Totino-Grace High School just won the 4A state championship in football. Head Coach Jeff Ferguson sat down with Fridley Patch to talk about his impressive record while coaching the Totino-Grace Eagles, whether he will opt to move up a division and the secret to success.
Fridley Patch: You have just led the Totino-Grace football team to its sixth state championship in the last eight years. What are the keys to your success and what do you credit for this impressive record?
Coach Jeff Ferguson: This is an outstanding school. There's a culture here of achievement. I think if you combine that with our coaching staff, they are not only just good football coaches, but all of them really understand relationship building. There's a level of trust to it and I think that because of that our players get every ounce out of their ability. They play hard for each other and there's this bond where they don't really care who gets the credit. I think success begets success. It gets ingrained and they expect to be successful and if things aren't going so well they don't panic. I just think that over the past number of years our kids have performed in a really, really high level.
Fridley Patch: In light of this success, do you think the school should move up to a different division in the high school football system? They are currently Class 4A. Do you think they can move to Class 5A?
Ferguson: That's a great question. It's more complicated than a lot of people might understand. Right now, if you opt up to 5A, you have to make a four-year commitment. You couldn't just do it this year. We're different from a public school that can look at their sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes and know how many are coming in. We have 160 freshmen this year. Four years ago, we had 280 freshmen. What are we going to have four years from now? I mean, you have to make a four-year commitment. Right now we are 796 and the cut off for 5A is 1,250. We're actually closer to the cut off for 3A and we'll likely be at the 3A number within a couple of years, so it's interesting. People do choose to opt up in hockey, I know. I don't think anybody in Minnesota's football history has opted up in football. It's such a numbers game. If we could do it for less than four years, we would consider it.
It's not all about winning like people might think it is. I don't like hearing that people think that we're "trophy chasing." We just try to do what's best for our kids, and it's kind of hard sometimes hearing those comments. We're pretty proud of our kids, and think that maybe they've earned it. A lot of, in the greater community, what we might hear, is that we're cheating; we're chasing trophies. We've never given out an athletic scholarship and if I did, I should be fired. It's never happened; it never will happen. People accuse us of it. We hear it. I think the reality is we have a pretty good program.
Fridley Patch: Since you are in the spotlight now, how do the players handle getting so much attention?
Ferguson: I hope, humbly, and I hope with a great sense of how blessed they are. They are pretty darn good young men and I'm really, really proud of them.
Fridley Patch: One of your players, Colin Hustad, was recently named an Athlete of the Week by the Star Tribune. Hustad mentions an 'animosity' between Totino-Grace and Fridley public schools. How do you view the relationship between these two schools and how do Fridley residents feel?
Ferguson: I don't feel any animosity towards Fridley or towards Irondale. I think there are people that feel animosity towards us. I think that's unfortunate, and I sometimes wonder why. I think that whether you're coaches or teachers, we just need to remind ourselves of why we got into this job. If Fridley High School or if Irondale or whoever, if they're impacting kids in a positive way, then I think that's good for all of us. Here, at Totino-Grace, if we're impacting kids' lives in a positive way, I think that's good for us too.
I think it's bigger than just who happened to win a game. If there's an injustice going on, if we're cheating, if we're doing something that's illegal, if we're treating people poorly, then we should be called on it. But we're not. The things that we are sometimes accused of are out and out lies. I don't know of any animosity; there's none from me towards those public schools.
Fridley Patch: Tell me about the 'Lasallian' philosophy.
Ferguson: 'To touch the hearts in a Christian way is the greatest miracle a teacher can perform' is what Lasallian tradition would say. I've been in a lot of Lasallian schools, in Memphis, in Cincinnati, in Chicago, in St. Louis, here in the Twin Cities. It's interesting because the vibe in all of the schools is really similar. There's a sense of community—teachers expect a lot out of their students but I think students sense that there is more to this teacher than just a person that's instructing them. I went to school here; I've lived my life working here and I've seen four of my own kids go to school here. It is the only place I wanted them to go to school.
Fridley Patch: What led you to coaching football?
Ferguson: This is my ninth year as head coach here. I've been a football coach for 32 years. I got into education and I'd played football and really liked it. It's a great way to learn some great life lessons and great character lessons. I don't believe, and we don't adhere to the philosophy here at Totino-Grace, that education ends when the bell rings. Education continues on the stage or on the court or on the field.
Fridley Patch: Do you teach?
Ferguson: I don't anymore. I was a science teacher: Biology, for a lot of years. I'm the dean of students here.
Fridley Patch: What are your biggest hurdles, as a coach?
Ferguson: Balance. Balancing time and how competitive you want to be with your family and all the other responsibilities. With the success we've had, too, the season's a grind. You start in the beginning of August and for many years now, we haven't ended until almost December is rolling around. It's great for our younger players, because when a lot of other teams have handed in their gear, they're still practicing. As a football coach, I know in our program and I know in many other programs not just ours, the coaches work seven days a week. That's a long time to have seven day weeks, from the beginning of August until almost December; it's a grind for coaches. I would say that's a challenge.
Fridley Patch: Do you have any goals for the upcoming season?
Ferguson: We don't talk about winning. We don't focus on winning. Everybody wants that. Our focus is on really two things: preparation would be one, and building positive, healthy relationships would be two. Even if you don't win on the field, you can win in so many other ways, so that's what our focus is.