Posted On: 06/13/19 11:47 PM

Royalton Football: That is just Royalton

Just before current Royalton Royals’ head football coach Jamie Morford joined a new staff in Royalton, the program was on a two year long losing streak. The program had not produced a .500 season in five years. Even worse, the expectations for the program were even lower than the program’s win total.

“We heard so many times,” Morford said, ‘well, that is just Royalton’. We needed to change what Royalton football was about.”

Morford was an assistant coach under newly hired head coach Joel Swenson.

“The first time we met with those kids, it was a butt chewing,” Morford recalled. “They didn’t know us from Adam. We were a bunch of 23-year-old punks standing in front of those kids. We are changing how this whole thing looks. You are not going to be picking fights on the field because we are losing. When we score a touchdown, we expect to score a touchdown. We are not going to celebrate – give the ball to the ref. When games go bad, you are going to learn how to lose. You can’t learn how to win until you learn how to lose. If you are going to be a sore loser, you are never going to learn how to win.”

Raising the expectations didn’t stop with that initial meeting.

“It was uncomfortable for the players,” Morford continued. “I don’t know how many times we sat in Joel’s classroom and told a kid ‘if you don’t like it, leave.’ We will play with fifteen kids if we need to. We don’t care. We are not going to repeat what had gone on in the past.”

It wasn’t just the kids’ mindset that needed to be changed.

“I remember our first game,” Morford said. “We were playing Menahga – they were a long way away, but we only had like 10 fans there.”

It wasn’t just the fans’ mindset either.

“I got so mad one time when we started installing our new offense,” Morford said. “There was a community member that told me, ‘this is too complicated. These kids will never get that; they are not smart enough.’ That individual had already thought they were going to fail before we failed. That was not acceptable to me. That was not the mindset we were going to have here.”

Morford’s football mindset formed in nearby Kimball.

“I started playing tackle football in 5th grade,” Morford explained. “I was a big kid who could move people and was decently athletic – I also played basketball. Then I got a scholarship to Moorhead State and played offensive line. Then played a couple of years of semi-pro football. The year I quit playing football, I started coaching in Kimball. (Two years later) Royalton hired Joel Swenson. We had played football against each other; we were friends and competitors from high school. He approached me looking for assistants, and I thought ‘why not.’ I was 23 at the time, and from there, the rest is history.”

As Morford’s playing career progressed, the more he became interested in the X’s and O’s of football – especially in his wheelhouse – along the line of scrimmage.

“In high school, the blocking schemes were fairly basic. When I played at Moorhead, they ran option. Playing offensive line in that offense – outside of quarterback – was probably one of the hardest positions to play. There were so many calls we had to make and so many blocking schemes that we had for each play. To dive into that part of the game so deeply started to intrigue me. When I played semi-pro, I saw things we could do differently. That is when my eyes opened. I learned a lot volunteering for Kimball for two years because they ran a zone running scheme that was new to me. I went from man blocking to option blocking to zone blocking, so I felt like I had a few tools in the toolbox.”

Morford learned to know X’s and O’s was not going to be his most important coaching skill.

“When I went to Royalton, it was evident it was about the kids, what they can do, and how you can tailor their strengths to what you want to do.”

At the start, there was limited manpower on both the coaching staff and the team itself.

“We only had three coaches when we started. We split up the duties the best we could. I ran the defense. Aaron Meier ran the offense. We split up JV games and 9th-grade games and did the best we could with what we had.”

“That first year we had 29 kids 9-12,” Morford recalled. About 12 to 15 of them could play football.”

Royalton’s reputation around the conference was well established.

“Our first year, three of our four road games were homecomings. That bothered us.”

Losing was not going to sit well with this new coaching staff either.

“We were young, loud, and we were kind of obnoxious,” Morford admitted. “We were the brash new kids on the block and were not going to get pushed around by people. We didn’t know any better”

Amazingly, those young, obnoxious, coaches took a team that had not had a .500 season since 1995, lost every game the two years prior (1999, 2000) and made a state tournament run.

“We had the right kids,” Morford explained. “Some of the kids acted older than their age. The seniors were sick and tired of getting their butt kicked. They had been getting their butts kicked since 7th grade. The pivotal game in the 2001 campaign was a game against Browerville. Royalton had not beaten Browerville in thirteen years. We had a 3-0 record, and they were 2-1. We were dedicating the field that night and beat Browerville. That changed the momentum of the season. Ironically, the next week we lost, but the game changed the mindset of the kids. They started to believe ‘we can actually do this.”

They put it all together in the playoffs and advanced to the state tournament – ending the season with a loss in the state quarterfinals and a 9-3 record. Based off the playoff run, it looked like Royals’ football had arrived, but there was still work to do. They have had only three losing seasons since the state tournament run in 2001; two of those seasons came immediately after going to State.

Re-building the program

“We lost a lot during those first five or six years, but we lost with grace,” Morford told “We fought until the end and would lose by a point, or by a touchdown. When we lost, we focused on what we could do better and fixing it.”

While the success in the win column suffered, the overall product and the kids were getting stronger – on and off the field.

“We are not here to coddle; we are not here to make friends,” Morford said. “At the same time, we are here to be mentors and to help these kids learn success – whether it is football or life. Coaching comes down to seeing potential in kids and how you take those kids and make them into good football players and good young men. Not many of our kids are going to go on to play Division I football, but how can we make them better people by using football as the vehicle to get there.”

The kids’ eventual consistent success on game day would only come after their change was complete on the practice field and beyond.

“A lot of it was changing the mindset. Changing what it meant to win, what it meant to work to win,” Morford said. “We don’t measure ourselves by wins and losses. If you are doing things the right way, the wins will come.”

The wins did come. Royalton has not ended a season below .500 since 2006.

It wasn’t just the kids that had to change their thinking – so did the coaching staff.

“In 2005 we made a transition on offense,” the former Kimball Cub said. “For many years, we were big, and we could bully people around. We looked at who we had coming up, and we weren’t going to be big anymore. We could no longer put people in a phone booth and battle with them. I had some friends who were running a hybrid Wing T that included the jet sweep and the rocket sweep. I wasn’t the offensive coordinator, but I was putting in the new offense. We had a small offensive line and small, quick running backs. Now we had a leg up on the competition because we didn’t have to block everybody. We learned if we can stretch the field horizontally, we can create vertical lanes. The offense has been ever evolving since then. People ask me, what do we run for an offense? We are a hybrid Wing T team, with a multiple formations, that runs option. I guess you would call it the Royalton offense.”

The coaching staff has continued to tinker with the offense and tinkered with the personnel.

“If we are playing a team that is bigger, we are going to spread you out,” Morford explained. “In the few instances we are bigger than someone, I feel we can put you in a phone booth and play smash mouth football. We have evolved to a place where we can run different packages where we bring in offensive linemen to play running back. We do it to reward those kids that play hard.”

They also do it to reward kids who sacrifice for the good of the team.

“In 2016, we had our leading rusher returning, but I needed offensive linemen in the worst way. I told the kid, ‘if you can play offensive line, I promise I will make it up to you. That kid moved to guard. We went to the state tournament, and that kid had ten touchdowns playing offensive line. Now it is a little bit of a go-to because when we call for that special set, all the kids get excited because it is a lineman carrying the ball and you never know what is going to happen.”

The Birth of Chaos 

In 2010, Swenson would hand the head coaching job over to Morford and became Royalton’s high school principal. Before that, with Morford running the defense, he learned a valuable lesson.

“We went to the Prep Bowl in 2008 and lost to Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunberg. I learned a hard lesson that year. I was a cocky kid. As the defensive coach, we had already beaten KMS once that year. We had them figured out. Knowing what I knew about the first time we played them, we were going to do exactly what we did the first time, and it will work great. They knew what we were doing against them, and they figured it out. They taught their kids how to fix things on the fly, and one of the things the head coach said to me sticks with me to this day. He said, ‘I am not coaching against the coach across the field. I am coaching against the kids on the field because if they can’t make the corrections, we will not be successful. Ever since then, we have enabled our kids to be able to figure out the blocking schemes on their own and correct the mistakes that are happening on the field. We are going to do a lot of those things for them as well, but if they can understand what the other team is doing to them and they can come back and tell us this is how we can beat them we just enabled them to be their own success.”

“When we are in midseason form,” Morford continued, “we are preparing for our opponents best. We work on this is the worst situation they could put us in, how do we get out of it? When they are ready for the worst, and the worst doesn’t come, dealing with the average is easy.”

The ‘figure it out’ mentality has led to an addition to the practice schedule.

“The assistant coaches like to make fun of me with this, but I am always saying ‘one more, one more.’ The point is, getting it right. You only get one chance in a game; in practice, we can make it right. It is running things to perfection in practice. We harp on our kids understanding on both sides of the ball, what our opponent is going to do. We don’t do it every week, but quite a few times a year we run a period called Chaos. It is an offensive drill where I tell defensive coordinator Randy Thielges – who runs the scout team defense – that we are going to run these four plays. During Chaos we are going to run, we are not going to pass. I don’t care if Randy puts eight guys on the line of scrimmage. The kids have to figure it out. We are not going to be on the field to tell them what to do. Sometimes we will put twelve guys on the field defensively or put two extra defenders on the edge instead of one so that our kids understand they are in control of their own destiny on offense by you fixing it on the field, not the coaches.”

The defense has become one of the most unique in the State.

“For many years we ran a basic 4-4 or 3-4 stack. We had a lot of different rules, but it was very vanilla. As a staff, we made minor adjustments, but when I took over as head coach, we ran the offense that I put in for so many years, I wanted to run it. We needed a defensive coordinator. There was nobody better suited than the guy we took over for – Thielges. The first year he adopted what I had run in the past. One of the guys I got our offense from – who coaches in Tennessee – and I were talking, and we started talking defense. He told me about a guy in Pennsylvania. Give this guy a call he runs a unique version of a 4-4 defense.”

“I gave this to Randy, and I told him to make it his own,” Morford continued. “He took it and ran with it. Every year since 2015, our defense has gotten a little bit better every year. At this point, our offense is easy to install, so we put more time in on installing our defense. We do one thing that hasn’t been done since the 50’s and 60’s – we flex our nose guard. We put him a yard and a half off the ball. It makes him hard to block.”

Leaving time to be a kid

Another thing they have made their own is how they handle the offseason.

“We are not a big school. I don’t ask a lot of our football players or the parents,” the former MSU Dragons’ offensive lineman said. “When football season is done, it is time to be a kid and play other sports. We get together for a few summer activities, but not nearly what other schools do. We only do one practice a day during two-a-days. Part of it is because of my job; I am not a teacher and don’t have the summers off. We do fundraising and stuff, but we don’t want to bother the families and the kids when they have other things going on. I don’t want to be intrusive to them. I want the other sports to have their time, and I don’t want everything to be about football. Whatever we do, we do as an athletic department.”

Not only is the coaching staff hands off in the offseason, but they are also mostly hands-off with the youth program.

“We have a youth tackle football program that is run by community ed,” Morford said. “We, as the high school program help fund it with our fundraising, but I don’t oversee it. Some of the guys who run it played for us years ago. They know our offense, but I let them do what they want to do. Maybe we would be more successful if we did some more things, but I don’t think the kids and the parents need to be inundated with me breathing down their necks with different things. We let the program lie when it is dormant, and when it is time to go, all hands are turned towards football.”

When all hands are turned toward football, Morford has a staff that has been part of the program – in one way or another – for a long time.

“Randy was the coach before we took over. He ended up coming back on staff in 2011. He is a great schemer, and he enjoys working with the kids. Another guy I am proud of is Nick Lanners. He has come a long way. He is our offensive coordinator and does a great job. As an eighth-grader in 2001, he traveled to two games to play back up quarterback for us. We only had 29 kids, and we had a kid get injured, and we had to bring him with. Nick has been with us ever since. For many years he volunteered. He never got paid; he just wanted to be part of the program. We got him a paid position and made him the offensive coordinator. Ryan Wiener has the other paid position. Ryan played for us as a running back, but he knew the schemes of all the positions on the field. He could have played quarterback for us if he wanted to. Wiener does a great job on both sides of the ball and runs our JV and 9th-grade program. He is able to put kids in the right positions and gets them ready to play varsity football. Joel still volunteers, and he calls himself a game day consultant. He is really great with the kids and is uber competitive.”

This fall, the Royals should be led by a trio of experienced seniors.

“I feel good about our offensive line,” Morford said. “Matt Kasella and Isaac Kasella are returning starters, but we might move Matt to tight end because we have a lot of depth at offensive line. We had a three-year starter at quarterback, but this year it will be Gavin Sowada. He is a great athlete, and we have played him at wide receiver, wing back, corner, and safety. He returns kicks, he has a great arm and is a great leader.”

The community of Royalton might not have known what to think of their brash, cocky coaching staff back in 2001. Since then, they have embraced the coaching staff and the program – the coach has too.

“Even though I don’t live in Royalton, I am very proud to be part of the community,” Morford explained. “They are a great group of people, a great group of kids, a great school district that gives us a lot of support. We could not have done this without all of those things.”

They could not have done it without kids who dedicated themselves to the program.

“Winning breeds success,” Morford said. “Success breeds kids believing in the program.”

Having success and believing in the program – that is just Royalton.