Living the dream
G-R football coach John Olson has built tradition on life lessons
CEDAR FALLS — A seventh-grade John Olson paced the sidelines of a fifth-grade basketball team. Mostly clueless to what he was really doing, a passion was instilled in him then; a way for him to make young kids better men.
He loved it; he knew since he was in 10th-grade that he wanted to be a coach. So after a handful of opportunities, years of up and down teams; losing records and state championships, Olson is still smiling and still loving what he’s doing.
After the Rebels’ 20-19 win against Bishop Garrigan, Olson and his team clinched the school’s first undefeated season leading to a state championship. And as his fellow coaches, colleagues and players retreated to celebration in the locker room, Olson stayed on the field, embracing the final moments with his seniors, who will never wear the G-R football uniform again, and searching for his family.
“I remember thinking back, 15 years ago, seeing these coaches get here. I never thought to myself, ‘Hey, that’d be cool if someday I could coach a state championship,” Olson said. “I really love coaching kids. I truly do. And we’ve had some good teams and some teams who were down a little bit, but it’s just so much coaching them.”
Quarterback Hunter Lott said the hard work by Olson and Co. doesn’t go unnoticed.
“I don’t think anyone can out-coach them,” Lott said. “John Olson puts in so much work it’s unbelievable. I can’t even fathom how late he stays up, how much film he watches.”
Wide receiver/defensive end Mason Skovgard said the fundamentals of football are where the Rebels’ tradition begins, not with undefeated seasons, winning records or even state championships.
“It’s a lot of technique they’re trying to teach,” Skovgard said. “And that translates over. Maybe you’re not the biggest or the fastest, but if you have the right technique, you can play with anyone.”
Olson gave a lot of the credit to his coaching staff, saying despite having the same number of coaches as a lot of other schools, each leader has his own role on the team that has led to Rebel success as of late.
“When you do that right all the time, and you have assistant coaches like we do that just do a tremendous job. I’ve got assistant coaches working like crazy for us. I’ve got players busting their butt all the time. So when I literally say it takes everyone, it takes everyone.”
Coachability was something Olson said makes a key difference when building not just a championship program, but when you’re just simply trying to win football games.
Lott said when the Rebels were down 13-0 at halftime, Olson and offensive coordinator Darren Trunck made some adjustments, the Rebels heard them and won the second-half battle.
“We make them hard-nosed, tough kids to start with,” Olson said. “And to be quite honest with you, we have 10 coaches on our staff. And I know other places have 10 coaches on their staffs, but we have defensive line coach. We have an outside linebackers coach. An inside linebackers coach. We’ve got a defensive back coach and I call as the defensive coordinator.
“We all have our jobs. We’ve got an offensive line coach; a running backs coach. They don’t coach on the defensive side, they only do the defense. When I say we have 10 coaches, we have 10 coaches on them all the time, in a positive way. The results are what they are.”
Olson spent the last two minutes of his 2016 season pacing the sidelines, talking with his seniors — which said got him a little emotional, a rarity for the head coach — and basking in florescent lights a little while longer. But he wasn’t soaking up the win or an undefeated season.
“You don’t play for a championship, but when it happens, there’s a special feeling that you’re the best. We don’t talk about it a ton, but when it does happen, it’s fun to talk about it being the best.”
So if teams aren’t playing for championships, what do they play for?
“The kids. The kids play for us, they just play football,” Olson said. “You go outside at recess in third-grade, you’re trying to score touchdowns, you’re trying to be cocky, you’re trying to do whatever you can do in third-grade. Then you get to go to noon recess because that [other] recess is over with. And when that one’s over with, you’re coming back tomorrow, and we’re going to play tomorrow.
“If you’re playing for a championship, you’re playing for the wrong reasons. But if you get in the position to play for a championship, then heck yeah, you might as well win it. But just try to have fun. You’ve got to be disciplined while you do it, otherwise it’s helter skelter and then you don’t have that opportunity.”