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Plano on the Brink

For decades, the Plano Senior High Wildcats dominated Texas high school football. No team in the state has won more championships. But when it lost every single game last year—the first winless season ever—the city hardly noticed.

SACKED: Plano rushes onto John Clark Field.

THE SEASON THAT NEVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN ALMOST WASN’T. As the fourth quarter wound down on the final game of 2003, Plano Senior High trailed Richardson Berkner by six points. Unlike past years, the Wildcats weren’t battling for a spot in the playoffs, but the players knew that the stakes had never been higher. They were only five minutes and 17 seconds away from their first winless season in 103 years.

Jon Kastanos also knew that he was only 61 yards away from the winning touchdown. The soft-spoken senior was born and raised in Plano, and he grew up dreaming about playing quarterback for the Wildcats. He knew the stories about the old teams that had built Plano into the greatest powerhouse that North Texas had ever seen. And he knew how close he was to being part of history for all the wrong reasons. “It’s all or nothing right now,” he said as he kneeled in the huddle. “This is our last drive of the year. Let’s put it together and get the win.”

The Wildcats responded. Plano ran the ball on four consecutive plays, pushing it past midfield. Then Kastanos caught Berkner off guard with a fake handoff and fired a pass for 21 yards. The Wildcats marched to the 3-yard line, to the 2, to the 1. The players waved their arms above their helmets, and the home crowd at John Clark Field roared. Kastanos took the snap, rolled right, and plowed forward. Touchdown Wildcats.

Imagine the relief. Years from now, those seniors would find themselves at a local Chili’s, seated next to a fellow Wildcat who’d ask, “What year did you graduate?” They could talk about that final drive. They could even laugh about nearly going winless. Kastanos hugged his friends on the sideline and glanced at the scoreboard. With only 55 seconds left and the score tied at 16, they just needed the extra point.

Except the kick was low, and Berkner’s Aqib Talib, all 6 feet 2 inches of him, stretched out and batted the ball away. In overtime, Berkner scored on its first possession, and the last pass Kastanos ever threw was intercepted. “It was just heartbreaking for everybody,” he says. “But that was how the whole season went. We just couldn’t catch a break.”

As fans filed out of the stadium that November evening, a question hung in the air: “How could this have happened?” For a suburb that’s fast approaching 250,000 residents, though, there’s an even better one: “Does anyone really care?”

PLANO SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL sits on a sprawling campus with a tree-lined pond and crape myrtles blooming along wide walkways. It has 2,232 students in grades 11 and 12, and it occupies six buildings, the newest of which is a 39,235-square-foot indoor practice facility. Identical buildings were completed at all three of the city’s senior highs in 2002 at a total cost of $5.88 million.

One of the school’s points of pride has always been its football team, whose history is displayed in a modest hallway outside the coaches’ offices. Plano has won 661 games, third in the state behind Amarillo and Temple, and its seven state championships tie Brownwood for the most in Texas history. In 1977, Plano defeated Port Neches-Groves at Texas Stadium for the state title, and the 49,950 people who witnessed that victory set a national attendance record for a high school game. A certificate from the National Sports News Service in 1987 celebrated Plano’s 28-game winning streak and back-to-back state titles by ranking the Wildcats No. 1 in the country. The head coach at the time, Tom Kimbrough, was named national coach of the year.

If anything seems amiss, it’s a plaque honoring “Plano Wildcat Legends of the Past” that is covered by an editorial from last year’s student newspaper. “The Wildcat football program,” wrote Brittany Pieper, “once known for its state championships, now may be known for something else: its heart.” The article is titled “Plano Shows Its Spirit.” Head coach Gerald Brence put it there.

At 45 years old, Brence is handsome, with sharp blue eyes and short sandy hair that shows a few spots of gray. He is the kind of person who can be in constant motion even while sitting: he leans back with his arms over his head, then he rocks forward, then he’s stretched sideways, with an elbow on his desk.

It’s a little more than two months before the 2004 season begins on August 27, but the aftermath of the Berkner game is still fresh on his mind. “The next day was pouring down rain, and physically—I’ll admit it—I was ill,” he says. “My son played on that team, and so did his friends. I wanted them to win that game so bad, and when we couldn’t do it, it physically hurt. And for the whole next day, and for a long time”—his voice trails off—”it’s just really hard.”

When a team like Plano doesn’t win a single game, clearly the coach is to blame, right? A torch-carrying mob gathers in the school parking lot and marches through the streets. Chase him out of town! Burn down his house! Toss his pets in the pool! If a former Odessa Permian coach once returned home after a tough loss to find “For Sale” signs planted in his yard, that reaction sounds reasonable.

So it’s a bit surprising to learn that Brence received pretty even-handed treatment. People weren’t happy, of course. He fielded his fair share of phone calls, e-mails, and letters. But the district’s athletic director, Cliff Odenwald, says he didn’t get a single phone call from a parent. As one longtime Plano teacher put it: “People talked about it for a couple of weeks. Then they moved on.”

Head Coach Gerald Brence

Part of that can be attributed to the fact that Brence, by all accounts, is the guy you want your kids to play for. He’s tirelessly upbeat. He runs a clean program. He cares about his players. “He’s a good guy, and you can’t ask for a better coach,” says Smitty Minton, who moved to Plano in 1954 and has been the stadium manager at Clark Field for 15 years. “I tell people, ’Until you walk in his shoes, don’t say what you would or wouldn’t do.’”

Brence also has deep ties to Plano. He started as an assistant under Kimbrough 23 years ago and never left. He took over as head coach in 1992, and in his second year on the job, he led the Wildcats to the state championship game. The next year, he won it.

Another reason that fans haven’t turned on him is that last year’s disaster, as it turns out, wasn’t entirely unexpected. Few would have guessed zero wins, but almost to a man, people close to the program talk about “The Situation.” It’s a delicate topic, understandably. No one doubts that the players had heart. No one wants to say unkind things about kids. But, as Minton says, “This group didn’t exactly set the world on fire as they were coming up.”

If it sounds odd that a school as large as Plano could be strapped for talent, enter Plano West Senior High, which opened in 1999 and began playing a full varsity schedule the following year. With an enrollment of almost 1,800 students, it cut into the number of high schools that feed in to Plano Senior High. It’s not the first time that Plano’s talent has been divided. When Plano East Senior High opened in 1981, it drove a wedge between the two sides of town. My mother proudly drove around in an Oldsmobile with a bumper sticker that read “Two Great Cats” and featured the logos of the Plano Wildcat and the P.E.S.H. Panther. Others weren’t so kind. You also saw stickers that read “My Maid Graduated from Plano East.” P.E.S.H. responded with the battle cry of “Beat P.O.S.H.,” which stood for “Plano’s Other Senior High” but also offered a not-so-subtle dig at the students on the other side of town.

How times have changed. Kori Kaufman, a former varsity cheerleader who graduated from Plano Senior High in 2001, recalls a pep rally for the Plano-Plano West game. The West kids were portrayed as elitist snobs, complete with a Starbucks latte in one hand and a mobile phone in the other to call their lawyers when they get themselves in trouble.

That skit might be funnier if Plano weren’t on the losing end of its rivalries. Plano West has beaten the Wildcats two years running, and Plano East has been to the playoffs for seven consecutive years. For his part, Brence dismisses any talk about the other schools. “I refuse to blame our problems on Plano West,” he says. “I think it’s more that during the last couple of years we’ve just had a tough run.”

But consider this: if the Wildcats had had just two more families last year—the Millers and the Reubers—that winless season never would have happened. Both families have twin boys. Tim Reuber plays quarterback. His brother Jim is a tight end. Kyle and Korey Miller both play linebacker. They are all standouts. And they all played for Plano West.
TO APPRECIATE HOW PLANO HAS CHANGED and where Wildcat football fits on the spectrum of Things That Matter, drive about a mile north of Plano Senior High, to the End Zone sports bar. The place is packed on Thursdays for biker night, when more than 50 Harleys fill the parking lot. The waitresses wear short shorts and black t-shirts with “EZ Girl” printed on the front and “I Scored at the End Zone” on the back. It’s hard to believe that this kind of place exists in Plano, particularly in a strip mall surrounded by nail salons, chiropractic offices, and video stores.

But not everyone comes to hear the cover band. Since 1986, a group of men known as The Committee has filled a back room to discuss Plano football. The walls are painted in Wildcat maroon and display pictures of past teams, including all seven state championship squads. An aging sign hangs above the door. In maroon letters, it reads “The Committee: The Other Tradition.”

The men meet every Thursday night, except on Thanksgiving, and they have used this room long before the End Zone came to town. The Committee met here when the place was a Slider and Blues and, before that, when it was a Mr. Gatti’s. Though the number of members has declined through the years, a core group of 20 or so remains. “I once came to our meeting straight from the airport when I had been out of town for a week—and it was my 30th wedding anniversary,” says Larry Brewer, who moved to Plano in 1978 and has had season tickets ever since.

As the tables fill with burgers and pizzas, pitchers of Miller, and a bottle of Copperidge Merlot (doctor’s orders), the talk spills into multiple conversations:
“What we need is a magnet school for athletes. If the dancers can have one, so should we.”

“We don’t talk about football as much anymore. We talk about our prostates.”

“When Phil moved from Oklahoma to Texas, he lowered the I.Q. in both states.” (Phil isn’t here to defend himself.)

The men on The Committee miss the days when Plano was football, when fall Friday nights offered one form of entertainment, and the school was the town’s common link. Back then, a home game was a social event. When the boys played on the road, 300 fans would gather in the parking lot to see them off. Now the Wildcats are lucky to get 30. “With the high-tech companies moving in, the demographics have changed,” Roger Toney says. “People value things other than athletics. Today, more people in the community deride Plano football than take pride in it.”

As a result, boys don’t grow up dreaming of playing for the Wildcats the way players like Kastanos did. “In the old days, kids could play outside on their own,” says John Gililland. “Now the parents are worried about their children being outside by themselves. And most kids would rather play video games or drive daddy’s car. No one lives and dies with the team.”

They note how those changes have affected the way the program reaches out to its future players. Dan Fay, who moved to Plano in 1978, coached a team for the YMCA in the early ’80s. Even those boys received special attention. “A coach from the senior high would come and talk to us,” Fay says. “He’d say, ’You want to have that kid option the ball with his thumb down.’ And we’d say, ’Well, heck, coach, he can’t even hold the ball with one hand.’ That’s how deep it went back then, and that’s gone now.”

TWISTED: Jon Kastanos winces after spraining his ankle in a game against Allen.

The increasing popularity of sports once foreign to Texas hasn’t helped. During the ’90s, Plano grew by 72.5 percent and added almost 100,000 people. As families from the North moved in, they brought a love of lacrosse and ice hockey, which have become popular club sports. “Lacrosse used to be used for spring conditioning for football players,” Toney says. “Now it drains the talent pool.”

The men don’t hesitate to voice their criticisms of Brence. They wince at snaps that go over a punter’s head or a lineman who doesn’t know his assignment. But no one wants to see him go, even if they’re not sure what he can do to save the ship. They, too, worry about talent and are quick to point out that Allen, which won Plano’s district outright for the first time last year, has only one high school. “You go back and look at the state championship teams of ’86 and ’87,” says Jimmy Williamson, who played defensive tackle for Darrell Royal’s 1969 national championship team at the University of Texas. “Then look at the size of the team in ’94, when we last won state. Then look at the last couple of years, and you’ll see why we can’t win.”

As the evening winds down, the members worry that even if the Wildcats started winning again, the fans wouldn’t come back. “We don’t like what’s happened to Plano football,” Fay says. “We still support it, and there are no sour grapes. But I’m 62 years old, and I’m staying, so no one with kids is getting my house. That means the neighborhoods are thinning. I don’t think we’ll ever have a powerhouse again.”

Yet as the men swap theories about the decline of the Wildcats, their passion seems to provide hope. Here are the keepers of the flame, through good times and bad. But when asked how hard it was to sit through the final seconds of that Berkner game, for the first time of the evening, the conversation falls flat. Silence.

The question is rephrased: “How many of you attended the Berkner game?”

Again, silence. Until finally only one admits he was there. Even The Committee seems more dedicated to the idea of Plano football than to its reality.

FOR ALL THE FACTORS THAT CONTRIBUTED to that winless season—the emergence of Plano West, the popularity of other sports, a shift in demographics, plain old bad luck—one stands out, even if people don’t like to say it out loud. Plano has grown apathetic, and football just doesn’t matter like it used to.

“I hesitate to say this, but I don’t think there’s as much parental involvement,” says James Smith, who is a member of the quarterback club and whose son Cory plays for the Wildcats. This spring, Smith helped organize “Tee It Up Fore the Wildcats,” an annual fundraising golf tournament. He put out the call for volunteers and was surprised by the response. “Believe it or not, I couldn’t get anybody to help. Zero,” he says. “I had to use friends who don’t even have kids at Plano.”

Want more proof? Look at season tickets, which are usually purchased by parents. “It used to be that you’d wait in line overnight for them, and you were lucky to get any seats at all,” Toney says. “Now you can pretty well have your pick.” During the 1997 season, Plano sold 3,649 season tickets. By 2000, that number had fallen to 2,322, and last year it was only 1,652 (more than either Plano East or West, it should be noted). “The stadium just isn’t as full anymore,” Minton says. “On some Friday nights, you can hold a square dance up there.”

Yet the school district isn’t flinching. In August 2003, Plano opened the 10,000-seat Tom Kimbrough Stadium. It’s part of a complex that cost $18.7 million and is so far on the east side of Plano that it’s actually in the town of Murphy. Plano East and West are scheduled to play home games there this season, and Plano intends to join them after that. Maybe the new stadium will bring good luck.

For now, Brence remains Plano’s best hope. He considered stepping down after Christmas. He didn’t know if he should come back, and he didn’t know if the community wanted him back. Today, his commitment is unmistakable—as is his determination to turn the program around. “People talk about the distractions and the new school and all that, but it doesn’t mean we can’t win,” he says. “We’ve just got to work a little harder because whining isn’t going to get us anywhere. I probably won’t read the papers much, and I won’t listen to the radio. I’ll just try to focus and try as hard as I can.”

And his players, as the saying goes, don’t know the meaning of quit. Cory Smith played on last year’s team, and this season he is fighting for a starting position. He insists that the Wildcats grew stronger last year because the coaches never gave up. This year he’s ready to prove the critics wrong. “We’re not going to sell ourselves short,” he says with a swagger. “We think we can win the state championship.”


Photos: John Clark Field and Kastanos: Smiley N. Pool; Brence: Dan Sellers

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