Oak Creek Josef Keller stood chatting in the middle of the Soroco High School football field Tuesday 15 minutes after the end of his second practice when a player approached.
“I just wanted to let you know I’m going to miss practice tomorrow,” he said. “I have to show my pig at the fair.”
There are certain things, when you’re involved in school and sports in South Routt County, that just come with the job, and in mid-August when the county fair is raging across the county in Hayden, losing athletes to show their 4-H livestock is one of those things.
Another, as Keller learned this summer, is stepping in to fill a vacancy when there’s simply no one else available to coach the children.
Keller, Soroco’s athletic director since 2012, was hired in July to coach the Rams’ varsity football team after David Bruner decided to resign from the position in May.
David Bruner's tenure
Year, record, league finish
2007, 1-7, 7th
2008, 4-4, —
2009, 7-1, —
2010, 6-3, 3rd
2011, 6-3, 2nd
2012, 4-4, 5th
2013, 5-3, 4th
For Bruner, the decision to step down from one of the most successful stints of football in Soroco was one he saw coming even before he took over as head coach in 2007.
That’s what having three daughters will do.
“I always knew this day was coming,” he said. “I’ve been doing this, involved in coaching football, for 26 years, so I knew the day would come where my girls got old enough that I would miss some of their stuff if I kept coaching football.”
Bruner has served as the head coach for literally half of Soroco’s varsity sports during that span, coaching the girls basketball and track teams, as well, so missing his children’s events wasn’t a new problem.
It finally was too much, however.
He sat down with his family early in the spring and decided something had to go, and with his oldest daughter, DaKota Bruner, competing on the basketball and track teams, it was obvious what that something had to be.
His tenure as head coach was remarkably successful for a school that’s short on football tradition. He oversaw a switch to 8-man football in 2008, then took an undefeated team into the last game of the regular season in 2009.
Since the Rams first joined an 8-man league for the first time in 2010, they’ve consistently been a factor, finishing as high as second in 2011.
Bruner wrote a letter of resignation in the spring but came down with a nasty virus and wasn’t able to turn it in as soon as he’d hoped. His wife, Kim Bruner, ended up handing it over as David lay in the hospital. That seemed to cloak the moment in drama, but in reality, the decision already had been made.
He said he’s looking forward to watching high school games at Soroco and around the region as — gasp! — just a fan, and he hopes to make it back to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to watch Oklahoma State play this fall.
“The good Lord really blessed me and my family with all the support my wife gave me,” he said. “There was a lot of time away from my family, and a lot of the success goes back to what my wife did and all the support she and my girls gave me.”
The call went out for applicants after Bruner announced he was stepping down, but no worthy candidate emerged.
“We had some interest,” Keller said. “We had four or five people who called and asked about it, but the problem we had was they needed jobs as teachers and their expertise didn’t line up with our openings, so when it came down to it, the people who could have applied or would have applied couldn’t get hired on to our teaching staff.”
Keller met with the team in May to spread the news of Bruner’s resignation, and he told the boys then that he’d find a replacement, or, if it came to it, he felt qualified to step in.
It came to it, and he was hired by the school board in July, adding “head football coach” to his already significant duties as the sixth- and seventh-grade math, science and social studies teacher, the district facilities manager and the middle school and high school athletics director.
A baseball player in high school, he spent four years as the football defensive coordinator and an offensive line coach in Calhan, near Colorado Springs, and has worked in coaching positions with dozens of other teams in a handful of sports.
“As athletic director and a teacher, I knew I had my hands full. We wanted to fill it with another qualified candidate, but we didn’t have any,” Keller said.
He was nervous at first, but as preseason work gave way this week to actual practices, he’s embraced the opportunity.
“I’m excited now,” he said.
It will take more than excitement to succeed this season, however, and there, Keller is trying to be a quick study. He’s new to 8-man football and quickly absorbed the fact that going from 11-man to 8-man football is more than taking three kids off the field.
He looked to his assistant coaches, Dick Dudas and Scott Delto, for help. He looked to coaching clinics. He even reached out to other coaches — rivals — in the area, seeking advice.
“I’m not calling people up and asking for their playbook, but I ask them, ‘How do you defend this space, or take advantage of that on offense,’” Keller said. “People would be surprised how willing most coaches are to share information.”
He asked about spacing on the offensive line or how to get his defense to plug a gap. Then, he sat down with a pen and a notebook and drew up his own offensive plays.
“It’s drawing stuff out in paper and pen, tweaking it and going from there,” he said. “I think I know enough, but that might change come scrimmage or the first game.”
He’ll find out quickly. The Rams open against Sanford, a state quarterfinalist last year. The third game of the season is against the reigning state champ, Dayspring Christian, and that’s all before league play, which will be considerably more difficult this year with the addition of state semifinalist Norwood.
“We will find out if what we’re doing is working,” he said. “So far, I like how it looks without a full defense or an offense going against us, but you never know until you get into game action.
“Dick’s got a pretty good idea of how things work at the 8-man level, and he hasn’t told me I’m crazy yet.”
No doubt, it will be a challenge, but the initially reluctant Keller is now all in.
He didn’t expect to take over the Soroco football program, and he’s quick to admit his reign will last only one year if the right candidate comes along next summer.
For now, though, preparing for the upcoming football season is something, like losing players to show a pig, that comes with the job.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9