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Wellington Daily News - Wellington, KS
  • Retiring coaches, Gifford and Hughes, leave big shoes to fill

  • The Wellington Crusaders and South Haven Cardinals are gearing up for football practice to prepare for the 2014 season. If the coaching staff and players of each school notice an unfamiliar feeling on the field or at most an extraordinary loss, it is very understandable. John Gifford and David Hughes, two coaches whos...
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  • By Karl Younkman
    The Wellington Daily News
         The Wellington Crusaders and South Haven Cardinals are gearing up for football practice to prepare for the 2014 season. If the coaching staff and players of each school notice an unfamiliar feeling on the field or at most an extraordinary loss, it is very understandable.
         John Gifford and David Hughes, two coaches whose careers went legendary will no longer be on the field or in the classroom for the Crusaders and Cardinals when the school year begins. Gifford, who came to Wellington in January of 1970 and retired after coaching 44 years at the junior high and high school levels, and Hughes who put in 34 years at South Haven before resigning after last year, will leave fairly sizeable shoes to fill for their successors.
      Gifford, coach Giff to his countless former players and students, actually replaced somewhat of another Crusader legend, Jerry Wilson, as social studies and physical ed teacher when he came to Wellington, while also coaching football, basketball and track.
        “Coach Wilson was named the head coach at Caldwell and that opened a spot on the staff for me,” said Gifford. Wilson, who was a member of the 1947 Crusader state basketball championship team featuring one of the more storied athletes of Wellington history, Ernie Barrett, later returned to Wellington after 20 years to teach and coach again.
         “When I moved into the counselor position at the high school coach Wilson took over the history class that I had been teaching,” explains Gifford. “Just as I had taken over for him 20 years earlier.”
           John Gifford attended high school in Belle Plaine where he played football and basketball. Gifford, who had an older and younger brother and claims they were better athletes than he was, would nevertheless account well for himself on the field. At Belle Plaine it was one assistant coach that would spark an interest in Gifford that would lead to a lifelong career.
           “Our assistant coach Jay Manier would never be at the games on Friday,” says Gifford. “He would go scout the next opponent and on Monday he would make his presentation to the team. That’s really where I started to learn the x’s and o’s of coaching. I learned a lot of that from coach Manier and I found that really interested me.”
          When Gifford moved to Wellington the WHS Crusaders won their first football state championship playoff game under coach Jim Hooten in 1970 and in that same year coach Gifford led the 7th grade junior high team to an undefeated season. In the spring of 1971, John Dawkins, who had taken over the head high school coaching position, asked Gifford to coach the freshman football team and install the high school offense and defense. Dawkins gave Gifford an offensive and defensive playbook and an 8-track tape of his voice explaining every play in detail.
    Page 2 of 5 -      “That was when I really began to learn the game of football,” Gifford remembers. That season of ’71 the freshman team, with Richard Lawrence as an assistant coach, went undefeated. The following year they were co-LAVL champs with a 6-1 record. The next season Gifford was asked by coach Dawkins to scout for the high school program.
         “I got to know Lenny Scheufler and Wayne Unruh through the scouting experience,” says Gifford. Those coaches would play a significant role in Gifford’s development as a coach. “Coach Scheufler took me under his wing when I started with the high school,” said Gifford. “Along with coach Unruh he really showed me how to communicate with the players and parents also.”
         In 1974 Gifford was officially named to the high school coaching staff and with Dawkins moving on to Hutchinson, Gifford toiled for a secession of  coaches before Mac O’Dell took the reigns in 1976. “It was with O’Dell that I was fortunate to get to work with some more outstanding assistant coaches,” said Gifford. “Those included Jerry Wilson, along with Tom McCain and Dave Hunt.”
         It was during this era when a complicated playoff system of points was in place and Wellington being the smallest AVL school could lose to a larger school and even with a better record miss out on making the playoffs. With help from a group of prominent business people from Wellington the people in Topeka changed the system to a district format. One player from the teams of the late seventies recalls the unfairness.
         “My senior year we finished with one loss,” Randy Redford, a 1976 graduate recalls. “We beat Derby during the regular season and instead of us making the playoffs, Derby gets in and ends up getting beat in the final in the 4-A championship.” Still, Redford remembers the season and coach Giff fondly.
        “He was a coach that expected a lot out of you,” said Redford. “But he was right out there on the practice field with us working just as hard.” Gifford had learned to communicate with his players by then also.
         “He could chew your butt pretty good but after it was over he was your friend again,” Redford remembers. “He always had your best interest at heart.”
           Gifford remembers the teams with O’Dell in the late 70’s as some of his favorites although to pick one particular group of athletes or one particular player over another is too difficult for coach Giff.
    Page 3 of 5 -       It was about this time in 1980 that a coaching change was made in Wellington as well as in South Haven down the road on Highway 81. Tom Young was hired to coach the Crusaders and in South Haven a young man fresh out of college was hired to coach the Cardinals’ football team.
         David Hughes, a 1975 graduate of Pratt HS and a ’79 K-State grad was thrown right into the fire of head coaching at South Haven. While learning the complexities of 8-man football while on the job Hughes also taught American government, American history and Kansas history in the classroom.
          “I was hired as the assistant boys basketball coach also,” says Hughes. “Tim Brietigan was the head coach in basketball and in football he was my assistant.” Such is life in a small school environment and for 14 years Hughes built the football program in his own image.
          Then in 1994 Hughes resigned the football job for the first time and took the head coaching position for the high school girls basketball team. He would remain the coach for 17 years.
          “I really loved coaching the girls,” said Hughes. “They responded  well and most of them were great kids.” That faith in the gals was rewarded with a state championship in 2007.
          In 2001 Hughes was hired for a second time to coach the football squad. It was at this time that coach Gifford moved into the counselor position at South Haven while still retaining his coaching duties at WHS. Hughes was happy to have Gifford around to compare notes.
           “We would see each other and talk a lot of football,” Hughes said. “I knew him prior to that time and I knew he was well thought of in the business. In fact I’ve known some of his players over the years and I’ve never known anyone to say a bad word about coach Gifford. Their eyes light up when they talked about him”
           Regarding Hughes, coach Gifford remembers  that during his time at South Haven, coach Hughes held sway over the school. “While I was there everyone looked to David Hughes,” said Gifford. “South Haven was fortunate to have him.”
          At the time Hughes was starting his career in South Haven Tom Young was taking the head coach job for the Crusaders in 1980. “In coach Young’s first year we lost the first seven games,” said coach Gifford. “In the last two games we changed the defense and won those games. The next year we went undefeated until we were beaten in the championship game by Baldwin.”
    Page 4 of 5 -      That ’81 team was led by Linn Hibbs, a quarterback and defensive back who would later become the head coach of his alma mater. The next year’s ’82 championship team was led by all-state, Top 11 selection, fullback/linebacker Damon Jones.”
         Jones thinks he knows why coach Giff was so successful over the years. “One thing he brought to the table more than anything was his passion for the game.” Jones said. “As a player, you wanted to play hard for him. And he just had fun. You would never find him down. He had such an up-spirit and enjoyed the game. Everyone wanted to win for him.”
         As a counselor, Gifford would help young students to make the correct decisions in their lives. “I got to know a lot of students and I hope I helped them as best I could,” said Gifford. “A lot of them you do help but sometimes you don’t.”
         Jones still enjoys talking with Gifford. “Whenever I see Coach he will ask about my kids and how we are doing. He always looks after you,” said Jones.
        After Young left for Derby High in ’83 another secession of coaches followed before Gifford was offered the head coaching job in 1988. That year the Crusaders finished 7-4 and made the playoffs. But it was a one and done for Gifford as the next season he resumed his job as assistant for Bob Fuller. Under Fuller the Crusaders were state runner-up one year and Gifford found special pleasure in coaching his son Jesse in the 91-93 seasons.
        Gifford and is wife Jeannie also raised up three girls with their son. “She basically raised four kids by herself,” said Gifford of his wife. “She means everything to the family”
          Asked why he had never pursued the head coaching job with the same passion that he brought to coaching itself Gifford pointed to the extra duties a head man has to perform. “I was never comfortable dealing with the press and all that comes with that in being the head coach,” explains Gifford.
         In 1996 Linn Hibbs took the mantle of coach and with Gifford right beside him continued a 4-year playoff string that began in ’92 and continued for a state record 19 straight appearances that ended in 2011. During this period the Crusaders made three straight championship appearances, winning two titles.
         “Under coach Hibbs I was fortunate to coach with some of my former players and I really enjoyed that,” Gifford said.
    Page 5 of 5 -       While the Wellington juggernaut was sailing in the 2000’s the South Haven Cardinals were building a dynasty of their own under Hughes’ direction. “After 2001 we started to take off,” said Hughes. “The kids started to believe in what we were doing.”
         “The teams of 2005-06 were probably my best. We should have been champs in 2006 but Waverly stopped us. 2007 was a fun group and we made the championship game but it wasn’t a good game for us.”
          Hughes cited the toll on family life for part of his decision to resign the South Haven job. “Last May our daughter Megan was in a car crash,” said Hughes. “ She was 5 and a half months pregnant and she lost the baby. That puts a lot of thing in perspective.”
        With Megan and Hughes’ other two children living up in the Manhattan area it was time to look at making a move. “Wakefield High School had a counselor job come open and my wife Kelly applied for it,” said Hughes. “She was hired and I landed a part-time social studies job and assistant football coach. I’m happy to follow her. I wouldn’t be what I am without her.”
         “I’m telling you it was the hardest thing to tell my players I was leaving,” said Hughes. “After last season I was leaning towards leaving and with this move everything kind of fell in place. Still it’s tough to leave the community. I’ve had some rewarding relationships with my coaches and former students and players.”
         Coach Giff has found his time in town just as rewarding. “I was lucky to land in Wellington,” Gifford said. “The town loves sports as much as I do and with my career ending under Tyler Ryan (current WHS coach) I know that he has the knowledge and drive I’ve always admired in a coach.”
          The very traits that Wellington has admired in Coach Gifford.
     
     

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