In the summer of 1997, Chantilly football coach Dan Meier moved on to the next stage of his professional life. His long, decorated coaching span was finally over, giving way to a new career in administration. That career came to an end on April 1 when he retired as principal of Robinson Secondary School, a decision that might have taken him to some other school, or perhaps to something else altogether.
Yet Meier hasn’t gone anywhere, instead opting to jump back onto the sideline. With a vacancy in the football coaching department, Robinson Director of Student Activities Jeff Ferrell asked his former boss if he would be willing to fill the hole as an interim coach while the school searched for a new principal. Meier, who dismissed former coach Trey Taylor in November after a 9-13 record in two years at the helm, did not seek the position during interviews in January, but his fondness for the school and its football program spurred him to accept Ferrell’s offer.
Robinson administrators had expected to find a new principal in February, but the process dragged until Matt Eline was hired in late June. Meier’s upcoming stint in the Robinson huddle will give Eline time to search for someone else to take over for the long term.
That leaves Meier — whose 16-year coaching career featured 127 wins at Orange, West Potomac and Chantilly — one season to spin a storied football program back in the right direction after recent years of mediocrity. Once a perennial region title contender, Robinson has drifted toward the bottom of the pack in the ever-competitive Concorde District, a decline Meier aims to halt, even if the last time he headed a locker room came before some of his players were born.
“It’s been a long time. The game has changed a lot,” Meier said. “The good thing is most of my coaching staff are in their 20’s or early 30’s, so they’re of this generation. I’m learning a lot from them, and I’m hoping they’re learning a thing or two from me. But it’s been fun just to get back into the game and see how the game has changed.”
Meier noted a lot of changes have taken place since he last clung to a whistle, chief among them the rise of the spread offense. His familiarity with the nuances of the spread will hit him quickly when neighborhood rival Lake Braddock arrives to Robinson this Friday with its high-octane four and five-receiver sets in tow.
All X’s and O’s aside, Meier has found that the most important elements of coaching high school football have remained the same.
“It’s still 11 on 11, and it’s still about blocking and tackling,” he said.
He’ll counter the Bruins’ new-age offensive schemes with a throwback to the bygone tendencies of guys in leather helmets. Meier has tweaked the Rams’ traditional run-heavy attack to filter through the Wing-T, a misdirection offense popularized many years ago. Robinson will utilize its deep stable of running backs — including Joe Wilson, Ayvn Johnson, Jake Pinkston, Darius Grady, Marcus Denham and Demarcus Byrdsong — to carry out an offense that generally rotates four or five guys in the backfield to throw counters, fakes and misdirection plays at the defense.
“There are a lot of improvements from last year,” senior defensive end/wide receiver Endi Ackerman said. “The turnover of coaching staff has been an adjustment, to make an entirely new offense. It took awhile to catch up, but I think we’re really getting into gear this time. It’s an effective offense. It’s historic, and it’s been proven to work.”
One thing that won’t change is the leader of the Rams’ rushing attack. Joe Wilson remains the offense’s focal point after chewing up a school-record 2,358 yards and 33 touchdowns last year. A new offense and an improved collection of talent around the ball will likely mean fewer touches for Wilson during his senior season, but Meier has no plans to ignore his best player.
“When you have a back like Joe, you’re tempted to give it to him 35 times,” Meier said. “He’s like a slot machine — anytime you pull the wheel, he might go all the way. He’s definitely a talent, but I would like to have defenses worry about more than just Joe.”
Defensive opponents fond of keeping their limbs intact would be wise to worry about Pinkston, a state champion heavyweight wrestler who’s going the William “Refrigerator” Perry route in a conversion from lineman to fullback this fall.
“He’s a great athlete, so I’ve always been curious about what he would like in the backfield,” Meier said. “I volunteered him, but he didn’t fight it. I was a lineman myself. I told him, ‘You’re getting to live my dream!’”
Wherever they’re lined up on the field, the Rams are eager to reclaim their school’s past glory behind the guidance of a man who’s led past teams to great heights. Meier compiled a 68-16 record at West Potomac that included a Division 6 state title in 1989 and a Division 5 crown in 1990, followed by a 47-12 mark at Chantilly that featured a Division 6 state title in 1996. Coming off last year’s 5-6 campaign, Robinson isn’t expecting to set the world on fire this fall, but they at least aim to lay the kindling for their program’s resurgence.
“A lot of us grew up looking at Robinson as these guys who were accustomed to being so dominant, and we want to continue that tradition,” senior defensive end/tight end Aaron Holzhauer said. “We don’t want to go out on a note where we don’t feel like we upheld our side of it. We want to go out as champions.”