MARENGO – It didn’t take long for Highland to find its next head football coach.
After the program’s winningest coach, Chad Carpenter, announced his retirement Dec. 14, it took less than a month for school administration to name his successor. The search was entirely internal, Highland High School Athletic Director Mike DeLaney said.
DeLaney, Principal Nate Huffman and Superintendent Daniel Freund had initially planned on making the hire by February, which would have given them time to scope out every possible option. But on Monday, the three met and decided, ‘Why wait?’
They already had their guy.
It was Matt Jones, the offensive line coach who has served on Highland’s staff since 2005. Jones also runs the high school’s weightlifting program and is a physical education and health teacher.
Jones’s offensive lines have served as the heartbeat of the Scots’ bludgeoning rushing attack, which racked up over 3,500 yards last season. He worked hand-in-hand with Carpenter in developing one of the area’s premier programs, which has won six league titles and made seven playoff appearances over the last 13 years.
“When we looked at our internal candidates and when we looked at Coach Jones, he ticked off all of the boxes that you would want in a head coach,” DeLaney said.
“He’s got head coaching experience, he’s been loyal and done a great job with our offensive line and with our weight program, conditioning in the offseason – and not just for our football players, but for our athletic department as a whole.”
The hire was made official on Wednesday night when it was approved by the Highland Board of Education.
Jones is a native of Oxford, OH, just a half hour north of Cincinnati. He starred as an offensive lineman for Talawanda High School and then Ashland University before graduating in 2000. He then jumped right into coaching – first at the junior high level at nearby Mapleton, which is where he met Carpenter.
Carpenter served as Mapleton High School’s head coach for two years before coming to Highland, and during that time he saw Jones’s potential and offered him an assistant coaching position. Jones took it, and after Carpenter left for Highland, he took over as the head coach.
Three years later, Carpenter hired Jones once again to be his offensive line coach in Sparta. The two had a connection from the jump, DeLaney said, because of their ability to relate to players.
“(Jones) just has a great ability to relate to the players and to communicate to them that what they’re doing isn’t good enough, and that there’s more in them, and that he expects more out of them,” DeLaney said.
“And I think him and Chad, one of the reasons they get along so well is they share that trait. They have a way of talking to you and making you feel good about yourself, but also knowing that they have higher expectations maybe than you had for yourself, and that you want to live up to those. And I think that’s an invaluable trait as a coach.”
Jones gave full credit to Carpenter for his leadership abilities, having learned under him for nearly 20 years.
“I am the coach who I am now because of him,” Jones said Thursday, sitting in his gym office. “I understand how to work with kids and how to communicate with kids, how to communicate with other coaches, how he takes time to know everybody, know everything.”
The program's returning players were informed of Jones’s hire during a meeting Thursday morning before school, when DeLaney and Huffman gathered the students to break the news. Jones said the feedback has been positive thus far, and he’s still “ecstatic” about the new opportunity.
“Words can’t describe how excited I am about this position,” Jones said.
Jones said not much will change when it comes to Highland’s style of play – smash-mouth, bulldozer football – although he plans to add his own wrinkles.
“With me being the line coach, people know I like to run the football. We’re run first, pass second. That mentality is not going to change,” Jones said. “We’re still Wing-T. We’re still going to be physical on defense.”
Jones hopes to keep the same assistant staff for next season. He will not be the chief playcaller, however, as he said he’d prefer to hand that duty off to his offensive and defensive coordinators.
“I have to trust all the coaches,” said Jones, echoing a philosophy Carpenter mastered. “I don’t need that responsibility, I don’t need that title at all. The guys who are going to call either side, they’re going to do a great job with it.”
DeLaney said the key for Jones in the future will be finding his own right-hand man – or as the AD put it, “his own Matt Jones.”
“You know what I mean? He needs to find somebody that was as good for Coach Carpenter as he was,” DeLaney said. “And whether that’s somebody on-staff currently or whether he decides to bring somebody in or whatever, but that’s huge because there’s so much responsibility. You can’t do it all yourself. And we’ve talked about that.”
The Scots will face substantial roster turnover heading into next season, as several all-conference talents, such as Brock Veley, Chase Carpenter and Tate Tobin, will have graduated.
That senior class led the program to new heights, as Highland improved by one win each year under their lead. The Scots went 9-2 last season, undefeated in KMAC play.
Expectations won’t change for the program, however. Jones is confident his returners will be able to fill in the gaps as the program contends for its third straight playoff berth.
“Those are not easy to replace and we all know that. But underneath there, we have a really good group,” Jones said. “You know, we still have four or five more running backs… Up front-wise, I have a lot of guys that are going to be able to step up in their role. We do have issues, we lose a lot in our spots. But we have, we feel, good depth to replace that.”
Sitting in his office Thursday, DeLaney seemed as excited as Jones about the new opportunity – the new chapter – in Highland football.
“I think he’s ready,” DeLaney said of Jones. “In the interview process, he has a plan. He’s going to put his own mark on the program.”