April 19, 2014

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Avon coach Mike Elder, a football and family man

Everyone has a Mike Elder story. In 1999, Beau Balderson was a senior running back at Mount Union, where Elder — formerly a Purple Raiders player — coached the offensive line.

Elder, now in his fifth year as head coach at Avon, quizzed Balderson often, at length, about the running back’s responsibility in different formations and on different plays in the Purple Raiders’ potent offense.

Even then, Balderson said, Elder’s plan was clear.

“I asked him, ‘Are you doing this so you can become a head coach?’” said Balderson, in his third year as the head man at Massillon Jackson High School. “He knew what his goals were.”

Fast forward 12 years. Before this season, Elder was awfully busy: His team had won 12 straight regular-season games, but swallowed a bitter pill in a much-documented upset loss to Sandusky in last year’s opening round. The Eagles had committed seven turnovers in that loss, and there was an edge in preseason camp.

All the while, Elder and his family — wife, Arianna, and three children — were finally moving to Avon after Elder commuted from Fairport Harbor for four years. Fifty-three miles one way, more than two hours total. What Elder never has talked much about publicly: Twice a week, he’d spend the night in Avon at an assistant’s house.

Did we mention that wife and three little ones?

“He knew he had to make those sacrifices to get where he wanted to go,” said Avon athletic director Erich Frombach, who hired Elder from a pool of 50 or so candidates and a dozen interviewees.

It’s all been building, Elder’s colleagues say, to this day: Elder tonight will lead his 13-1 and fifth-ranked Eagles to Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon for the Division II state championship game against 14-0 and top-ranked Trotwood-Madison, a team Elder calls “the biggest, fastest team we’ve played.”

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

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Elder grew up in Warren and graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 1989. He moved on to Mount Union, where he played offensive tackle and, in an injury pinch, center. He graduated in 1993 and began teaching special education at Alliance High School, where he was also an assistant football coach for the Aviators.

In 1999, he spent his only year on the staff at Mount Union under legendary coach Larry Kehres, and a year later moved to Indian Valley High School, in Gnadenhutten, just south of New Philadelphia. After a year there, with Balderson and current Massillon Washington coach Jason Hall at his side, he moved to Ravenna Southeast.

He wasn’t looking for another job, but accepted the Perry job. He spent five years there, went 37-16 and made two playoff trips, winning one game.

Then, the Avon interview.

“We had a really good group, but he emerged as the guy we wanted,” Frombach said. “He immediately stood out. He was charismatic, and had a way of expressing his vision. He’s had a unique ability to motivate the kids and the coaches.”

Elder, of course, credits everyone except himself and his mailman for Avon’s success. He says his career started with a “wife, kids and family who support you,” and he and Frombach acknowledged a bulging market has helped the district add scores of teachers, some of whom also brought bright young football minds to the table.

“His family made unbelievable sacrifices, and a lot of people have helped the process,” Frombach said. “But for this team, he’s the glue.”

****

In interviews before each of the Eagles’ playoff games — wins over Medina Highland, Toledo Central Catholic, Tiffin Columbian and Aurora — Elder sounded as if he was on repeat.

“They’re well coached,” he’d begin, and then tout each opponent’s wide array of virtues. Elder, it seems, has an affinity for coaches and coaching in general; aside from his family and friends, it’s his life.

“I’m kind of a nerd,” said Elder, who after teaching special education for 14 years is an assistant principal at Avon. “Football is my only hobby. I don’t hunt, I don’t fish, I don’t play golf. In the offseason, I love going to clinics, talking to coaches. It’s what I do for fun.

“To me, teaching and coaching are the best things in the world. When coaching starts to feel like a job, I’ll probably go do something else.”

For now, though, Elder and the Eagles are having fun. They’ve won 25 of their last 27 games, including 21 of 22 regular-season games. Avon has scored 172 points in its four playoff wins, and quarterback Justin O’Rourke has thrown 15 touchdowns in those games.

Elder spoke glowingly of Trotwood-Madison in a conference call this week, and the Rams are 14-0 and feature a bevy of athletic players attracting Division I interest. They advanced with a 47-44 nail-biter of a victory over Marion-Franklin in last week’s state semifinal.

“If you measure it just based on speed and size, or Division I offers, we don’t have a chance,” Elder said. “We’re hoping we can compete and give these guys a run for their money.”

****

If Elder has anything to do with it, the program’s momentum will continue. Frombach said one of the coach’s first goals was to increase participation at the grassroots level, and the Eagle youth football program has grown from 30 in 2007 to 200.

He calls Kehres his “No. 1 role model,” from whom he learned his most valuable lesson: “Surround yourself with good people, and what you don’t know you’ll learn.”

That’s turned into Elder increasingly delegating responsibilities to his assistants: Each assistant is the head coach of about eight players, responsible for their whereabouts and conduct; players, meanwhile, call that coach if there’s an attendance issue or another concern.

“He wants his staff to have ownership,” said Massillon Washington’s Hall, who was Elder’s defensive coordinator at Indian Valley and Southeast. “You’re instantly motivated by him as a coach. He’s a ‘doer.’ He won’t ask you to do something he wouldn’t or hasn’t done.”

Frombach says one of Elder’s best attributes is his willingness to ask questions and learn from others. He’s not the guy that says, ‘I know everything,’” Frombach said.

Elder, for instance, talked openly after his team’s season opener in 2007 — a 50-25 loss to Avon Lake at Cleveland Browns Stadium — of Avon Lake being a model for Avon. Elder wanted Avon to be a perennial contender, like the Shoremen.

Kehres’ coaching tree branches far and wide, and he said this week, as the Purple Raiders prepare for an NCAA Division III quarterfinal game against Wabash tomorrow, that Elder is a “problem solver and problem preventer.”

The Eagles visit Mount Union in the summer for camp before starting two-a-days.

“This team is the culmination of years of being thorough, of building his coaching ability,” Kehres said.

Tonight

  • Who: No. 5 Avon (13-1) vs. No. 1 Trotwood-Madison (14-0)
  • What: Division II state final
  • Time: 7 o’clock
  • Where: Paul Brown Tiger Stadium, Massillon
  • TV/radio: SportsTime Ohio; WEOL 930-AM, WDLW 1380-AM

The Mike Elder file

  • Hometown: Warren
  • Wife: Arianna, married since 2000
  • Children: Brock (second grade), Bailee (first grade), Blake (pre-school)

Timeline

  • 1989: Graduated from Warren John F. Kennedy; played center
  • 1993: Graduated from Mount Union College; played offensive tackle/center
  • 1993-1998: Assistant coach, Alliance High School
  • 1999: Assistant coach, Mount Union College
  • 2000: Head coach, Indian Valley High School
  • 2001: Head coach, Ravenna Southeast High School
  • 2002-2006: Head coach, Perry High School
  • 2007-present: Head coach, Avon High School

RECORDS AT AVON: 47-11 (.810 winning percentage), three trips to playoffs … 2007—6-4; 2008—12-1, lost in regional finals; 2009—6-4; 2010—10-1, lost in first round of Division II playoffs; 2011—13-1, playing in Division II state championship game tonight

Contact Joel Hammond at 329-7135 or ctsports@chroniclet.com.