Short notice, but long on talent: Newly hired head football coach Joe Austin looking to lead Newberry to 5th straight playoff berth
“When I went over and met the coaches (at Newberry), they were a cool bunch of guys. I couldn’t say no.” — Joe Austin, head coach, Newberry Indians football
(* Northern Michigan Football Conference Legacy Division game)
Friday, Aug. 24 — at Frankfort, 7 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 31 — * ST. IGNACE, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 7 — * HARBOR SPRINGS, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 14 — * at Gaylord St. Mary, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 21 — at Boyne City, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 28 — * INDIAN RIVER INLAND LAKES, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 5 — Open date
Friday, Oct. 12 — * JOHANNESBURG-LEWISTON, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 19 — * at East Jordan, 7 p.m.
NEWBERRY — A 6-3 season followed by an array of events over the summer placed 41-year veteran coach Joe Austin in the head coaching position at Newberry High School just two weeks before today’s start of the season.
Now on short notice, the former Engadine coach is looking to lead the Indians to a fifth consecutive playoff berth, though the Indians have won just one playoff game over the past four seasons.
Austin replaces George Sevarns, who coached the team for one year.
The position came in an unexpected way to Austin, who retired after last coaching Engadine to a program-best 10-1 record in 2016.
“Last year I got a hip and a knee replacement so I took a year off,” Austin said. “My wife and I had all of these vacations planned so I wasn’t going to get back into it.
“The principal (Clifford Fossitt) at Newberry called and asked if I would be interested. I thought he was offering me the assistant (coach’s) job. I didn’t realize it was the head coaching job until one week before practice.”
While some of those long-planned vacations had to be canceled due to the commitment, others are still a go.
“I love my wife so we’re still going to go,” Austin said. “We did have other vacations planned, but when I went over and met the coaches (at Newberry), they were a cool bunch of guys. I couldn’t say no.”
Despite the quick turn of events, Austin said the first few weeks of practice have been going well. As an “old-school coach,” Austin plans on running a T-formation offense.
“Practice is going pretty good,” he said. “I’m old-school. I’ve run a lot of different offenses, especially the T-formation over the years.
“Newberry has been successful with the spread offense, so it’s a bit of a transition and we’re trying to run a little bit of both.
“It’s tough to do, but we’ll play to our strengths, try moving the chains and try to find the end zone.”
With 41 years of coaching under his belt, Austin seems like confident about the job, but he said there’s still a lot of pressure taking over a new team.
“They’ve got a nice program here,” he said. “Four straight in the playoffs. They’ve been very successful, so that’s a lot of pressure on me. I’m used to taking over programs who have had some problems and have turned them around. Newberry has good kids with an established program.”
The Indians have 16 varsity players suiting up this season, 11 of them seniors.
With the low turnout, everybody will play a significant amount of time on both sides of the ball.
“We scrimmaged with 16 last week so everybody is going to play,” Austin said. “We’ll rotate guys in and out and try to avoid injuries.”
Four of those seniors were named captains by Austin — running back-linebacker Jaylen James, offensive guard-defensive end Devin Carson, wide receiver-defensive end Josh Slaght and wide receiver Ethan Edwards.
Those four returnees were picked due to their work ethic throughout the off season, according to Austin.
“They all worked hard during the summer and are adjusting well to the new system,” he said.
Along with the challenge of a short roster comes a tough schedule. Newberry opens the season tonight with a four-hour bus ride to play at downstate Frankfort, which was the Indians final opponent in the opening round of the 2017 MHSAA Division 8 playoffs.
Newberry bowed out 48-6 to the 8-3 Panthers, who have made it to the playoffs the past four seasons and to the third round the past three.
With the Indians looking for redemption, Austin said it’ll be a difficult match up to begin the season.
“I’m the new guy that’s been here two weeks and I’m not sure we could have picked a tougher opponent to start with,” the coach said. “We’re going to go down there and have fun, though. We’ll take it one step at a time, play to our strengths, move the chains and try to play mistake-free football.”
The Indians have one more nonconference game scheduled on Sept. 21, a road game at Boyne City, which went 9-1 last season. The last time Newberry and Boyne City met was 2008, a 41-6 victory for the Ramblers.
Joining a new league this fall, Newberry plays six games in the Legacy Division of the Northern Michigan Football Conference as part of an eight-game schedule with an open date on Oct. 5.
“It’s a tough conference across the board,” Austin said. “We start the conference with St. Ignace, Gaylord St. Mary’s and Harbor Springs, and then the nonconference against Boyne City. It’s a front-end-loaded schedule, and if we can survive that we’ll have a great year.”
Asked if Austin can lead the Indians to another successful year, he brushed off any credit and said that will happen because of his players and assistant coaches.
“If we have a successful year it’s all on them,” he said. “I inherited great players and an outstanding coaching staff. They make my job easy, because I’ve never been the most organized. I’m incredibly blessed to have these guys.
“Yes, we’re transitioning, but we have a good staff and we’ll be successful because of the players on the field.”
Email Ryan Spitza at email@example.com.