116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A long and winding football coaching road has led Mark Bliss to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Prairie High School. Somehow.
You get the feeling he isn't exactly sure how it happened.
'It's my 28th year, my 21st as a head coach,' he said. 'Through that time, the good lord has put me in different places. Sometimes it's hard to describe why, but the thing about it is there's Proverbs 16:9: 'Man plans his course, but the lord determines his steps.' That's sort of been my life motto ... If you had told me a year and a half ago that I'd be in Iowa coaching football, I would have laughed at you. But for whatever reason, I have been given an opportunity to come up here.'
Bliss, 53, is an Oklahoma native, and has the deep Southern accent to prove it. He played for John Cooper at the University of Tulsa, was recruited by former Miami Coach Larry Coker and counts those two and longtime defensive coordinator Bill Young (who has made stops at places like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and USC) among his biggest coaching influences.
He's good buddies with Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn, to the point where he tries to go watch a Tigers game or two each season. Malzahn got him tickets to the national championship game in 2010 and even offered him a chance to be part of his coaching staff as an 'offensive analyst.'
Bliss turned him down.
'When you've got three girls in college and a retirement to focus on ... making $28,000 a year can only pay so many bills,' Bliss said with a chuckle. 'I just told him if I've still got the fire in my heart when I'm done, and you still want me around, I'll come hold your headphones for you.'
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His vagabond ways have placed Bliss at places like Edwardsville, Ill., Odessa, Mo., Derby, Kan., Las Animas, Colo., Blackwell, Okla., Naples, Fla., and Conway Springs, Kan. He won four state championships at that latter high school.
But an opening at Prairie a year and a half ago intrigued him. He is good friends with Jim Dostal of Cedar Rapids (who tipped him off about the job) and loved Iowa's retirement plan.
He applied, interviewed and was given the position. Dostal is his defensive coordinator.
'This is my last stop,' Bliss said. 'I've got to be here seven years. I tell Jim all the time that I've got some land in Oklahoma, so when we get done, I'm probably going to go home and do some farming. It's crazy because I grew up farming and hated it with a passion. I hated driving a wheat truck, cutting wheat, discing, all that ... But when it's all said and done, there is some merit to it.'
Prairie won four games last season and has been one of the surprise teams in the state this season. The Hawks are 8-1 as they go into their first-round Class 4A playoff game Friday night at home against Waterloo West (also 8-1).
Bliss' version of the unique single-wing offense has helped Prairie set school records for season yards (4,134) and points (381/42.4 per game). It's likely the Hawks will have two 1,000-yard rushers.
Joe Meyer already has surpassed that number. Zach Ganske is just 67 yards shy.
'It was like a foreign language to us,' Meyer said of Bliss' playbook. 'The first couple of weeks, you just kind of listened to him and tried to focus in. We kind of got things rolling late last year. This year, you could tell by everything we did, we were way ahead of last year. A couple weeks in, I think he said we had 10 plays (last season at this time), and now we've got 50. We definitely learned from it, and it's a great system. We love having it, love having him and all the other coaches, too.'
Prairie employs myriad formations, a lot of unbalanced line, with three guys lined up in the backfield most plays. Defenses don't know who will receive the shotgun snap.
It's something to watch, an old relic in a day and age of nothing but spread.
'We do some different things, it's different than conventional football,' Bliss said. 'I'd say it's helped us a little bit. The thing is, especially if you are a little thin in the talent department or the size department compared to some schools, it has basically been an equalizer for us.
'The kids have done a remarkable job of retaining everything from last year to this year. I'll be honest with you, I rarely go into Year 2 where I have the whole playbook open. But I do this year. They've got the whole thing. They were eager to learn, especially this senior class. That's a tribute to them, nothing I've done.'
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