Here’s a shocker: Webb City will be playing football over Thanksgiving weekend again. The Cardinals (14-0) will face Cape Girardeau Central (12-2) for the Class 4 state championship on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Webb City, winners of six of the last eight Class 4 state crowns, will be eyeing its fifth-straight state championship and 13th title overall.
Since winning its first state championship in 1989, Webb City has been a model of consistency over the past quarter century. Since head coach Jerry Kill took over the program prior to the 1988 season, the Cardinals have posted a gaudy 319-32 record, a ridiculous .909 winning percentage. The win totals include 10 undefeated seasons, with a win on Saturday upping that total to 11.
Webb City had its 91-game regular season winning streak ended on Sept. 6, 2013, in a 42-35 loss at Arkansas Class 7A state powerhouse Har-Ber. However, the Cardinals still have not lost to a Missouri school since a 38-13 setback to Kearney in the 2009 state semifinals. Webb City has not dropped a regular season game to a Missouri school in over a decade, the last loss being at Hickman midway through the 2003 season.
The Cardinals won their seventh-straight Central Ozarks Conference-Large Division title this fall after rolling through league play at 7-0, with an average margin of victory of just under 35 points per game. The Cardinals’ closest conference game came in the season opener, a 21-0 defeat of rival Carthage. Webb City has yet to lose a COC game since joining the conference in 2008. Dating back to 1999, including titles from the now defunct Southwest Conference, the Cardinals have won 15-straight conference titles.
So what sets Webb City apart from other schools? What is different about the Cardinals’ program? Is there any one factor that has led to such a sustained run of excellence? Why are the Webb City Cardinals so hard to beat year in and year out?
Those are the questions that Webb City opponents have been pondering for the last 25 or so years. The truth is there is no single correct answer, and there certainly is no magic formula. However, there are a few keys to the Cardinals’ success, starting with continuity within the program. In addition, the Webb City tradition can actually be traced to perennial Division II powerhouse Pittsburg State. Finally, good old-fashioned hard work and accountability has also been a factor.
The Cardinals have had just three head coaches since 1988, including current head coach John Roderique, a former 1st-Team All-State linebacker for Webb City in 1985 who has guided the Cardinals to nine state championships since taking over his alma mater in 1997. Prior to Roderique, Kurt Thompson coached the Cardinals for seven seasons, which included a pair of state titles in 1992 and 1993.
“I think a lot of our success over the years has to do with continuity,” said Roderique. “We went a long time there, maybe eight or nine years, where we had the same exact coaches. I’ve been there 18 years, Kurt Thompson was there seven years before that, Coach (Jerry) Kill was there a couple years, so in about a 25- to 30-year period we’ve had three coaches. I think that has a lot to do with it.”
The original architect of the Webb City dynasty, though, is Jerry Kill, who was hired as head coach prior to the 1988 season. Kill was lured from Pitt State, where he had been the defensive coordinator under head coach Dennis Franchione since 1985. Kill took over a program that had won more than it had lost throughout the 1980’s, yet had not won more than six games in a season since an 8-2 record in 1980.
“It was a good program,” said Kill, who is now coaching Division I football in the Big 10 at Minnesota. “It was a good school. They had had some good teams. You knew you would have a chance to win if you could get in there, and that was because of the administration.”
Kill said the transition from the college ranks to his first head coaching job at any level was made easier by the support he received from the Webb City administration, and especially from Superintendent Ronald Barton and Associate Superintendent Ron Lankford, who would succeed Barton as superintendent in 1998. In addition, Kill received a lot of knowledge and support from Tom Cox, who had just coached Webb City to a 6-4 record in the 1987 season in his one season at the helm.
“They wanted everything to be good,” said Kill of the administration. “They wanted the band to be good. They wanted the school to be good. They didn’t put up with any crap, so you knew you weren’t going to have any discipline problems with the way they ran the school.”
In his first season, Kill guided the Cardinals to an 11-1 record and a state quarterfinal appearance. In his second season, Kill coached Webb City to an undefeated 14-0 record, which included a 16-0 win over Sumner in the 1989 state championship game. It would be the first of the Cardinals’ 12 rings (and counting).
“I’m just very proud of what they’re doing. I think it’s unbelievable. I’m proud that they do it in every phase, from the band to education to football. They’re good at everything. That’s a reflection on the people there, the administration, and also the two guys that took my place, Kurt Thompson and John Roderique.” - Jerry Kill, former Webb City head coach
Following that first state championship season, Kill was lured back to Pitt State to be the offensive coordinator under new head coach Chuck Broyles. It was an agonizing decision for Kill, who had a good thing going at Webb City. He went to see Lankford, who had become a close friend and confidante. Lankford told him to take the job.
“Ron said, ‘Jerry, you were made to be a college coach,’” recalled Kill recently. “He said, ‘we’ll miss you, and we love you to death, and the kids do, but they’re not gonna disrespect you for doing that.’ What’s funny about that is I always tell people that Dr. Lankford’s the only person who’s ever let me go, or ever fired me. It was a pretty unique deal. I certainly didn’t think we were going to win a state championship or be 25-1, but I knew it was a good place and it was good for me at that time.”
Kill was the offensive coordinator at Pitt State through the 1993 season, at which point he got his first college head coaching job at Saginaw Valley State. He followed that up with a head coaching stint at Emporia State, seven seasons at Southern Illinois, and three seasons at Northern Illinois before landing in the Big 10.
“The reason that they’ve continued to win is that they’ve hired people within the system, that know the system,” said Kill of the Webb City dynasty. “Ron Lankford was the Superintendent there for a long time and he built such a strong foundation. It’s an unbelievable school. The facilities are unbelievable. And they did that during a very critical time. Ron was great at managing money, and while everyone else was falling off the end of the earth in education in Missouri, he was ahead of his time, too. I give Ron Lankford and the administration all the credit. That’s why they’re successful.
“I’m just very proud of what they’re doing,” added Kill. “I think it’s unbelievable. I’m proud that they do it in every phase, from the band to education to football. They’re good at everything. That’s a reflection on the people there, the administration, and also the two guys that took my place, Kurt Thompson and John Roderique.”
Kurt Thompson, who played linebacker at Pitt State under Kill, was named to replace Kill as head coach. Despite being just 23-years-old when he was hired, Thompson began a seven-year stretch in which the Cardinals posted a 73-12 record and won back-to-back state championships in 1992 and 1993. Thompson left Webb City following the 1996 season for a nine-year stint at Kickapoo, and later coached at Republic.
Roderique, a former Cardinal, became the head coach in 1997, and put down roots in his hometown that are still growing strong today. Roderique will complete his 18th season on Saturday, and enters the state title game with a career record of 221-19 (a .920 winning percentage), which makes him the winningest coach in Missouri high school football history by percentage. Since the 2006 season, Roderique has coached the Cardinals to a 125-3 record and six state titles (2006, 2008, 2010-13), with another ring within reach on Saturday.
It all started with Kill, though. Then came Thompson and more winning. And then came Roderique and even more wins and even more state titles.
“We made Webb City be respectable,” said Kill, recalling the early days of the Webb City dynasty. “When you came out of the locker room, you had the band, you had the cheerleaders, we let people come out of the stands, we had Bleacher Creatures, young kids. By the time we got out of the locker room and made our way down that long (path) to the field, I think other people looked over there and said, ‘what the heck is going on?’ So I think we made it important there, and it became fun for the kids.
“Shoot I’d be retired by now in the Missouri system,” added Kill. “I don’t know if we would have won 10 or 12 state championships, because those guys (Thompson and Roderique) have done a great job, but I guarantee you we would have won more than one.”
THE PITT STATE INFLUENCE
One common denominator with all three of the aforementioned coaches is their direct ties to the highly successful Pitt State program. In the modern game, whatever works in the college ranks almost immediately trickles down to the high school game (hence the proliferation of spread offenses on high school fields today). However, that was not the case in 1989 when Jerry Kill moved across the Kansas-Missouri border to Webb City. He brought with him what he had learned at Pitt State.
“I took the split back veer offense from Pittsburg State that I learned there from Coach Franchione,” said Kill. “We were running an eight-man front at Pittsburg State, and we did the same thing (at Webb City). We just kind of copied Pittsburg State University.”
Kill brought more than just the offensive and defensive schemes with him from Pitt State. He also brought the entire college approach to year-round football. Offseason drills and conditioning were virtually unheard of back then, but it gave Webb City an advantage over its opponents in the early days of the dynasty.
“I think we were ahead of our time with the summer weights,” said Kill. “I just think we were ahead of our time in the weightlifting department, in the running and conditioning department and the summer workouts. I don’t think everybody else was doing that. We kind of brought the college game to the high school game, or at least the basic principles. We worked. I believe we outworked people. We worked in the summertime. I think we just got ahead of people and our kids believed in what we were doing.”
Speaking of kids, Kill also knew he needed more numbers out for football. Being a former college coach was a major draw for the fresh faces out for football, and helped with the “recruiting.”
“We tried to get as many kids out for football as possible,” said Kill. “We talked to all the male athletes in the school. And I basically recruited the hallways and tried to get everybody I could. We had guys that maybe weren’t ever going to play or just play on kickoff team, but we tried to make everybody feel important. And we got a lot of numbers out. I think the way the kids bought in to what we were doing was important. We played guys that were 5-8, 5-9, 170-pound offensive guards, but they played hard and they practiced hard. I think being from Pittsburg State didn’t hurt any, because we had instant credibility. They listened.”
Thompson, the former Gorilla linebacker, kept the Pitt State principles in place during his seven-year run. Roderique has adapted things over the course of his 18 years at the helm, but if you look closely, the Pitt State influence is still there.
“Each of them put their own spin on it, but the basics were still there, because we all came from Pittsburg State,” said Kill.
Coaches do not play under the lights on Friday nights. It is the players who make the tackles, catch the passes, and execute the game plan instituted by the coaches. Despite his success, a humble Roderique immediately deflected any praise to his players.
“I always talk about our players,” said Roderique. “Our kids show up and work hard and play hard, and that’s what it takes. The two main ingredients are the players and the coaches that you have. I think one thing that maybe gets overlooked is just trying to keep everything in perspective in terms of never get too up and never get too down, and keeping all the winning and all of the success in perspective. At the end of the day, it’s still all about relationships with kids, developing kids, and trying to turn them into young men that are getting ready to go and hopefully do great things in the world.”
One staple of any Webb City football team is that it will be fundamentally sound in all phases. The Cardinals are disciplined and rarely ever make mistakes. The Cardinals are like a well-oiled machine, and do what they do, over and over, and dare you to stop them. More than one coach has stated—in one way or another—that you will have to beat Webb City, because the Cardinals will not beat themselves.
“We want to be a disciplined team, and we want to try to do things right,” said Roderique. “I think probably more games are lost than are won just by people making mistakes. It’s a matter of just giving yourself a chance. We try to prepare our kids every week, go over every kind of scenario that might happen in a game. We try to prepare them for everything they may see offensively, defensively, in the kicking game. It takes those kids being disciplined on the field.”
“I always talk about our players. Our kids show up and work hard and play hard, and that’s what it takes...At the end of the day, it’s still all about relationships with kids, developing kids, and trying to turn them into young men that are getting ready to go and hopefully do great things in the world.” - John Roderique, head coach
Webb City seemingly graduates six or seven All-State players every year, only to reload the following year with a lineup full of soon-to-be All-Staters. For example, this year’s Webb City team returned just eight starters total, yet will still end its season at the dome. Many past Cardinal standouts have only gotten an opportunity to make major contributions on Friday nights as seniors. At Webb City, though, boys grow up rooting for the Cardinals and counting down the days until they can etch their own names in Webb City lore.
“That’s the whole key, I think,” said Roderique. “So many kids become so impatient about playing, and you see it in every sport. If I’m not going to play right now, then they just give up and quit. I think that’s one thing that we do as coaches is try to keep kids playing as long as we possibly can. In today’s age, football gets a bad enough rap anyways as far as concussions and things like that. So just keeping them in long enough to where they can have some success. We constantly have to have seniors come in and play well when they’re seniors. You can’t rely on younger sophomores and freshmen. Some years, we’ll have a lot of juniors and some years we won’t. It’s just a matter of those guys paying their dues and waiting their turn and making the most of it when they get their opportunity.”
Roderique has also been fortunate enough to coach his two sons, John and Tyson, both of whom are quarterbacks. The younger John helped lead the Cardinals to a 45-0 record from 2010 to 2012 and three-straight state championships before moving on to play collegiately at Sam Houston State. Meanwhile, Tyson will be looking to lead Webb City to a state title on Saturday after moving into the starting quarterback spot this season.
“I’ve been very, very blessed to coach both of my sons now,” said the elder Roderique. “I’ve coached three nephews that also played for me. We always try to create a sense of family within our program, not just with our players but our players’ parents and families. It has so much meaning when you get an opportunity to coach your relations. Those are years and days and times that you never get back, and I wouldn’t take anything in the world for them. It’s been fun.”
That sense of family starts with the youth of Webb City, who grow up dreaming of wearing the powder blue and cardinal red. Most schools have feeder systems for their football teams, be it middle school teams or youth programs. The future Cardinals, though, get indoctrinated into what it means to be a Webb City Cardinal at an early age, and Roderique and his staff are as involved as they can be in the process.
“We’re very similar to a lot of people,” said Roderique. “We’ve got a youth program. We’ve got several guys now that are former players that played in our youth program. But everybody’s doing that. Everybody’s got a youth program, I think. We’ve been pretty closely tied to it. I’ve always tried to be really closely tied to it, especially with my own kids coming up through the ranks.”
Schools all across the Ozarks—and the state, for that matter—that have hosted Webb City have also hosted the Cardinals’ traveling support group, which usually numbers in the hundreds (and possibly thousands, depending on proximity and which round it is of the playoffs). Webb City fans usually arrive before the ticket-takers, and can be seen massing around the entry gates a couple hours before kickoff.
“It’s great to have the community support the kids, the players, and the program,” said Roderique. “I think every community has that. Ours may be a little overzealous sometimes about it, but it means something when your kids go out there on the field and we’ve got a good following behind us in the stands.”
Kill has coached at several different stops in his career, from Webb City all the way to the big city of Minneapolis. Webb City and its people still have a soft spot in his heart, though.
“It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” said Kill. “It was one of the funnest times I’ve ever had. I’ve always said that I’ve loved every stop that I’ve taken, but I don’t know if I ever had a better stop, and people be more appreciative and more fun than in my two years at Webb City.”
Very few coaches in the state can say that they have beaten Webb City on the gridiron. Some have the unenviable task of trying to stop the Cardinal juggernaut on an annual basis, notably the coaches of the other seven COC-Large schools. To date, no COC school has emerged victorious in the past seven years. The Cardinals’ closest call came last season at upset-minded Nixa. The Eagles eschewed an attempt at a game-winning field goal in the waning seconds, eventually losing 24-21 in overtime.
Ozark’s Mark Bliss just wrapped up his fourth season for the Tigers. He has faced Webb City four times and has come away with four losses. Bliss guided the Tigers to the Class 5 state semifinals in 2012, with Ozark’s only regular season loss a 28-7 defeat at the hands of the Cardinals, the closest margin of the four losses.
Bliss knows a thing or two about winning big, winning every year, and establishing a tradition of excellence, having coached at Conway Springs, a Class 3A school located outside Wichita, Kan., before taking a coaching job in Florida and, ultimately, landing at Ozark. Before Bliss and his staff arrived at Conway Springs, the school had not won a state championship in any sport. After installing the single-wing offense, Bliss led Conway Springs to a state title in 1998. The school would win three more state titles before Bliss left, and another the year after he departed. The run included a 62-game winning streak.
“We created a tradition of our own,” said Bliss, using the Conway Springs experience to try and explain Webb City’s dynasty. “Since the first state title in that town, Conway has went on and won 18 state titles in five sports. In my opinion and after witnessing it myself, I truly feel after you win one title it’s easier to win more simply because the players and staff get that taste of a state championship and once you do it is truly something you can’t describe in words. Once you get one ring on your finger, it’s easier to get more because they don’t want to relinquish that euphoria of winning a state championship and lifting that state championship trophy in front of thousands of fans after winning. That is what drives your program year after year and that is the fuel. Then to add to it you have siblings or cousins of players that have won it and that fun pressure to keep up with family that have state championship rings puts that fun pressure on other players to accomplish the same thing.”
“The Webb City program and their long standing tradition is what everyone else in Southwest Missouri respects. They have raised the bar high. Other programs continue to work in the hopes that someday they can be (that) established and successful.” - Mark Bliss, Ozark head coach
Another coach who faces Webb City annually, and who requested to remain anonymous, has a deep respect for the Cardinals’ program. In particular, the Cardinals’ fundamental football impressed this coach.
“Webb City is like a machine,” he said. “I’ll be honest, they’re not physically imposing, at least with the eye test. Yes, they’re big, but it’s not like they get off the bus and you think you’re playing a college team. But they are coming to play football. When the ball is kicked, they’re gonna hit you, and they’re gonna hit you hard. They’re gonna run their offense and dare you to stop it. The thing is, you’re probably gonna stop it for a while, but they’re so fundamentally sound that they’ll eventually break one and then another. Then they’ll get a turnover and hit another big one and all of a sudden you’re in a 21-0 hole. And you’re not gonna come back from that deficit against Webb City.”
Republic head coach Wes Beachler has made a name for himself by resurrecting downtrodden programs, having led reclamation projects at Houston, Parkview and Nevada prior to taking the head reins at Republic. Beachler, winless in two games against the Cardinals, also has respect for Webb City.
“They do things right from the youth on up,” said Beachler. “They all teach the fundamentals of football well, they teach the system well, and they all take pride in developing and maintaining the Cardinal football program. What makes them so tough to beat is their consistency and discipline. It's tough to beat an opponent that is as disciplined and consistent as they are. They do all the little things right. They don't beat themselves. From the weight-room, to the practices, to the games, they are disciplined, focused and fundamentally sound.”
Bliss believes that the culture of winning that was established long ago at Webb City is still prevalent today. In addition, as an opposing coach, the Cardinals’ love of and passion for the game of football is strongly evident.
“The culture has been established throughout the history of Webb, most likely going back to the Jerry Kill days when they won a state title,” said Bliss. “That culture has been established and the torch is handed down from one year to the next to do the same thing and carry on the expectations. The one constant I see about Webb City kids is they exhibit a true passion for the game of football and show how much they love the sport as an entire program. A lot of other coaches in the conference are trying to capture the same ingredients that Webb has in place in the hopes someday we can do the same thing in competing for state championships. Due to the culture established in Webb, the kids expect to win and have a mindset that they will win and, as you can see, they do.”
Webb City will play for another state championship on Saturday. That is the norm—the expectation—each November for the Cardinals. It is what each class of Cardinals has grown up dreaming about, of playing in the dome for a ring.
“We just try to keep it in perspective,” said Roderique of the expectations. “We try to prepare the same way for this week’s game that we prepared for last week’s game. You don’t just work extremely hard one week because you’re playing a great team. You’ve got to have a lot of consistency throughout the season in terms of how you prepare. One of the things we always talk about is improving. We want to be a better team each week. A lot of years we’ve been able to do that and that’s allowed us to be a better team at the end of the year.”
Webb City is one of the winningest programs in the country. The Cardinals’ run of excellence over the past quarter century is simply remarkable. It is the program in the state which all other programs strive to become, and the program that is worthy of other team’s respect, begrudging or not.
“The Webb City program and their long standing tradition is what everyone else in Southwest Missouri respects,” said Bliss. “They have raised the bar high. Other programs continue to work in the hopes that someday they can be (that) established and successful.”
Someday Webb City will lose another game. Someday the Cardinals will even lose a conference game. Teams don’t win state championships every year. Winning streaks always end. It will take another team’s best game, but eventually it will happen…won’t it?