Rich Crabel knew the knock on the Burlington Central football program when he was chosen to replace Aaron Wichman as the Rockets' head coach this past summer.
It wasn't so much about the winning and losing -- although three straight years with no playoff berth wasn't sitting kindly around Rocket Hill.
It wasn't even about the talent. Injuries had decimated the team in two of the past three seasons, so talent wasn't really an issue.
It was about attitude. It was about involving the community. It was about getting everyone on the same page.
So Crabel came in and immediately assembled a staff of guys he had either worked with in the past or coached in the past. Guys he was familiar with. Guys he trusted.
Then he went to work on the community, specifically the parents. It was time, he says, to bring the sprawling district back together, on Friday nights and throughout the week. Like back in the day, when the weekend football game was why many existed.
"That's been the knock since I've been here," said Crabel, who started at Central in 1999. "It's so spread out out here, we had to turn it into more of a football community, for the parents, the administration and the little kids program."
That new attitude took hold on the field as well. After going 3-6 last season and just 8-19 over the past three seasons, the Rockets are now 5-2 and a win tonight against North Boone will ensure a postseason bid for the first time since 2007. BC can still share the Big Northern East title if Harvard knocks off Richmond tonight and the three leaders win out next week.
Heck, Central is a sniff away from being 7-0, something Crabel admits frustrates the heck out of him. An overtime loss to Sycamore and a questionable call 9-7 loss to Richmond-Burton are all that stand in the way of the Rockets being a very high postseason seed in Class 5A, and probably a state ranking as well.
But back to the beginning.
"The biggest thing was to turn this into more of a football community," said Crabel, who previously coached at Genoa-Kingston and Byron, which is where he lives.
"We had to bring in the parents and get them involved. I coached these seniors when they were freshmen so I know the people and they know me well. These seniors, this varsity team, wanted me. I had strong backing."
And Crabel made sure that early on his program was going to return to being a family.
"We've had a father-son steak night, a mother-son banquet night ... just little things like that to bring people together," he said. "Call it a program thing. I told the parents that we can't do this without them. We have team moms at every level.
Crabel admits he didn't conjure up anything new here. In fact, much of what he's done he says he "stole" from former Byron coach Ev Stine, one of the winningest football coaches in Illinois high school history. Crabel coached at Byron when his own sons played there.
"I've stolen stuff from all kinds of people," Crabel laughs. "After you've been around long enough there's nothing really new. It's things you steal from people for your program."
Crabel's staff is one that he trusts enough to take care of things before practice and games so he can administer the program and, on Friday nights, spend some time with the kids from the Rockets' youth program before kickoff.
That staff includes Brett Porto, the head boys basketball coach and a former Rockets' quarterback who is Crabel's offensive coordinator. Add in guys like Ryan Lyle, Doug Remrey, Doug Schmit, Eric Pertiet, Kevin Blum and Vince Gowea and there's some great experience roaming the BC sidelines. And let's not forget volunteer assistant Rob Stover, another former Rocket standout.
"I've got a great staff," Crabel says. "Robby and Schmitt run our defense on Friday nights and the kids are dialed in and those guys coach their rear ends off."
The new attitude isn't lost on BC's players, either.
"(The coaches) are very disciplined," said senior Johnny Major, whose fourth interception of the season sealed the deal against previously unbeaten Harvard last week. "They're trying to do all the little things right and keep us focused. As a team and as a program we work pretty hard and that usually has good benefits. We just have to stay focused."
Senior middle linebacker Chandler Crary, a returning all-conference player, praises his mentors as well.
"Our coaches are very knowledgeable," he said. "They know the game. Our seniors are great leaders and the juniors look up to us. It's a great unit. Words can't describe it. I love all the support the community gives us. It changes our perspective on things. We're not just doing it for us we're doing it for the whole program and the whole community."
Junior quarterback Ryan Ritchie says the new attitude carries over to the field as well.
"It's a big part of the game," said Ritchie, who is 64 of 121 passing for 854 yards and 11 TDs this season. "We have a lot of bonding time as a team and everyone's on the same page."
On the field, it's been a mix of a balanced offense and a solid defense that has led the Rockets to the threshold of the postseason, a place they lived for seven out of eight seasons between 2000 and 2007.
"Offensively we're pretty even with our run-to-pass ratio," said Crabel, whose team has 1,201 rushing yards and 854 through the air. I'd like to run a little more but my offensive coordinator liked to throw the ball a lot when he was here so ...
"Defensively we've been solid. We've only allowed two passes for TDs."
Solid, as in only giving up 174 yards per game on average. That compared to an offense that has churned out twice as much as the defense lets up leads to a winning formula.
"We work hard every single day in practice," Ricthie said. ""We make changes every week. We add new plays every week on offense and defense."
And with a win tonight, the Rockets will have public address announcer Mark Einwich booming, "And the Rockets are playoff bound!"