A quarter-century sounds like a long time, but ask Denis Kelly, and he’ll tell you time flies when you’re having fun.
The football program at W.J. Mouat Secondary is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, and Kelly, the head coach of the senior squad, has been there since Day 1.
“It’s certainly worked out great for me,” he marveled on Thursday. “It’s just a matter of committing yourself to what you’re doing. One year follows the next, and pretty soon you turn around and you’re 25 years in. It’s quite the deal.”
The Mouat football program was established in 1986 by then-principal Jim Latham. He’d watched a steady stream of athletically minded boys transfer to Abbotsford Senior and wanted to give those kids a reason to stick around.
Kelly, a former quarterback at Vancouver College and Simon Fraser University, sort of stumbled into the head coaching job. He was teaching at Vancouver’s Notre Dame Regional Secondary and serving as offensive co-ordinator for the Jugglers football team when he came across a posting for a football coach at Abby Senior.
“At that time, Bill MacGregor was the coach at Abbotsford Senior, and he had indicated he wanted to step down and become an administrator,” Kelly recounted.
“So I had responded to that advertisement that their principal had put out.
“It looked like that was going to happen, but then MacGregor changed his mind and remained as coach. In the meantime, Latham had kept in touch with what was going on through the school district, and knew I was available.”
“I kind of liked the opportunity to run my own program, and build things from the bottom up.”
The first season of Hawks football was a bit of a write-off, as teacher’s union job action limited Kelly’s squad to a few practices.
The program got going in earnest in 1987, coinciding with the arrival of several other coaches to assist Kelly, including Jim Mitchell, Geoff Davies and current Mouat principal Rob Comeau.
Mouat football turned the corner to elite status in 1992 with the addition of defensive co-ordinator Gary Naylor, a former head coach at the University of Manitoba. The Hawks won their first senior AAA provincial championship that year, and have gone on to win four more B.C. titles – in 2002 and 2005 at the senior level, and 2001 and 2008 at the junior level.
Along the way, Kelly has worked with hundreds of athletes – many of whom who have gone on to play football in university – and the Hawks have gained a reputation as one of B.C.’s flagship high school athletic programs.
“When you hear the word Mouat, you connect it to football,” said Comeau, who coached the Hawks junior team for 12 years. “And that’s Denis. That’s all his doing.
“He’s a very committed, driven coach. He’s always had the best interest of the kids at heart, and he certainly goes the extra mile on the football field for those guys. He gets a lot of joy out of seeing kids be successful.”
Kelly has shopped around for other coaching jobs from time to time – in 2007, he was one of three finalists for the SFU head coaching gig which went to Dave Johnson. In the aftermath, Kelly expressed relief that it hadn’t worked out, because deep in his heart, he never really wanted to leave Mouat.
“I’ve come to realize that the best spot for me is a high school setting,” he explained. “I like being around the younger kids, and working with that age group seems to be what I’m suited for.
“All the opportunities I’ve pursued have seemed to work out for the best, because I didn’t get them.”
Kelly’s 25th season has been perhaps the most difficult, as the program has weathered with three significant losses recently. Freya Paul, mother of Hawks senior lineman J.D. Paul and an active member of the parents’ committee, succumbed to cancer in April. Cancer also claimed longtime equipment manager John “Opa” Smeysters in June. Then in July, Desmond Bassi, a star wide receiver who had earned a scholarship to SFU, was killed in a hit-and-run accident.
The string of tragedies has caused the tight-knit Hawks community to rally together. At Smeysters’s funeral, more than 100 alumni showed up wearing their football jackets.
“You see very visibly the magnitude of the program’s influence,” Kelly said. “So many people have come together and they feel a part of it. There’s all types of emotions involved, not only with the football program, but with people’s lives.
“You see those situations occur, and you realize there’s something very significant that’s been done here. And that’s very gratifying.”
• The Hawks, currently No. 2 in the B.C. AAA rankings, host their home opener on Friday against the Mission Secondary Roadrunners, the No. 2-ranked AA squad. The game begins at 7:30 p.m. at Mouat Field. Prior to kickoff, Paul, Smeysters and Bassi will be honoured. A more formal ceremony is planned for Mouat’s Oct. 14 home date against the Terry Fox Ravens.
• The Coaches Association of B.C. has declared next week (Sept. 17-24) to be B.C. Coaches Week. It’s an occasion to celebrate coaches like Kelly, as well as focus on recruiting and developing new coaches. Events and workshops will be held around the province. For more information, visit www.coachesbc.ca/coaches-week.