Ken Soper still loves coaching
Outpouring of support was special, following football job dismissal
The 305th career win for Ken Soper was a rather uneventful 49-6 romp back on Oct. 29.
The Dove Creek football playoff win left the 74-year-old just one victory away from tying the all-time Colorado record for high school victories by a football coach.
Two wins away from achieving an amazing accomplishment. Who wouldn’t want that astonishing record linked to their school?
The Dove Creek High School decision makers, that’s who.
The school’s administration and Dolores County school board pointed Soper to the pasture back on March 21.
But Soper isn’t ready for the pasture, the recliner or the rocking chair.
Ken Soper is a coach and he even remains the Bulldogs’ baseball coach — at least through this season.
Not mincing words but choosing them carefully, he voiced his frustration and confusion over the decision following a recent Dove Creek baseball game.
“It took me by surprise,” he says. “(The principal) said they decided to go in another direction. But he never explained that to me. No one has ever explained it to me.”
The first time Soper heard about his dismissal was in August, when he was told that the season would be his last as football coach at Dove Creek.
The mild-mannered coach kept that discussion to himself.
“I didn’t say one word to the players because I didn’t want to bring them into this situation.”
Wanting to keep Soper away, the board strategically scheduled the March 21 meeting the same evening that Soper and the Bulldogs were in Cortez for a doubleheader.
Another insult to a man who devoted five decades to Dove Creek.
Back in 1962, when gas was 28 cents a gallon and the Russians sent missiles to Cuba, Soper was beginning his coaching career with the Dove Creek Bulldogs.
Now, 305 victories later, Soper’s career was torpedoed two victories short of the all-time record.
Could this possibly be about angry parents?
Yes it could.
Coaches have long been targets of disgruntled parents. It comes with the job.
One Dove Creek parent, who happens to be school board president Travis Randolph, confronted Soper after a 2010 game about his son not carrying the ball more.
After a half century of coaching, Soper knows the game and he knows the game off the field. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep his enemies as close as he probably should have.
“As a coach, you’re going to make enemies. Parents get upset because their kid didn’t play enough or didn’t carry the ball enough. So I’m sure I have some parents who are against me.”
Coach Soper then reveals the satisfying part of this ordeal.
“But I sure was proud to see how many people are for me.”
As the rumors of Soper’s dismissal swarmed around Dove Creek and the surrounding agriculture land, people shouted their disapproval of what seemed to be the inevitable end to Soper’s football coaching career at the school.
Soper, in his calm, thoughtful demeanor, says the situation has been good and bad.
The bad is obvious: “I won’t be coaching again. And coaching… that’s me, coaching is my life and I’m going to miss it.”
The good is from the outpouring of support he’s received.
“It’s good to know that I have as many friends as I do. I found that out afterwards. I never knew I had so many friends,” he says with a chuckle.
What’s most obvious is that Soper is frustrated, confused and angry with the decision.
At 74, he admits that he would have probably walked away in a couple more years.
But that wasn’t going to satisfy those influential Dove Creek parents, who want their kids to get more playing time and more carries, and in their minds, more victories.
Football state titles are as rare as the elusive four leaf clover.
“You always want to win the state championship,” Soper says. “But you also have to be realistic. Coaches are more realistic than parents.”
As Vince Lombardi said — “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But he also said — “Winning is not everything, but wanting to win is.”
Soper wants to win and coaches his players to believe that, too. But in high school sports, there’s a greater cause than victory.
When those glory days are in the dust, what kind of young men were produced by those athletic fields and high school classrooms?
“It’s not all just football and baseball, and I tell my kids at the beginning, I’m not just going to teach you football and baseball, I’m going to teach you things in life that you’re going to need to have,” the passion in Soper’s voice rises. “The discipline and the dedication and things that they are going to need. It’s a life teaching thing, not just the sport itself.”
After five decades of coaching, he’s helped prepare thousands of young men for the real world.
And this year, he has three girls on the baseball team that he’s impacted.
When former players heard about the decision, Soper’s phone started ringing.
“I got phone calls from out of state, in state, people who graduated calling me and telling me what kind of influence I had on their lives when they were here,” he says.
Those calls were as special as any one of his 305 victories.
As for the future, Soper still hopes that something will happen where he can return to the sidelines at Dove Creek. But he knows that is a very long shot.
He says he might coach somewhere else but it will be difficult to leave Dove Creek in his rear-view mirror.
“I’ve got so many friends in Dove Creek that it would be tough to leave. But if I take another job somewhere else, then I may have to leave.”
If this is indeed the end of his football coaching days, Soper is comfortable with his 305 wins.
“It would be nice to set that record but records are made to be broken,” he says with a smile.
It’s hard to believe that a record like that would ever be broken.
For now, the decision is an insult that feels like the result of a bad breakfast. But he still has the hunger for coaching youngsters.
“There’s sweetness that I lasted this long, but there will be a little bitter taste on how it ended.”
Soper has handled the decision with class and dignity. For those who know him and who played for him, it’s exactly what they expected.
Coach Soper smiles about being called coach.
“I consider it an honor when someone calls me ‘Coach.”’
The new inexperienced coaching staff at Dove Creek just might take the Bulldogs to the pinnacle of high school football.
For Soper, he hopes they do. It’s never been about him, the victories or individual accomplishments. It’s always been about helping kids enjoy high school and preparing them for the real world.
“I will be rooting for the kids, regardless of who’s coaching or who’s in the administration,” he says.
Coach Soper may not be roaming the sidelines, but he will always be Coach Soper.
Reach Dale Shrull at firstname.lastname@example.org