MIDDLEBURY — This fall at Middlebury College’s Alumni Stadium, three Panther football assistant coaches will be applying lessons they say they learned a little bit to the east at Middlebury Union High School’s Doc Collins Field, home of the football Tigers.
Panther Head Football Coach Bob Ritter has six paid assistants. When 2002 MUHS graduate Shem Johnston-Bloom signed on this summer as Ritter’s recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach, that meant half of those aides are former MUHS football standouts.
Mike Phelps, a 1996 MUHS graduate, is entering his fifth year as the Panthers’ wide receivers coach. That’s a vital job given the team’s aerial attack — just-graduated quarterback Donnie McKillop completed 255 passes in eight 2010 games.
And Gus Brakeley, a 1998 MUHS alum, is in his third year as the Panthers’ defensive line coach and video coordinator; he also assists the lacrosse program.
Ritter said the addition of a third Tiger in the coaching room has created a conversational tipping point.
“Now with the three of them we’re hearing a few more stories as old coaches’ names come up, and plays come up,” Ritter said.
The common theme among those plays, of course, is they all include handoffs. All three Tigers played for Gus Brakeley’s father, longtime MUHS Head Coach Peter Brakeley. McKillop attempted 420 passes for Ritter’s Panthers in 2010; it is possible that Brakeley’s teams did not attempt that many passes in his 15-year tenure. Phelps was the Tigers’ leading receiver in 1995, a season during which he estimated he caught 10 or 12 passes.
Now, Peter Brakeley said he hopes Ritter will bring one more Tiger coach aboard.
“We have three-sevenths. One more and we go back to the running game,” said the elder Coach Brakeley, mock-seriously. “That’s my thinking, see.”
APPLYING THE LESSONS
But Ritter said he hired the former Tigers because of their football smarts and love of the game, not to develop an offense based on fullback dives and off-tackle plays.
“The joke is if we get one more Tiger on the staff we’re going to run the ball every play. But those guys have been students of the game and have really developed as football coaches outside of what their football experiences have been,” Ritter said. “So they’re bringing a lot more to the table than just what they learned in their high school careers.”
At the same time, all three Panther assistants say they still carry with them lessons from Peter Brakeley and assistants like Dennis Smith (now the Tiger head coach) and Carl Ciemniewski, better known as Coach Z.
“They really did make it a good time to play football at Middlebury, and they really did know the fundamentals,” said Phelps, who also assists the Panther baseball team. “One of the things I took most from it, from Coach Brakeley, was he taught you how to be a man, and that goes a long way in life.”
Johnston-Bloom considered playing for Ritter at Middlebury before choosing NESCAC rival Wesleyan. He captained the football team there and then assisted that program for the past several seasons. His Tiger days remain with him as well.
“Really a big thing for (Coach Peter Brakeley) was leadership and how to communicate with not only your peers but the other players,” he said. “For myself, I was a captain at every level I’ve been at, and that was because of Coach Brakeley ... He’s been one of the best models I’ve had, and not only him but Dennis and Z and those guys.”
Johnston-Bloom and Gus Brakeley both said they model their coaching on how their Tiger mentors handled adversity.
“When things are going bad, that’s when you see the true characteristics of a coach,” Brakeley said. “And those guys, when things got bad, they just kept coaching you up. They never got in your face. They never confronted you with anger ... And if something exciting happened, they’d get excited with you. Their enthusiasm was contagious.”
Ritter believes the Tiger coaching rubbed off on his assistants.
“They all really love the game and have a great approach,” he said. “And I think that’s directly related to the way the Tigers have always run their program.”
ENJOYING THE JOB
Now all three say they couldn’t be happier, and not just because they get to reminisce about their high school days and talk about the next batch of high school athletes — which includes a promising MUHS freshman running back named after his dad, Bobby Ritter.
Because of his football career at Wesleyan, Johnston-Bloom hasn’t seen a Tiger game since he graduated. The new Doc Collins concession stand intrigues him.
“The first day I saw that I said, ‘I’m excited. Friday nights, I can’t wait to get back to a game.’ Now we can hold our Friday night staff meetings at the Tiger football games,” he said. “Obviously, with Coach Ritter, with his son involved, he’ll definitely be there. So head guy’s going to be there, so everybody else has got to show up. We have that on our side.”
Phelps said the younger Coach Brakeley tends to take after his dad.
“Gus seems to bring up running the football quite a bit. It’s something that we’ve lacked here in the last couple of years at the college level,” Phelps said. “We definitely come up with the philosophy of chuck and duck a little bit here.”
Yes, their playing days come up.
Brakeley played center at MUHS, and he and quarterback Willy Mackey were allowed to change plays at the line. The best memory Brakeley had was a quarterback sneak he and Mackey called that turned into a critical 30-yard touchdown in a semifinal win vs. Hartford.
“We lined up on the ball and they had no safety. Both safeties were outside the hash, and we were right in the middle of the field. So there was literally no one between me and the end zone,” Brakeley said. “I got up on the ball and I just kind of said, ‘Hey, Willy.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, yup.’ ... Willy was in the end zone before Hartford even knew what was going on.”
Johnston-Bloom doesn’t mind talking about the running game, either. He started on the offensive line in his sophomore and senior years, but spent his junior year as a fullback. Peter Brakeley remembers his 230-pounder in the backfield.
“He was a load,” said the elder Brakeley. “Shem loved playing fullback because he could just crush people.”
But Johnston-Bloom is also happy to talk about blocking along with fullback Nick Atwood for tailback Jason Leonard.
“Nick Atwood and I would get out in front of Jay Leonard and he would just run for days,” he said.
Phelps has bragging rights: His colleagues’ teams lost in finals, while he scored twice in a 14-13 win over Hartford in the 1995 Division I final. (Gus Brakeley said Phelps is “too kind” to remind them about this fact.)
Phelps caught the game-winning pass from Mackey at the end, but he remembers even more fondly taking a kickoff return back for a touchdown. It came after Hartford took the lead after a scoreless first half.
“Hartford ran the ball down our throats and got by me on a dive play up the middle and scored a touchdown. I took it to heart that he really got by me to score that touchdown, and the next time I got the ball I was going to make them pay,” Phelps said. “And luckily the guys in front of me made some nice blocks and opened some nice holes, and I was able to get down the sideline.”
But it’s not just the glory days and war stories that get rehashed in the Panther coaches’ room. Gus Brakeley talked about the stuff teams do together.
“It’s probably better that we don’t mention some of the stories,” Brakeley said. “But it’s some of those little off-field things that make it special. We had a lot of fun.”
When pressed, he recalled an ongoing prank among his teammates that the coaches could not stop — chucking mud at each other.
“There’s a long tradition in Middlebury football of mudslinging. The master of this ... is Paris Rinder-Goddard,” Brakeley said. “Paris could hide mud like no man, in his cleats, under his knee pads, under his shoulder pads. There was always mud-flinging going on in practice, and that tradition carried on to the point where you weren’t even allowed to touch mud.”
Phelps then remembered the “crusty socks” developed by a player, who decided not to wash his socks during preseason, and then dried them out so that he could stand them up in the locker room.
“It was the most disgusting thing you could possibly see,” Phelps said.
Other tales cannot be told outside of locker rooms and coaches’ offices, but the Tigers’ colleagues hear them now.
“They’re kind of passed down like tradition,” Brakeley said. “It’s great to tell those stories.”
Those tales are just part of the satisfaction and enjoyment the Tigers feel on the job. Phelps was asked on a scale of one to 10 how much he liked his career.
“There isn’t a number,” he said. “We’re doing what we love to do. There isn’t a number for that.”
Johnston-Bloom said even if the work demands pile up, he always has a good day.
“You wake up in the morning, and you’ve got a lot of stuff to do, and you say, ‘Wait, I’m a college football coach. I get paid to coach football for a living,’” he said. “I can do that. I don’t have to have another job. So life can never be that bad.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]