CEDAR RAPIDS — Steve Staker looked relaxed and fit, as he sat in his office at Coe College earlier this week. He’d just gotten done with a workout and was preparing for practice.
Do you ever just sit back and shake your head at the situation you’re in, he was asked. It’s quite a situation.
Staker, 69, was a hall of fame high-school football coach at Fredericksburg High School for 35 years before retiring. He came to Coe in 2005 as defensive coordinator and replaced Erik Raeburn as head coach of the Kohawks in March 2008.
Staker was named Liberty Mutual Division III national coach of the year in 2010, after leading Coe to the second round of the D-III playoffs. This season, Coe is 8-0, ranked 14th nationally and can wrap up the school’s first outright Iowa Conference championship with a win Saturday at Luther.
Retired? Yeah, right.
“Here’s the thing, I guess,” Staker said with a chuckle. “It was always my dream to coach at the college level. I wouldn’t say it was as a head coach, necessarily. But what a great way to end my coaching career. Come to a school and be an assistant coach. All I do is coach football. And that just happened, I don’t know by coincidence or what. It all fell into place.”
Staker’s son, Tyler, is Coe’s offensive coordinator, which creates a neat family dynamic. Continuing with that theme, defensive coordinator Larry Atwater has two sons on the team: Jordan is a junior starting safety, Mark a freshman quarterback.
Former Cedar Rapids Jefferson head coach Jim Dostal is in his sixth season as an assistant. There are Coe grads scattered throughout a strong staff, as Steve Staker is quick to point out, so there is a lot of ownership in the program.
“The neat thing is I have basically turned the defense over to Larry and the offense over to Tyler,” he said. “I want to know what they’re doing. I’ll manage the game, manage the office, manage the coaches. But we’ve got some great assistant coaches here. It’s been a great blend of coaches coming together and doing a great job.”
The program appears set up for continued success as well, as a school record 140 players reported for the first day of practice in August. You must have depth to succeed regularly in the IIAC, and Coe has it.
For instance, look at how the Kohawks were able to replace outstanding quarterback Brad Boyle (a two-time IIAC MVP) with Jared McNutt this season. McNutt has been tremendous in his first year as a starter, completing 70 percent of his throws with a 16-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
“I think I have,” Staker said, when asked if he feels he has improved the Coe program since taking it over. “Here’s the thing. I go out into the communities and recruit. Erik never really left the office. He would take his recruiting notebook home and make calls, then we would do home visits for kids who were down to two or three schools. But he was from Ohio and didn’t really know any of the coaches here. I feel like I’ve been able to establish a pretty good rapport with the high-school coaches and get some of the Iowa kids in here.”
Staker said he’d like to believe this team could make a little noise in the D-III playoffs, assuming it gets there. That’s why finishing unbeaten in the regular season is crucial, as Coe would likely host a first-round game.
Athletics Director John Chandler has officially applied to the NCAA for a home game.
“I know there are some dandy programs out there,” Staker said. “You always want to say we can get to that national championship game, but I don’t know. I’d like to think we could take another step farther than we’ve been. That’s winning two playoff games. Then if you do that, who knows?”
And who knows how long Staker will remain in coaching. He’s enjoying himself and feels he can still relate to kids who are 50 years younger.
The success he has had is obvious.
“Atwater’s got a time line for me,” he said. “He told me ‘Mark’s coming here, so you got (three) more years at least.’ If I have the energy, and my health is good, I’ll keep doing it. If I feel that I’m not doing my job, that might change.”
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