BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
Ron Shaffer was not planning to coach football again after 2019.
His Lewis Cass team on which he had been the offensive coordinator had been ranked No. 1 in Class 2A at the end of the regular season and then went on to win a sectional title. Given that Kings coach Jeff Phillips had announced his retirement, Shaffer had decided that it would be a good time for him to step away too.
He took a position teaching math at Rochester Middle School with no plans to coach again.
But he soon realized he missed it. And when then-Zebras coach Sean Kelly asked him if he wanted to join the staff, he jumped back in.
And when Kelly resigned in February, Shaffer realized how much he liked the kids. So he applied for the head coaching job.
Now, after starting his coaching career in 1994 and about 18 months after he thought he was done coaching, Shaffer is a varsity head football coach for the first time after the Rochester School Board approved him at its meeting Monday to be the new coach at Rochester High School.
Shaffer replaces Kelly, who resigned in February.
Shaffer said he likes the kids involved with the Rochester program, and that’s why he wanted the job.
“It’s an attractive job,” Shaffer said. “You’ve got great history here in football back to the 1987 state championship team and teams that have been competitive year in and year out. Coming here teaching, I’ve really been attracted to the community and the kids. They’re just great kids. And half the battle sometimes in coaching is trying to develop great young men, and I feel like we’re already halfway there. The kids are meeting that expectation already. It’s a real nice situation.”
Shaffer also said Rochester’s history of athletic success was enticing.
“And the history of the school sports-wise, period, in the TRC has been pretty strong,” Shaffer said. “We’re just looking to restore that in the football program (after) a couple down years. I feel like we’re up for the challenge and ready to hit the ground running.”
Building a Bridge
Shaffer grew up in Mexico, a town in Miami County about 20 miles south of Rochester.
He said he grew up always loving football in the days when everybody seemingly was a Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys fan.
In 1984, Indianapolis got its own NFL team when the Colts moved from Baltimore. And in 1985, the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl with the famed “46” defense.
It helped Shaffer fall in love with the game.
“I’ve always been drawn to the game,” Shaffer said. “I started playing it when I was basically in fourth grade in elementary school at North Miami and played all through high school.”
Bob Bridge was Shaffer’s high school coach at North Miami. The coaching staff at North Miami turned him into an offensive lineman.
While Rochester was busy winning the 1987 Class 2A state championship, North Miami went 3-7 that season. That was Shaffer’s freshman year.
North Miami then won seven games in each of Shaffer’s sophomore, junior and senior seasons. That included a 35-7 win at Barnhart Field against Rochester on Oct. 12, 1990.
Shaffer graduated from North Miami in 1991.
Shaffer then played collegiately at Franklin College. But within three years of his last high school snap as a player, he had started his coaching career. His first coaching job was at Griffith in 1994.
The Griffith head coach who hired him was Russ Radtke. Interestingly enough, 27 years later, Shaffer will coach against Radtke on Aug. 27 when Rochester hosts Knox. Radtke is in his second season as Knox’s coach.
“I just decided that that level wasn’t for me, but I still loved the game, and so I got started early when I was still in college with coaching and just hung on since,” Shaffer said of his transition from college football player to high school football coach. “It’s kind of in my family. My kids played. If my boys weren't playing, my girls were cheerleaders. It’s in our family, and it’s a part of our everyday life. It’s what we do.”
In addition to Radtke, Shaffer calls Bridge, Mark Lefebvre, Scott Mannering and Jeff Phillips among his coaching mentors. Shaffer worked under Lefebvre, who coached Southern Wells to the Class 1A state title in 2001, when Lefebvre was the coach at Maconaquah.
He was later hired at Lewis Cass in 2005 and served three different stints there as an assistant: from 2005-07, 2010-15 and 2017-19. Lewis Cass won regional titles in 2005 and 2007 – the 2007 Lewis Cass team beat a Rochester team that had an undefeated regular season in the sectional opener – and sectional titles in 2012 and 2019 while he was there.
Moving to Rochester
While Shaffer coached at Lewis Cass, he taught at Maconaquah.
He moved to Rochester in January 2020 to teach. Kelly reached out to him and offered him a job on staff.
As it turned out, the Zebras went 0-8 through a COVID-plagued season in which the team didn’t play its first game until September after a three-week pause.
“I wasn’t sure whether I was just going to be done coaching,” Shaffer said. “I missed it and got back into it, and I just really enjoyed my time here. Even though we didn't win a game last year, the kids made it enjoyable. I know they’re young. We kinda took our lumps and went through some growing pains last year, but I see a real upside to the kids we have coming back for sure.”
Shaffer said he sees kids who are willing to improve and get better. He said they are eager to get into the weight room and get better. He said the players “absorb” coaching well.
He said that many of them had to be thrown onto the varsity field when they might not have been ready.
“You’ve got guys that started that probably should have had to start yet at a varsity level,” Shaffer said. “But they responded. A guy like Alex Deming is somebody you can start to really build a program around with that youth movement. But you’ve got also guys like Marshall Fishback and Jesse Shriver, who are your seniors coming in next year. You’ve got Antonio Schlosser. You’ve got some guys that have some experience that can lead these guys.”
Shaffer said last year’s record is not indicative of the enthusiasm around the program.
“It can be something kind of special as we try to get back in the habit of winning,” Shaffer said. “It excites me when you can go through an 0-8 season and still see a light at the end of the tunnel, that there are guys that are so fired up about coming out for football. Because that’s not easy. This sport is difficult to play. It takes a lot of heart and dedication. We’ve already hit the ground running. with some leadership classes. We’re already in the weight room getting stronger.”
Weight room helps
Shaffer had high praise for Rochester wrestling coach Clint Gard. Gard is also a physical education teacher who teaches the weights classes and has also invited the football players to join the wrestlers with their weight program.
Shaffer said the new weight room figures to be an asset in helping him build his program.
“It’s tremendous,” Shaffer said. “You’re talking about a pretty state-of-the-art facility between the numbers of kids that you can get in there and what you can do. It’s an integral part of us rebuilding this program. It’s already set up for kids to be either in a class during the day or get in there after school or both. And a lot of kids are doing that. We’ve got it set up for the summer. They’ll have two different sessions a day three days a week to get in there and get to work. The plan is already in place and laid out. We just need to carry out that plan.”
Shaffer will be his own offensive play caller.
Shaffer called plays for the first time in 2009 when he was an assistant coach at Maconaquah. He was asked how high school offenses have evolved over that time.
“They’re a lot more sophisticated,” Shaffer said. “Everything trickles down from the top. When I say ‘top,’ it’s more college down into the high school ranks. So you’re seeing a lot more teams with zone blocking up front. They’re RPO-ing (run-pass option). They’re throwing the ball more than they’re running the ball a lot of times. … It really speaks to the level of coaching in Indiana. Indiana’s really made a lot of strides in that.”
Shaffer said a key figure was the late Joe Tiller, who coached at Purdue from 1997-2008. His “basketball on grass” offense helped inform some of the Indiana high school offenses.
“He was opening things wide up with Drew Brees and that kind of started that movement,” Shaffer said. “And Indiana’s really latched on to it. And you’re seeing some really good football players come out of Indiana into the college ranks now. The game is a lot more sophisticated, which means that your defenses have to be a lot better and more on your toes. You just can’t line up in three-deep coverage anymore and hope to be able to cover these guys, so you have to get a little more sophisticated on defense also.”
Shaffer said the Lewis Cass offense that he coordinated combined wing-T with some RPO and some of the “air raid” concepts popularized by coaches like former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme and current Mississippi State coach Mike Leach. The air raid offense usually consists of one running back and four wide receivers with the quarterback taking three-step or five-step drops from the shotgun formation.
“We try to stay really true to our blocking schemes with wing-T, but then we added the element of putting the quarterback in shotgun and reading defenders at the second and third level and really putting people in binds and conflict,” Shaffer said. “So you slow those linebackers down, and they either decide they’re going to try to stop the run, or they’re going to defend the pass. As soon as we can slow them down, your offense can really thrive and flourish.”
Lewis Cass went 11-2 in 2019, and they scored 40 or more points nine times.
“We were able to really marry things well with a wing-T system, and it worked out really well with our athletes,” Shaffer said.
He was asked if he will run that offense at Rochester.
“For right now, we’re going to start implementing wing-T philosophy and build from there and see how quickly we can move towards what we did at Cass,” Shaffer said. “The wing-T offense is sufficient in and of itself. It does put defenders in conflict. It makes sometimes lesser athletes a little bit better, not that we have that problem. We’ve got some pretty good kids coming back on the offensive side. We should have around nine starters coming back, so we’re looking for big things coming out of our offense.”
But Shaffer knows that the defense must improve too. The Zebras gave up at least 28 points in all eight games last year. Four of the eight games ended with a running clock.
Shaffer plans on implementing a 4-2-5 defense, a defense that is similar to a 4-4 but a “little more coverage-minded.”
“For every good offense that you have, you have a better defense behind it,” Shaffer said. “So that’s going to be a real big emphasis is improving on the defensive side.”
Shaffer said that Deric Beck, Nate Basham and Bryce Roberts will be part of his coaching staff. Roberts will move up from the middle school. The rest of the coaching staff has yet to be decided.
Shaffer teaches math at Rochester Middle School. He is also an assistant track coach at RHS, where he works with throwers in the discus and shot put.
Shaffer is married to wife Renita and is the father of four: sons Isaac and Joe and daughters Lilli and Olivia.