When Larry Laird was named head football coach at Medina, he certainly had choices. He won a state championship in 2001 as the offensive coordinator at Kenton. Two years later, he did the same at Avon Lake.
They are two programs with vastly different philosophies.
To this day, the Division IV Wildcats throw, throw and throw again with a unique no-huddle, no-running back offense. Laird had the luxury of quarterback Ben Mauk, who threw for a national record 17,534 yards before playing collegiately at Wake Forest and Cincinnati.
On the other hand, the D-II Shoremen grind, grind and grind again with an I-back behind a line feared for its brutality.
Laird saw his Kenton offense attempt 48 passes in a 2001 D-IV title game win over Licking Valley. Two years later, the Shoremen ran 56 times in a 10-7 D-II win over Trotwood Madison.
In Laird’s mind, there was no question to mold the Bees after what is known in Lorain County as “The Program,” as Avon Lake qualified for the playoffs in seven of the eight years he called the plays.
When Laird finally felt it was his time to move on, longtime Shoremen coach Dave Dlugosz admitted he was a tad disappointed and even went as far as saying Laird was likely his heir-apparent.
Deep down, however, Dlugosz knew something special would finally happen at Medina, which was a program known for its failures and lack of toughness despite being one of the biggest schools in Ohio.
“The way he gets along with kids is the most impressive thing about him,” Dlugosz said. “He lets them know what he expects of them and sticks to those expectations.
“I can’t say I was surprised (with the success Medina had). Medina always had great athletes. They just needed someone who had a firm direction on where they were headed.”
That direction ended up being the Bees’ first nine-win season in 87 years, their second playoff berth and first postseason victory — a stunning 28-21 win at storied Canton McKinley.
For that, Laird is the 2010 Gazette Fall Coach of the Year.
From Day 1, Laird preached Medina had everything in place to be a successful program. He also preached discipline, toughness and family.
A lot of first-year coaches bring the same mentality, but the Bees bought in from the moment the burly Fairport Harbor native walked into the door, which made all the difference in the world.
“I honestly thought back during two-a-days our kids were showing promise,” Laird said. “A record of 7-3, 6-4 could be in the realm of possibility. Never did I dream we would go 8-2 and be 9-3 and make the playoffs.
“As I saw the kids progress, I was like, ‘Hmmm, we have some athletes.’ The kids continued to work hard and got better and better every week, and Week 3 or 4 I told myself, ‘I think we’re going to the playoffs.’”
Though the Bees chucked and ducked all over the field en route to yet another 4-6 season before he arrived, Laird installed a very basic I-back set designed to run Gazette MVP Jason Suggs or Laterian Brown off-tackle behind All-Gazette picks Joe Hans and Seamus McDonald.
It was an easy decision for Laird, though he admitted he’s open to change in the future.
But this is about the present, and Medina controlled the football and brought a grind-the-meat philosophy to every game.
More importantly, no aspect was overlooked.
“The big thing is as a young coach you think you know everything and you don’t,” said Laird, who went 2-8 in his first head coaching job at Goshon in 1997. “That’s what you have to learn. “From (Kenton) Coach (Mike) Mauk and Coach Dlugosz, I learned the little things count. You have to make sure you’re prepared for any situation.”
The details came to light when do-everything senior Justin Letts was suspended for five games for violating school policy. Adversity also hit after crushing losses to Strongsville and Solon, but Medina bounced back in style each time.
Nowhere did the Bees’ grit shine brighter, however, than rallying from a 21-0 hole to beat McKinley, a team jokingly referred to as a 30-point favorite by many Stark County observers.
The 28-21 triumph was the biggest upset in Medina County history.
Laird is aiming to make sure it never happens again. Not because winning as an underdog isn’t great, but because he wants to be the favorite — like McKinley, like Solon, like Strongsville — year in and year out.
“I think that’s one of those games that can be a program changer,” he said after praising the leadership of his assistant coaches and senior class. “I hope our program capitalizes on that and takes advantage of that.”
While that remains to be seen, Laird’s most important contribution can never be downplayed at Medina, which has never had an undefeated season.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.