The purple band on Kyle Schmitt's wrist shows just how much the new Archbishop Spalding football coach respects the Cavaliers' past as he shapes their future.
Schmitt, who left a strong Atholton program to take over the rising Cavaliers, has made a lot of changes on the field since Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association football practice began Aug. 5. Off the field, he's letting the players take the lead.
He wants them to be as comfortable as possible with the transition from interim coach Brian Propst, who successfully carried on the program after Mike Whittles lost his 16-month battle with pancreatic cancer last summer. Whittles' upbeat attitude as he fought the disease through the 2011 season left a lasting impression — one summed up by his favorite saying, "Make every day count," the words inscribed on Schmitt's wrist band and hundreds just like it.
The last thing Schmitt wants to do is run roughshod over Whittles' legacy.
"We're going to have different philosophies about how to move the football on offense and how to stop it on defense, but offseason things, pregame Friday routines, activities that they took a lot of pride in and they enjoyed, I want to keep that stuff in place," Schmitt said. "I wasn't going to just roll out with 'This is Kyle Schmitt's football program now, and this is how we do it.' I'm the one who had to adjust [off the field], not them. They obviously did things well here for the previous 10 years."
Whittles, who led the Cavaliers for 13 years, took them from winless to back-to-back MIAA B Conference championships in 2009 and 2010. They moved to the MIAA A Conference in 2011 and made the four-team playoffs. Last season, they finished 5-5 and third in the conference behind Gilman and Calvert Hall.
Since Schmitt began talking with players in February, they've known a lot would change, but they're pleased that he respects what they've already accomplished.
"No one can take the place of Coach Whittles, and Coach Propst knew that, and all these coaches know that," senior quarterback Zach Abey said. "Coach Schmitt wanted to get that point across to us the moment we all met. He talked to all the captains and all the seniors to find out how everything was run last year. He tried to get everything to be the same, so nothing's too different, nothing's changed too much."
Spalding athletic director Jeff Parsons said the transition has gone smoothly.
"The culture of it I don't think will change that much," Parsons said. "That's important because I've seen people come in and say, 'OK, in my program I'm going to completely change everything,' and that's the way to alienate people really fast, and he didn't do that. He realizes there are changes to be made on the field and things to be done differently, but at the same time he understands what the program is, where it's coming from and what needs to be kept in place."
On the field, Schmitt, the offensive coordinator, has put in a more up-tempo offense. He hired Joe Neary as defensive coordinator and looks for an attacking defense.
Abey, who has committed to Buffalo as a quarterback but also plays defensive back, said the offense is just about in place after a summer of working in 7-on-7 competition.
The players like that Schmitt, a Pennsylvania native who played on the offensive line at Maryland, is a student of the game and that he likes to get in the trenches and demonstrate.
"He's the offensive line coach," said Melvin Gowl, a tight end and defensive end, "and before, we didn't really have a coach who would get down in his stance and do the drills with us. I think that helps a lot as a player just seeing your head coach and your position coach doing the exact thing that you need to do. It helps you visually and helps you get better."
One of the rising stars among local high school football coaches, Schmitt led Atholton to a 38-9 record and playoff appearances in all four years as coach. Schmitt loved the school, but he could not pass up the chance to coach in the MIAA A Conference, especially at Spalding where he felt at home. He moved to Hanover to be closer to the school.
As the players prepare for the opening kickoff at home Aug. 30 against Delaware Valley Charter (Pa.), Schmitt said he also has a lot to learn about coaching in the MIAA A Conference.
The competition in the area's top high school football league is much different than what he faced in Howard County. Now it will be like playing county rival and four-time state champion River Hill every week instead of just once or twice a season.
"Once you get into our conference schedule, we're playing all teams that would be in the upper half, if not the upper two or three, in Howard County every week. It's a great challenge," Schmitt said. "And these are great coaches. They're guys who have been around a while, and you see them everywhere. You see them when you go to recruit. You see them at clinics. You see them at college practices. You can tell they're guys who work at it as hard as we do."
Schmitt said the restrictions of coaching a public school program made an MIAA job appealing. Now he can work with the players on fundamentals for three hours a week during the winter instead of just working in the weight room. He can hire 16 coaches as opposed to 10, and he can recruit, a new challenge especially in an area with such perennially competitive public school programs as Arundel and Old Mill.
"I think there was more of an opportunity to sell a program and build a program that has the ability to play at a statewide and national level, to step into the world of the Gilmans and the Calvert Halls and the DeMathas and Good Counsels. That was a challenge I was interested in taking on," Schmitt said.
"I don't want to diminish the public schools in any way, because there are public schools like a Wise, a Quince Orchard, River Hill, Westminster that I think could compete in the [MIAA] A Conference, however, the ability to build a consistent winner year in and year out, I thought would be greater at Spalding than at Atholton."