CEDAR RAPIDS — You all thought the “Cradle Of Coaches” was Miami University in Ohio, but that’s the wrong answer.
It’s actually English Valleys High School. Let’s explain.
The late Ted Rogers grew up in the area before embarking on a hall of fame career that saw him win a state championship at Center Point. Then there are self-described best friends who were on the same EV coaching staff in 1990, 1991 and 1992.
Tom Wilson was the head coach of the Bears way back when. Curt Ritchie was one of his assistants.
You certainly have heard of them. Wilson has won seven consecutive Class 4A state championships at West Des Moines Dowling while Ritchie is on a run of 12 consecutive playoff appearances at Williamsburg, where he has a pair of state runner-up finishes.
They’re two of the best around, solid men who have remained at the prep level for almost 30 years apiece because of their passion for developing young people and athletes. Men who got their start at the “real” Cradle of Coaches.
“I took over for Tim Carson, who had passed away in the middle of the season the year before. There were some hold-over people, and Curt was a college student finishing up at Iowa when I took over. He was going to be one of the assistants,” Wilson said. “I can still remember mowing the lines on the field, and here he comes walking down. I had just moved to town and things like that, hadn’t even met him, yet. He was just a young guy who was enthusiastic and wanted to learn. I was the same way: just out of college, had just graduated and taken that head coaching job. We knew that this was something we both wanted to do, and, lo and behold, here we are doing it together.”
Wilson went 16-10 in his brief time at English Valleys, with Ritchie replacing him in 1993 when Wilson moved to Wilton. Ritchie went 41-33 as head coach of his alma mater, taking over the Williamsburg program in 2001 and making it a consistent winner that has an NFL player to its credit in Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman Austin Blythe.
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Wilson went from Wilton to Dike-New Hartford and then Dowling, where he has produced an absolute and unparallelled juggernaut.
“Great community, absolutely loved it there at English Valleys,” Wilson said. “I think Curt and I learned together about dealing with kids and working with kids, the responsibilities it took for me as head coach and him as an assistant, I think all of us when you are that age, in your early 20s, learn an awful lot. It was kind of sink and swim as a head coach, and he was one of those people who were helping keeping me afloat at that time.”
“I think I’ve known since day one that Tom is a little bit different,” Ritchie said. “Neither of us knew much at the time, we were just trying to get through it. We didn’t really know what we were doing ... Our very first game with him coaching, we were playing Montezuma and had no business being in that ballgame. Offensively, I think he has always had a different mind. We ended up losing a 52-48 overtime game, something like that. It was pretty obvious how good he was. In my mind, he’s the best high school coach in the state, and I knew that before he won nine out of 10 (Class 4A) state titles.”
Despite being together for just three years, Ritchie and Wilson have developed a close bond. They speak regularly, multiple times a week, and one of Ritchie’s daughters is Wilson’s goddaughter.
Their families have vacationed together.
“Our friendship is probably as strong as you can get,” Wilson said. “Our coaching staffs know each other really well because of our friendship. I try to get there in the offseason and spend some time in Williamsburg, and he tries to get this way, just so we can get together. As my wife and I say, I probably talk to Curt as much as I do her.”
“My wife is pretty sure I dial his number more than I do her,” Ritchie said with a laugh. “Tom is the best friend I feel like I have. There are a lot of people that I’m close to, but he’s (at the top). Didn’t know him going in. We were just two young guys trying to figure it out.”
They have definitely figured it out. Wilson has a 255-68 career record, while Ritchie just picked up his 200th career win.
He’s not sure if it came last week against Davis County or the week before against Benton Community. There’s some discrepancy there, and he hasn’t cared enough to look that deeply into it.
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“I don’t know, I just really think it makes you thankful being at a place that has allowed you to grow and get better and do it the way we want to, as far as just getting families involved and just making it as much of a family type thing as we can,” Ritchie said. “It’s always about the players. Just so many great kids, so many great things here that just allowed it to happen.”
Williamsburg is 3-0 and ranked second in Class 2A. Dowling (2-1) is third in 4A.
English Valleys, by the way, is 3-0 in 8-Player. Perhaps you all should keep an eye out for Mike Gerard, its head coach.
This is the Cradle of Coaches, after all.
“Just to be able to impact these kids,” Ritchie said. “Football teaches you life lessons about hard work and committing together.”
“Curt and I, we knew right away that this was the career we wanted,” Wilson said. “We were both really young, probably didn’t know much and had no business being in the positions we were in. From that grew a friendship that has really lasted until this day. Football is what got us together as friends. We’ve shared that passion and a passion for kids. But these days, football, we really don’t talk much about it. We talk about our families and things like that.”
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