MICHIGAN CITY — It was an innocent enough day at Ames Field last week during a Michigan City football practice, on a beautiful calm day.
Well, it was calm until around 5 p.m., when a random woman walked into the stadium, wandered down the sidelines, asking “Who’s your coach?” The only answer given was kids pointing toward the field. So she stopped around midfield, then turned around and headed back to the exit, but not before she ended the calmness of the day and practice by yelling out a warning.
“You all need to pray that the missiles don’t come now … you better pray,” she exclaimed, apparently referring to the ongoing war of words with North Korea since it was the day after our president tossed the words “fire and fury” at the Asian country threatening the United States with nuclear missiles.
Players and coaches on the field stopped for a moment to look at the crazy lady as she said some more stuff.
“I don’t know much about football, but I know about God and you all need to pray for our country!” she yelled.
Soon after that, a few people — including myself — checked their smart phones to make sure she didn’t know something we didn’t.
It was the start of an eventful final hour of practice with head coach Phil Mason changing personalities frequently, from humorous to serious to complimentary to disciplinarian. It’s one of multiple changes visible in the City football program in the Mason era.
Mason is one of those coaches who’s made discipline into an art form.
There’s the punch line sternness: “You take more time off than half this team,” he told a lineman on the sidelines too long when another set of drills was set to begin. “This isn’t daddy ball anymore.”
When I asked Mason what ‘daddy ball’ was exactly, he just laughed and said, “I don’t know” … because sometimes, crazy things come out of football coaches’ mouths in the heat of practice.
Like when his disciplinarian side turned serious later in practice.
“I’m talking to you! … Are you kidding me?” he yelled to a younger player on the JV side of the field, before the kid responded with something you just don’t say to any coach, let alone an angry, accomplished football coach.
“Do you know who I am? That’s it! Take your pads off … get out of here. You don’t walk away when I’m talking to you!”
If you think that’s harsh, too bad. It’s football, not a flower show, so suck it up buttercup. That’s the kind of discipline it takes to build a successful program. That’s what Craig Buzea did at Portage and started to do at Michigan City before leaving, and that’s what Mason is trying to do.
Going 7-4 last season and losing in the sectional final should be a disappointment. But for Wolves’ fans, it’s a banner season because football hasn’t been fun to watch at City too often. There have only been a couple seven-win seasons since MCHS opened in 1995. Mason wants to make seven wins a down season, not something to be excited about.
And part of the preparation leading to those high expectations is revamping the schedule. The seven Duneland Conference games stay the same — and that’s a good thing since the DAC is one of the best conferences in the state — but those two non-conference games to open the campaign should provide some tough competition to get ready for the DAC and beyond.
The changes began three years ago when City stopped playing Gary Roosevelt, which was an easy victory every year and proved nothing. The year before Mason arrived the Wolves played Northridge and South Bend Washington, which brings back bad memories of the fight and subsequent forfeiture.
So last year, Griffith replaced Washington, and this year tops that adjustment with Homewood-Flossmoor in Illinois replacing Northridge, which was an okay team, but a far trip.
Sure, H-F is only slightly closer, but it provides plenty of incentive. The Vikings have been a perennial state finals contender in Illinois since 2010 when Buzea arrived from Michigan City. And Buzz being there makes the trip west worthwhile for City fans.
“You don’t need wins to make the playoffs in Indiana (like you do in Illinois and other states), so it’s a great test for us,” Mason said. “I know most of the guys on that staff.”
Buzea’s coaches read like a proverbial who’s-who of former Northwest Indiana football coaches. There’s former Merrillville head coach Zac Wells as defensive coordinator, former Portage assistant and Crown Point graduate Tom Cicero as associate head coach and former Gary West Side coach Alex Pratt as WR coach. There’s also former Portage star running back Albert Evans as Buzea’s RB coach.
Adding H-F is similar to Mason fighting for Merrillville to be added to his schedule at Andrean in 2009 — when the Pirates were coincidentally coached by Wells — after the Broadway rivals hadn’t played since 1996.
“I want to play great opponents,” Mason said. “Will we play a better team than H-F? Maybe under the big roof (at Lucas Oil Stadium in the state final), so this is good preparation. I want the kids to enjoy the moment against them.”
It could lead to more enjoyable moments for City players, coaches and fans well into November.
Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at email@example.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.