Just Call Him "Coach"
On the Trail of Chaps Legend Ron Schroeder
Dotted with ash juniper, limestone and an overpopulation of white-tail deer, Westlake Hills lies just outside of Austin on the sloping bluffs of the Edwards Plateau. The small, affluent suburb is known to most Austinites as the "Beverly Hills" of Central Texas, home to area business owners, trust fund babies, and property barons. At the center of it all is Westlake High, the area's only high school, with a student population of more than 2,200. The campus is generously loaded with amenities: three two-story classroom buildings, a library, a cafeteria, two gyms, a football stadium, a baseball field, and a fine arts theatre with acoustics on par with that of Carnegie Hall. The campus is kept clean and well-groomed. It is not uncommon to see a student pull into the parking lot in a brand-new Camaro or BMW or Corvette. The student body dresses straight from the catalogs, also. The names Target or Ross are completely lost on them. Most of them think Goodwill is something they're supposed to feel around Christmas time.
Most of the students are white, too. There is a black or Hispanic or Asian person here or there, but for the most part, Westlake is as Anglo-Saxon as Stratford-upon-Avon, and as upper class as that might imply in Central Texas. Image is important, and the campus is well-regulated. There are no gangs, no guns, no graffiti. And they take their sports very seriously, especially football, which is the Texas tradition. So it is understandable that every fall, the school -- the whole suburb of Westlake Hills for that matter -- turns its full attention to one stoic man to lead them to victory in their beloved sport.
Ron Schroeder stands at about 5'11", give or take an inch, and his brown hair lays flat, almost smooth, against his forehead. He has a thick, full face, very clean cut, like a Gillette ad. His solid build is apparent in his stance, always straight up, with deep, dark eyes that penetrate their subject. His usual around-campus attire consists of a collared Westlake football shirt -- alternating school spirit colors red, white, and blue with the running Chaparral or "Chap" embroidered over the left breast -- and gray gym shorts or, during the three to four months that Texas temperatures require them -- sweatpants. He is a respected figure around the campus, moving coolly and quietly from office to office, occasionally stopping in a hallway to pat a player on the back or to receive a high five.
Schroeder could be a lot of things: You could call him a leader, for the numerous teams he has led through the rigorous bowels of a Texas high school football season, not just at Westlake, but at other schools like Lanier and Kline Forest. You could call him a celebrity, for his countless radio interviews and TV appearances. You could call him a record breaker, namely for the 706 points scored by his cataclysmic offense in the historic 1994 season, a division 5A record that has yet to be broken. You could call him a teacher. He has coached 55 young athletes that went on to play college ball in big, Division I schools such as Colorado, Texas, and Purdue. You could call him incredible. His overall record as head coach at Westlake is 148-21-3, and in the Nineties alone, he has just 12 losses against a lopsided 123 victories. Up until the 1998 season his team hadn't lost a regular-season Friday night football game since 1990. He won the state championship in 1996 with a perfect record of 16-0. You could even stretch it a little bit and call him "just another guy." The man does have a family. Stacy, his daughter who, according to him, will most likely be embarrassed by being mentioned in this article, will start college this year. Chad, his son, is a sophomore at Westlake. Dixie, his wife of 21 years, teaches second grade at Eanes Elementary. You could call him all of those things. But the thing he likes to be called most? Well, that's an easy one. It's Coach.
Part of the mystery about Schroeder is that he appears to be no different from anyone else. He is reserved, quiet. He eats lunch in the cafeteria and teaches health when he is not out coaching the football team. He wears tennis shoes to school. And then every Friday night he takes a predominantly white team -- a team that by all expert definition and rational thinking would be squashed by opponents full of gifted athletes -- and demolishes the competition. He did that every regular-season game for 67 games -- almost seven years -- until a rainy, muddy game against the No. 1-ranked team in the state, Killeen-Ellison last season.
Schroeder came from humble beginnings. He was not born into the eat-drink-sleep-breathe football family that many people might think. No, football was more of a discovery for Schroeder; he kind of just fell into it and stuck there.
He was born in Schulenburg, Texas, a small town off I-10 halfway between San Antonio and Houston, famous for both Frank's Restaurant (which, according to Frank's, serves "the best hamburgers in Texas") and its high school football powerhouse, the Schulenburg Shorthorns. Schroeder's father was an administrator of a local model airplane factory, and his mother, who worked alongside her husband before their children were born, later stayed at home with young Ron and his five siblings.
While he was growing up, Schroeder was not dedicated to one sport in particular; he and his three brothers played them all. Football was not even the one Schroeder fell in love with, at least not at first.
"I was a baseball fanatic," he says. "I started playing Little League as soon as I was big enough to swing a bat. I loved Harry Caray, who was originally with the St. Louis Cardinals and then became the Chicago Cubs announcer. I was a huge Cardinals fan. I had every baseball card I could get my hands on when I was a kid, and I'd still have them to this very day if my mother hadn't thrown them out," he laughs.
Schroeder's love of baseball quickly dropped to second string when he started playing football in the seventh grade. His family, chock-full of uncles and cousins and even brothers who played and coached high school football, started him down that road he is still on to this day. But family influence alone isn't what got Schroeder into the game. He was an aggressive sort of kid, loved to tackle people, show them what he was made of.
"I guess it was a tough guy sort of thing," he says, smiling. "I don't know. The nature of the game fit me I guess."
He continued to play baseball and even dabbled in basketball for a short time, but football kept most of his attention. Schroeder went on to Schulenburg High and made varsity as a sophomore, playing both fullback and linebacker through his senior year. He then moved on to Lynn Junior College. There he sustained a head injury, a serious one that "caused blackouts," sending his playing days down the drain in a quick, destructive wave.
Determined not to let the injury ruin his true love of sport, Schroeder transferred from Lynn to the University of Texas as a junior and went into the football program, not as a player but as a trainer in the off-season program. These were his first baby steps in the world of coaching. Dr. Charles Craven, a professor who still presides at the university, worked with Schroeder in the training and conditioning part of the football program.
Schroeder took business courses as well. "I had a choice of two roads. I could have gone into business, which I kind of looked at as a fall-back position if this whole sports thing didn't work out, and I had coaching and an education in physical training," he remembers. "Business, didn't really fit me. My whole life had been sports-oriented; it probably kept me out of a lot of trouble. Sports helped keep me doing what I was supposed to do."
Instead of studying to be a CPA, Schroeder decided to be a coach. He graduated from the university as a teacher, certified in business, health, and physical education. His course was set.
It's 6:45am and too damn early for any human being to be awake. I am standing on the edge of the Westlake parking lot, on the sidewalk beside Chaparral Stadium, the open-air football temple where dreams and touchdowns are made every fall at least once a week. The field is barren right now, except for a couple of joggers, who run aimlessly around the track, bodies churning in the early-morning haze.
A lackadaisical sky floats above, gray, tinted with yellow, backlit by the rising sun. There is a smell of wet grass, damp from a touch of rain. It will burn off soon, no doubt, making the air thick and less foreboding to anyone who wishes to venture outside. Perfect for the first day of football practice.
Inside the locker room, players sit in a line against the wall, cradling helmets and shoulder pads under their arms, muttering to each other in monosyllabic tones. Dark circles traverse sunken eyes, which all seem to agree that the first practice is five hours too early. The coaches, on the other hand, are just hitting their strides. Assistant coaches Hurst and Davis shuffle in and out of the locker room nervously, calling players in, assigning them lockers and teams. Across the narrow hallway from the boys locker room, Schroeder makes copies of the days plans, one for each coach.
"Glad you made it out," he says, shaking my hand. I sense that Schroeder can tell that early hours are new to me. He's been around enough high schoolers to know the difference between ass-kissing enthusiasm and sheer determination. We talk for a moment, and then he makes his way across the hallway to the locker room, leaving me in the cramped office space the Westlake coaching staff calls home. College football-bound graduates smile at me from the wall, all dressed in their uniforms, respective college mascots and logos emblazoned on the front of their jerseys. I make my way back outside and wait for practice to start.
The joggers have finished their morning workout, and in their wake, the field has regained its placid composure. In minutes it will be ravaged by its patrons as the last seconds of the preseason slip away.
The 1999 Chaps football season has begun.
In 1979 Schroeder moved into his first season as head coach of Pierce Junior High School in East Austin. It was a humble title, but Schroeder made the best of it. "In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Reagan High School won a couple of state championships," Schroeder says. "Pierce feeds most of its kids directly into Reagan; so in a way, the coaching staff at Pierce was important in making Reagan a state football power."
From there, the junior high coach moved on to Lanier High School. Schroeder coached there for a few seasons, before moving to Kline Forest, just north of Houston. Then in 1982 he returned to Central Texas to become offensive coordinator at Westlake High School, under head coach Ebbie Neptune. When Neptune was hired as athletics director in 1987, Schroeder took over as head coach of the Chaps. He has been there ever since.
There was no magic associated with Schroeder's arrival at the top of Westlake's football program. He built the now dominant football power from the ground up, starting with a mediocre season in 1989 and soaring to an 8-1-1 record in 1990 and an appearance in the state championship.
The Chaps made it back to the state championship in 1994, where they were favored to win before losing to the speedy Lions of John Tyler High in Longview. This, Schroeder offers with a sigh, was probably the most disappointing moment in his high school coaching career.
"It was bittersweet," he recalls. "To go through a football season -- all the games, so much wear and tear, so many emotions spent -- to get to that last game and lose. Well, it's a real bummer."
Two years later, however, Schroeder experienced the greatest moment of his career, the 55-15 steamrolling of Abilene Cooper High School behind the arm of current Purdue quarterback Drew Brees in the 1996 state championship game, quenching the local thirst for a truly undefeated season.
"I never thought we had enough talent," he says and smiles. "We only had two returning starters, and I wasn't expecting an incredible season. But everything came together. They were incredible. The kids really came together."
Unfortunately, things aren't always this easy for the Westlake coach. Early in 1998, Schroeder found himself at the center of a school conflict, namely the talk of Westlake expanding into two high schools, a rumor which divided the community and the local opinion of Westlake football. Voters opposed to the split feel that breaking Westlake into two high schools would take its toll on the town's football culture and fear for the immediate loss of revenue that the healthy program provides. Pro-dual high school voters believe that the problems Westlake experiences come from the football program, that if the school is divided, the football team will not be as talented, hence taking the community's focus from athletics, giving education more attention.
To Schroeder, this is an overreaction.
"My philosophy before Westlake [became] a football power was that I wasn't here to win state championships," he says. "I believe I am here to help kids get a positive learning experience. If the community wants another high school, they can have another high school, but don't base [that decision] on football. Base it on schooling."
The vote to add a second high school to the Eanes Independent School District failed, and Westlake remained one. Schroeder, for the time being, had dodged his critics. Yet other criticism does surface. Skeptics blame Schroeder, citing that the coach has been unable to help his players get into successful Division I football colleges after they graduate. Though his critics are few, they are quite outspoken when asked to share their views.
"He doesn't give credit to his players," according to one anonymous ex-player. "He is self-centered when it comes to giving glory to other people. Here's an example: Drew Brees [current Purdue quarterback] was considered the best quarterback, if not the best player, in the state of Texas. He went to Purdue, the worst football team in the Big Ten Conference. Now you tell me if that makes sense." Other players have been cited, namely Jay Rodgers, who played for Indiana through 1998, and the 5A record-setting running back Ryan Nuñez, who now plays for Texas as a receiver and kick returner.
Schroeder has little to say to these critics. Lately he has had just cause to say nothing at all: Last December 27, sophomore quarterback Brees led Purdue, "the worst team in the Big Ten," over the third-best team in the nation, Kansas State, in the Alamo Bowl, silencing Schroeder's detractors -- at least for a while.
So far this season, the 1999 Chaps have been just as dominant as the fabled teams of the recent past. The legs of junior running back Brendan Dewan and the arm of senior quarterback Alvin Cowan have led this year's team to their 10th consecutive district championship, another undefeated regular season, and another shot at state.
The coach has done it again with a new batch of disciplined kids. This year the Chaps are better than ever -- ranked third in Texas and 15th in the nation. With the exception of a nail-biting three-point win over a very underrated McNeil squad in the first round of the playoffs last week, Westlake hasn't allowed their opponents to get closer than a touchdown all season. This Friday, the Chaps face off against Conroe in the area finals, the next step in the long road to another state championship. The rich kids in red, white, and blue are eyeing the crown -- all they have to do is keep on winning.
What does Schroeder love? He loves his wife and his kids. He loves being a teacher. He loves Texas. He loves football.
"I love the atmosphere of football games," he smiles. "You have your little pep talk in the locker room, and then the kids march down the sidewalk and across the parking lot, and the crowd is ready. They can feel the players coming. There's this electricity, you can almost see it in each player. All their troubles are gone, and they are just zeroed in, ready to play. Then you run through the big paper banner and over to the sideline, and the crowd is cheering -- it's amazing, Friday night excitement."
The players love him back. It takes more than just a coach who knows what he's doing to have a great team. It takes players who love and respect a coach who knows what he's doing to make a great team, a successful team, a team like Westlake. Schroeder reports that 95% of his players will not go on to play at the next level, that most of them are just making memories. This number strikes me as odd -- that a group of kids would work that hard for a couple of memories.
But as I watch the Chaps practice and play, I suddenly realize why they work so hard. It is not just for themselves, it's for Schroeder, to make him happy, to thank him for all he has taught them in the years they've been under his wing. And for Schroeder, the husband, the father, and the coach, it's all he needs to keep winning, to keep on teaching not just football, but lessons in life.
Westlake High School senior and head writer for the Westlake Featherduster, Eli Kooris has been nominated by the Los Angeles Times and the National Scholastic Press Association for 1999 High School Feature of the Year. He travels to Atlanta this weekend for the awards ceremony. Kooris recently appeared in the Chronicle's Halloween issue (October 29, 1999).