Past players, including Drew Stanton, congratulate coach John Herrington for winning the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Dana Sulonen, Detroit Free Press
Talk about your invasion.
North Farmington’s football program has been overrun by Hawks … Farmington Hills Harrison Hawks.
Harrison, the school with the most successful football program in state history, closed in June and two months later about 10 Harrison players and 11 coaches have landed at North.
And they brought the big guns with them. After 12 seasons as an assistant coach at Harrison, John Herstein is the head coach at North while John Herrington, the winningest coach in state history, is now the backfield coach and works alongside quarterbacks coach Mill (The Thrill) Coleman.
“It’s football; it’s the best,” Herrington said at Monday’s opening practice. “The kids here want to win. They’re going to work hard for it.”
North Farmington coach Jon Herstein meets with his team as former Farmington Hills Harrison coach John Herrington listens before practice on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. (Photo: Mick McCabe Special to DFP)
This invasion could have been met with some trepidation by North players, who now could lose starting positions to former Harrison players.
Instead, the Harrison staff and players have been welcomed with open arms.
“I think it’s cool that they came over here to help us out,” said Taj Cheathem, a defensive back/running back from North. “I think without them I think we would have been in for a little blow offseason, not really getting anywhere. But here I feel like they trying to actually get us better, teach us about football and actually take us somewhere with football.”
That somewhere would be the state playoffs.
North was 5-22 the last three seasons and made only one playoff appearance in the last 13 seasons. It hasn’t won a state playoff game since 1978, the year legendary coach Ron Holland took the Raiders to the Class A state championship game.
Many of the players admitted they were nervous about the first practice, but none of them were as nervous – or as excited – as Herstein.
John Herrington, right, and North Farmington assistant coach Doug Lemberg work with the offensive backs during practice on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. (Photo: Mick McCabe Special to DFP)
“I was up early, about 5:30,” Herstein said. “But then I’ve got a toddler at home. I couldn’t sleep. I had a hard time falling asleep. I was excited for the day.”
The day began like most opening days did at Harrison, but this time it was Herstein who was going over the team goals.
He spoke about specific goals of scoring three touchdowns a game, explaining that with the type of defense that coordinator Dave Thorne was going have, that would be enough to win most games.
A total offense of 350 yards should generate enough points, he said, as long as there were no fumbles and no interceptions. Herstein also mentioned scoring every time they got inside the 10-yard line is a must.
Herrington sat there and listened to his protégé run the session. It was something he expected to do this season even if Harrison was still open.
“Last year was going to be my last year as head coach no matter what,” Herrington said. “If we would have stayed at Harrison I’d have let Jon take over because he’s ready and I had my time.”
While he would have preferred doing this at Harrison, Herrington was thrilled to be able to be an assistant for Herstein.
“He was very loyal in staying,” Herrington said. “He could have gone to Walled Lake Western a couple of years ago and Farmington, too, but he chose to stay with us. He’s going to do a great job.”
It didn’t take long for the North players to realize the former Harrison coaches were not run of the mill coaches.
There is a reason why they had an incredible 93-21 record in state playoff games.
“I love them,” said Jon Brunette, a linebacker/fullback from North. “It’s the work ethic; fast-pace. We get more done and they’re more organized. They know what they’re doing because they’ve been to the finals. They know how to get there and they know what to do.”
The bonding process between the two groups of players began over the winter in the weight room where strength and conditioning coach Billy Slobin taught them about Hawk Pride.
“In the offseason, we became bigger and faster through the lifting with Coach Billy,” Brunette said. “Our bodies are more prepared for the wear and tear of the game.”
The importance of the weight room wasn’t lost on the North players, who began last season losing to Harrison, 41-0, in the opener.
“They were so much stronger than us,” said Cheathem. “I see they actually work for it. When we played them, we didn’t watch any film or anything. I can see they’re like precise and they knew what they were doing. They had a lot more football knowledge.”
Linebacker/tight end Sylvon Brown was at Harrison last season and initially he had questions about the North players and their commitment to the game.
“It’s definitely a transition, but I like the kids here,” he said. “They have a real great energy around them. I can tell they want to win. Right now we’re trying to put in all the plays because we’re starting over.”
Herrington is starting over, too, right where he began. In 1962, Holland hired him to be the school’s junior varsity coach.
Eight years later, he became Harrison’s first and last coach.
“It’s fun, but it’s a little tough wearing this,” Herrington said pointing at the North Farmington T-shirt and laughing. “What else is there to do but coach? I watched my last showcase on ‘The Price is Right.’ I’m out here now.”
The North players are happy about that, too. Herrington’s reputation preceded him and gave him instant credibility with the North players.
“I’ve watched documentaries on the legacy he had at Harrison and how incredible the players were who went on to the NFL and college,” Brunette said. “They built a program there and hopefully they can build it around here now.”
Brown is disappointed he will not be able to graduate at Harrison and he misses his former teammates who chose to attend Farmington High. But there is a silver lining in this playbook.
“Yeah, I miss it, but I’m happy I still have my coaches,” he said. “That’s really what’s most important. They can take the same program that we were doing at Harrison and bring it here. We just have to buy into it.”
Mick McCabe is a former longtime columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.