The Seneca Valley High School football team lists seven coaches on its website — a head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, passing game coordinator, quarterbacks coach, linebackers coach and defensive backs coach.
But the page omits what might be the program’s most important coach: character coach Mathew McCabe.
Seneca Valley added McCabe to its staff before last season and those involved rave about the results.
“It’s probably the best thing we’ve ever done,” said coach Fred Kim, whose team is 8-0. “We probably shouldn’t get it in The Gazette or everyone else will jump on the bandwagon and we might start ending up getting our butts kicked.”
In 2009, after Seneca Valley missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years, Kim and his staff discussed what changes were necessary. They decided to spend one day each week during the offseason discussing character with the players instead of conditioning.
“What we knew was that whatever we were doing in the past wasn’t working,” Kim said. “If we needed to sacrifice a day or even sacrifice time, we would’ve. It didn’t matter how much weight you lifted or what scheme you come up with, if you have a kid you can’t count on, he’s not going to win the ball game for you — no matter how talented he is. That’s happened to us over and over and over again.”
Initially, Kim gave the character lessons himself, drawing — “ironically,” Kim says now — from former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel’s book, “The Winners Manuel.” Kim made modest gains, but he decided he wanted an outside voice and asked offensive coordinator Bob Plante to help identify candidates for the newly created character coach job.
Plante met McCabe, a pastor at Cedarbrook Community Church in Clarksburg, through a Fellowship of Christian Athletes connection, and the two had lunch together.
“He told me up front he was very skeptical,” McCabe said. “He didn’t think this would probably be a good fit. Just the kind of person he assumed a pastor was probably was not somebody who would get the job done.”
Said Plante: “I wanted somebody who was a football coach at heart.”
But McCabe, though he’d never coached or played football, convinced Plante he could do the job. McCabe — who speaks with the team Thursday, Friday and Saturdays (when he arranges for a crew to make the players breakfast) — doesn’t use religion in his lessons, which was an important requirement for Kim.
“My standard line with the guys is, ‘Some day, whether it’s in the next two years or 10 years, you will all be done playing football. What your coaches have asked me to do is help make sure there’s something there to be successful in the rest of life — to be a good father, a good husband, a good employee, all those good things,’” McCabe said. “I try to take everything we talk about and tie it to football, because that’s what they know.”
Kim is careful not speak in absolutes. Not every player on his 2009 team lacked character. Not every player on his current team always does the right thing.
But whether it’s Seneca Valley winning Montgomery County’s sportsmanship award last season, a player repeating McCabe’s lessons almost verbatim, as linebacker Austen Herbert did, or another player picking up a girl’s dropped books as everyone else walked past, it’s clear McCabe is making a difference. And that impact came quickly.
Early last season, Plante suggested to the team’s captain that a few players meet with McCabe in the hallway outside the locker room before a game, figuring they could start with a group of about eight and grow from there.
When Plante and McCabe arrived, they couldn’t even open the door because the hallway was packed with players and managers.
“They bought in that this wasn’t some gimmick that we’re just trying to do to make sure someone didn’t get kicked off the team,” McCabe said.
Sometimes, McCabe tailors his lessons to Seneca Valley’s matchup that week.
Before playing a weaker team earlier in the season, McCabe talked about “pride.” When Seneca Valley faced a capable Blake team in the doldrums of a long season, McCabe talked about “perseverance.” And prior to playing Quince Orchard, he talked about “adversity.”
Leading by less than a touchdown late in the game, Seneca Valley allowed Quince Orchard a first-and-goal at the 4-yard line. On the sideline, McCabe heard players say to one another, “Adversity has come. How are we going to respond?” Sure enough, Seneca Valley stuffed Quince Orchard and won the game.
“If we didn’t do that character building, we probably don’t stop Quince Orchard,” Kim said.
McCabe said he has a theme in mind for this week, when Seneca Valley plays fellow unbeaten Damascus, but he didn’t want to divulge it. Whether the message resonates won’t be determined by whether Seneca Valley wins or loses — or even know after game.
“That won’t be measured for 10 or 15 years,” McCabe said. “Are these kids going to be able to take these concepts and take them off the field of football and put them into their life and make something of themselves?”