Thursday, August 27, 2009

There's still a lot of zing in that single wing

Maroons have taken on all comers in Hofer’s 42 years

EagleHerald assistant sports editor

Forty-five years ago, Ken Hofer heeded the call from Stephenson football coach Axel Anderson and stepped onto the sidelines as the head coach of the Eagles.

He picked up his first win as a head coach Sept. 11, 1964, in a 21-7 win over Negaunee.

Three state titles later, Hofer, the Maroons and the single-wing offense are legends well beyond the city limits of Menominee and Stephenson.

Hofer has always said when he hits the practice field with his team, the Maroons make him feel young.

Pitching off the ball during a one-on-one drill, the U.P. and Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer looks as lithe and spirited as coaches half his age.

"That's three good plays in a row," he barked at a preseason practice. "Good Maroons." When a player makes a mistake on execution, Hofer warns him, "Do that again and you run a lap," before breaking into a smile.

During his 41-year run as coach of Menominee, Hofer has posted an amazing 66-26 record against Division 1 or Class A schools.

He has a 13-0 record against Green Bay Division 1 schools Green Bay Southwest and Green Bay West, and is 10-1 against Division I Milwaukee teams.

Big-school teams from Madison are 0-3 against the Maroon coach, and he is a combined 4-1 against Racine Park, Racine Case and Racine St. Catherine.

Dave Keel, coach of defending WIAA Division I champion Mequon Homestead, points out that Menominee's success isn't because opposing defenses aren't familiar with the single wing.

"What impressed me about Menominee and coach Hofer when we played them was their team discipline and toughness on each possession. He has success because he gets kids to play. He could run the Daffy Duck offense and he would be successful."

Hofer's teams are 105-55-1 against current Great Northern Conference teams. Kingsford and Escanaba have been the most competitive against Hofer's Maroons. Menominee holds a 25-24 edge over the Flivvers, while Hofer's son, Chris, has a 16-11 margin over his dad. A 10-game winning streak over the Eskymos has given the Maroons a 23-19 edge in the oldest rivalry in the U.P.

John Mileski has retired twice as the coach at Gladstone since taking over 31 years after Hofer's debut with the Maroons. He handed over the head job to his son, Josh, this season, but will remain as an assistant.

Mileski switched to a spread offense last season and led his team to the regional finals.

"I don't care what system you use, it's the quality of coaching and it's getting the kids to perform at a high level," Mileski said. "Menominee kids buy into football."

The single wing has more than held its own against Wisconsin Division 1 super powers Mequon Homestead and Schofield D.C. Everest. Menominee is 3-1 against the Highlanders and 1-1 against the Evergreens.

"His teams out-execute the opposition," Keel explained. "They keep coming right at you. His kids can definitely compete in any league in Wisconsin. They would fit right in (the Wisconsin Valley)."

Keel joked heading into the 2008 season that Hofer couldn't retire until the Highlanders had another shot at the Maroons after a 42-28 loss to Menominee in 2007.

"He's having too much fun to slow down," the Homestead coach said.

Menominee has played 28 different teams in the playoffs under Hofer, and compiled a 27-15 record. Kingford (6-2) is the only team to beat the Maroons more than once in the postseason.

George Rykovich, who coached the single wing at Manitou Springs, Colo., for 30 years while racking up more than 200 wins, has come to know Hofer through single-wing coaching clinics. The two coaches are members of Single Wing Coaches Association Legends group.

"Both Ken and I believe that you find a system you believe in. You hang your hat on it and the rest is history," said Rykovich. "He's a class person. That's why he's been so successful. That's why Ken is who he is. He's one of the guys I would like to have my son play football for."

Rykovich noted that Hofer is always one of the most respected coaches at the single-wing clinics.

"Our relationship is special for me," said Rykovich. "I borrowed a play from him where the tailback puts the ball behind his back. I always tell him he's helped us win some games."

Rykovich, who is retired after 47 years of coaching, feels the single wing does provide some advantages, but stressed that it comes down to execution like every other offense.

"Ken and I like to joke about the new wrinkles in the single wing," he explained. "The new wrinkles are there from the '30s. We're just borrowing from an era long gone. Ken keeps his eyes open and anything he can adapt to his system, he'll borrow it."

Rykovich pointed out that Hofer is as sharp as ever at single-wing clinics. Like Hofer, the former coach said that the players are what brought him back to the sidelines year after year.

"You get into it because of the love of the game. The memories he has of his young men. He'll have that for a lifetime. Nothing is lost until it's forgotten. When you don't have that fire in your belly, it's time to (retire). Ken still has the fire in his belly."

After all the wins and losses are recorded and trophies are placed in the trophy case, it still comes down to what a group of young men learn from their coach.

Mike Desotell, now a reporter for the EagleHerald, was a lineman for the Maroons in 1976.

"There were days on the practice field I would have loved to tackle coach Hofer," Desotell recalled. "He drove me crazy with his rules and physical demands. He rode us in two-a-day practices, making us fat linemen run sprints and jog to the fire hydrant and back.

"It took until I was out of high school for several years to realize what all that extra running and drilling was all about. He wasn't just making sure we were in shape and condition for football, he was preparing us for life. All those sprints, agility drills and jogs to the fire hydrant and back were showing us that things don't just happen. You have to work for it. Ken Hofer turned out to be more than my coach. He was my teacher, my mentor, my friend and remains so to this day."

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