got started.
"I was a tall skinny kid, so I weighed enough, and I played tight end, so I had to battle the big kids," Hill said. "I got my butt kicked every day in practice. Back then we did live tackling for an hour, and it wasn't that fun."
After a couple of years away from football Woodbury head football coach Gary Halvorson approached Hill and asked him if he was going to come out for football. To get the coach to leave him alone, Hill lied and said he planned to play again starting in his ninth grade year.
"Coach Halvorson knew my mother, and she told him that I was planning not to play," said Hill, who added that Halvorson was a mentor to him. "In the hallway, he pulled me aside and said ‘the only thing I like worse than a quitter is a liar.' So I played football as a ninth grader and grew to love the game."
After high school Hill again didn't foresee football in his future; he planned to go to college out of the state to become a lawyer. As fate would have it, Hill got the opportunity to play football at the University of St. Thomas. Late in his playing career, his coaching career began.
"My junior year in college I became the quarterback coach at Woodbury," Hill recalled. "We won the state championship, and that opened some doors for me."
Hill's assistant jobs also included Hill-Murray. With most of his family moved from Minnesota to the East Coast, Hill would get his first head coaching job at Park View High School in Sterling, Virginia. After five seasons in which they won three district championships and made the more exclusive post-season four times, he was hired as the head coach at nearby South Lakes High School.
The following year, his dream job opened up – Woodbury.
When Hill took over, he felt the program was in good shape, but he saw some things he wanted to improve on – most notably the culture of Royals' football.
"My first year I had a kid tell me (to get out of a workout) it was his mom's birthday four (different) times," Hill said. "It is just a mentality. I am sure it is not just in Woodbury, but I think the great teams like Eden Prairie, Totino-Grace or Becker they know what is expected right away. We are trying to move our culture to where that becomes habitual behavior."
Hill addresses his team - photo from The Woodbury Bulletin
Hill blames the past culture in the program on himself.
"(The last few years) I didn't hold the kids as accountable as I should have," said Hill, who will be starting his seventh season as head coach of the Royals. "I remember thinking if I keep telling kids to work harder in class, keep telling them to get to our workouts or get their grades up, eventually I am going to be a nag and they are not going to play football, and then I lose them all influence over them."
Looking for better results on the field – the Royals have hovered around the .500 mark for most of the past six years – Hill made some adjustments.
"I acknowledged on equipment turn in day my failure in that area, and we are not going to tolerate it this year. We will go forward with the guys who are on board. If we have guys – even returning starters – that are not on board they not only won't start – they won't be on the team."
"The program has to have some sort of catalyst for change," Hill continued. "That is what it has been. We are going to hold each other accountable. The players have done it too. They have held each other accountable."
Hill's tough love stance seems to have worked.
"Our offseason workout numbers have gone from an average of 33 kids a day to 49 kids a day," Hill said. "I was pleased to get 35 kids. We have kids that play basketball, wrestle, a lot of kids that play baseball or run track, to have almost 50 kids tells me we are moving in the right direction."
This offseason they also spent 48 hours at Camp Ripley as a team bonding experience. They went to Winona State for a team camp. The varsity guys work in the youth leagues, so they know the influence they have on the future of the program.
On and off the field the future of the program looks like it could be strong for years to come.
"We are a work in progress," Hill said, "but I've got some phenomenal parents in the program. The administration is very supportive."
Combined, the freshmen and sophomore teams lost a total of one game last season. At the youth and high school level, like most large schools, the athletic opportunities are plentiful at Woodbury.
"At the high school level the kids are pulled in twenty different directions," Hill said. "For a lot of our kids, football is a sport they love, but it is not the top of the sports priority list. If we have a football camp and they have an AAU basketball camp they are going to go to basketball."
One of the goals of the staff is to get the upperclassmen to move football ever so slightly up the priority list. More accountability is a way to make the sport more relevant to kids.
"When you hold the juniors and seniors accountable, and the ninth and tenth graders see it pretty soon the kids in middle school who are coming in, they don't know any different."
Defensive end David Alston - photo from 247 Sports
Once the staff gets the players on the field, Hill tries to cater to the collective group's strengths.
"I think coaches get too hung up on trying to have their reputation be around a system," the former Tommie said. "In college that is great – you can pick the kids who walk through your door and make sure you have the type of players to run what you want to run. In high school, I am fine playing the teams that run the same thing no matter what they have because half the time it is not going to fit the kids they have. We have some core concepts."
His offensive philosophy not only revolves around what the kids can do, but what they want to do.
"I like to have at least two or three receivers on the field simply because that is what kids like. Once I had a coach speak to me, and he made a great point," Hill explained. "(The coach) said ‘we throw the ball a lot because when I roll the ball out in PE class, kids have fun throwing the ball around, running around and jumping and throwing and catching. When I watch my PE class pick up a ball and start running triple option that is what we will run.' I would rather run more than we throw but you are going to see us trying to get the ball to different players because that keeps those talented athletes coming out for football."
Defensively the Royals usually play a four-man front, but especially with defensive end David Alston, they might mix in some three-man looks with Alston as a stand-up linebacker.
Although Hill is focused on changing the culture around the program, he doesn't want the ratio of football and fun to get out of alignment on the practice field.
"A lot of times we will end practices with some sort of competition. Maybe it is a football type competition, or maybe it is who can throw the ball and hit the dummy competition," Hill said. "We want to end with fun. With young people how they feel at the end will reflect on the entire day. Practice doesn't always have to be ‘I had fun and got a lollypop'. Practice can be ‘I am exhausted but that is a day well invested, and I am confident we got better.' I don't ever want practice to end where we are screaming at the kids, so they feel down."
Part of the responsibility of keeping the kids positive falls to the assistant coaches.
"Burt Roberts won the Butch Nash Award. He has been with us for 29 seasons," the former quarterback said. "He coached me when I was in high school. When he retires from teaching, he might coach for another twenty years. He is our defensive coordinator. He is tough on the kids but loves them too. Bryan Gustavson played for me at Hill-Murray and coached with me at Park View for a year. He took over as our strength coach. He is extremely passionate and really connects with the kids. He is the type of crazy but fun coach that every staff needs."
Every program also needs numbers. While Woodbury isn't hurting for numbers, Hill – like all coaches – is always looking for kids that can help his program. Like earning a spot on the team, old or new, the kids are going to have to earn it.
"I am not going to make promises," Hill said. "That isn't fair to everyone else, but I try to sell that football is the coolest thing that happens in high school. I have talked to dozens of people who said I wish I would have played and I've never talked to a kid that said that was a waste of our time."
Three guys who didn't need convincing are Alston, defensive end/tight end Lance Siggens and linebacker/tight end Connor Schellenbach. Hill wanted to see which players would lead, so for the first time, they did not pick the captains of the team until well into the offseason program. The three soon to be seniors have all stepped up to the challenge. They have exemplified the new era of Royals' football.
"When your best players are your hardest workers you've got a chance to be great," Hill explained. "We are getting more of that. When that is your culture when your first string quarterback is being pushed by the third string guy, then you have a chance to be outstanding. With high school kids, very rarely do you get that kid who is reliable on the football field who is not doing what he should be doing off the field. They need to understand that it is not a switch. If you are a hard worker on the football field and you do all the right things that is generally what you do in the classroom. If you are not, that makes me concerned that I am seeing a mirage."
What is not a mirage is Woodbury's schedule. Hill knows they will be challenged every time they head out under the Friday night lights. Nothing is a given, but the coach is cautiously optimistic.
"The culture piece is coming, and the wins will come along with that."
At the end of the 2017 season, regardless of how well their record says they did, Hill feels the Royals will be a program on the rise.
"When Minnesota Gophers' head coach P.J. Fleck got introduced he said ‘that first year at Western Michigan we went 1-11, but I wasn't that worried because I could see the seeds of good things," Hill said. "I could see us starting to do what great programs do. I knew that it would pay off.' With our tenth graders, I have seen a lot of that. The best players are the hardest workers. They are encouraging. They like to be together. We will see where it goes."
The more the Royals' culture achieves alignment – on and off the field - the more Woodbury will see the football program going in one direction – toward a culture of success.