Commentary

Powers runs tight ship in Akron

Former running back brings lessons learned at Michigan to bear on Buchtel program

Updated: December 29, 2011, 2:19 AM ET
By Chantel Jennings | WolverineNation

AKRON, Ohio -- When coach Brady Hoke gathers the Michigan Wolverines before facing Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, he will ask them to recite the number of championships the program has won and the number of years Michigan has been playing football. It's a tradition.

Ricky Powers was part of that tradition as a Michigan running back from 1990-93, and he carries a piece of the maize and blue with him, passing it on to kids in a downtrodden area of a city that has been trying to remake itself since Powers finished as a star football player at Buchtel High School in 1989. That's about the time the tire and rubber industries, largely responsible for fueling Akron's growth, experienced major declines because of labor strife.

Powers was a running back on the 1988 and 1989 Buchtel state championship teams. Now, he's the school's head coach. It's the same school, same team, but now there is so much more to the job than winning games.

[+] EnlargeRicky Powers
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRicky Powers returned to coach at his alma mater in order to make a difference in his players' lives.
"Most of our kids are pissed off and they don't know why," Powers said. "Some don't eat three meals a day, some have parents who are drug addicts, some sleep on the floor. In my senior year, a kid died because he was in a car accident. Now, a kid dies because someone points a gun and pulls the trigger." His voice catches as it trails off. "I can't lose any more kids," Powers says quietly. "I can't bury any more kids. I just can't."

For Powers, the football part of his job is easy.

After all, he learned how to run a program from Gary Moeller, his coach at Michigan. And Moeller learned from Bo Schembechler. There was no gray. Everything was black and white. Rules were rules, and men were made. The difference, though, is Michigan coaches had players they recruited, guys they chose to coach. They had young men who were drawn in with the legendary words set forth by Schembechler: "Those who stay will be champions." Powers tells his players the same thing, passing down the tradition. But those six words carry a different meaning for kids in the "Meth Capital of Ohio." Powers uses Schembechler's words to give his players hope in a place where drugs, gangs and violence are so prevalent, where pain is common and death is unremarkable, where there is little, if anything, to hope for.


Coming out of Buchtel, Powers was the No. 1 running back recruit in the country, and Schembechler had convinced him to be a Wolverine. But after two successful seasons at Michigan, life began to go backward for Powers.

Tyrone Wheatley was outperforming him in practice. When Powers would make a brilliant play, he would fumble on the next. He didn't get drafted and ended up signing as a free agent with the Detroit Lions. He went to the Cleveland Browns. He moved with the Browns to Baltimore. He got slower. He didn't get carries.

In Powers' mind, he had failed. He ended his career and returned to Akron. But he didn't return to come home. He returned to disappear.

Powers punched the clock on the night shift because he didn't want to think. He stocked toilet paper in the back corner of the Sam's Club warehouse because he believed no one would notice him. He avoided questions and introduced himself as Richard. He dodged conversations as if they were oncoming linebackers so nobody would ask why his NFL career had fizzled.

He rented a cheap apartment in a depressed area. A week into his lease, he heard a loud echo outside his window. He stopped himself. It took a moment for him to register the noise -- gunshots -- but when he did, he waited for the police sirens. Once those came, he put on his coat and left for work. It was unlike the Akron he had known, but his assimilation had begun. He realized how much Akron had changed.

Powers worked at Sam's for six months, until someone recognized him. Immediately, he scanned the classifieds for another option.


In college, Powers had strayed plenty from Moeller's Michigan traditions. He wore a Notre Dame varsity jacket into Schembechler Hall as a freshman, because he felt coaches had misled him about how many running backs they were recruiting in his class. He mouthed off to teammates. His junior year, his girlfriend gave birth to his child.

[+] EnlargeGary Moeller
US PresswireGary Moeller was tough but fair, something Ricky Powers would remember later.
But Moeller gave him a clean slate every time. When Powers made a mistake, Moeller would start new with him the next day. Every time Powers expected Moeller to get rid of him, the coach reminded him he was a part of the Michigan football family.

It was a grace he hadn't known in Akron or with former coaches. It was a grace he wouldn't employ in his own life until after he left Sam's Club and began working with juvenile sex offenders.

"They had done horrible actions," Powers said. "But they were still humans. They were vulnerable and scared. They were children that had been very hurt and had hurt others. But they were still children."

Upon leaving Sam's Club, Powers had applied for a job working with juvenile delinquents. It was short interview with a vague job description, but he didn't care because the children were too young to know who he was and he could easily maintain his distance. It wasn't until a month into it that he discovered they were sex offenders.

For six years he worked there, and in a way, it healed him.

"When my football career ended, every day I woke up and saw myself as a failure because I hadn't achieved the goal I had set for myself when I was 15," Powers said. "I was punishing myself by thinking it still mattered. But those children started new with me every day. No matter what happened, I started new with them. Eventually, I had to allow myself to start new."

He also began listening to a few of the boys' stories and how their opportunities for success were crushed at a young age.

He thought of the students and players at his former high school, who were predisposed to failure in the changed Akron community. He returned to work as a long-term substitute teacher at Buchtel and eventually became a full-time teacher.

The football coaching position opened in 2007, and Buchtel principal Deborah Houchins received more than a hundred applications. Everyone wanted to coach the gifted players at Buchtel. But none of the applicants understood what the kids faced on a daily basis.

Houchins searched the stack for the application she was hoping for -- Powers' -- but it wasn't there.

She marched down to his office.

"Ricky, the football coaching position is open," she said.

Silence.

"Why don't I have your application?" she inquired with a pleading frustration.

Powers laid down the pencil he was using to correct papers. He took a moment to formulate his answer.

"I learned about football from Gary Moeller, who learned it from Bo Schembechler, who believed in rules and discipline. I know only one way to be with players, and I know only one way to coach," he said. "It would be an overhaul not only in what they've learned in football but in what they'll be expected to do in their lives. This program would be run like Michigan.

"Buchtel isn't ready for that."

Powers went back to grading exams and shuffling papers. He hoped if he looked busy enough, Houchins would leave.

She didn't.

"We need that here and you know it," Houchins said. "The job is yours. I won't force you to take it. But we need what you will bring."

Five years later, Houchins' replacement, Sonya Gordon, sits in that same office, looking at the graduation rates for the Buchtel football team. Before Powers began coaching at the school, the kids would spend their fall playing football, and unless they had a college scholarship, most would stop showing up for class once the season ended.

In his first year, Powers had 13 seniors. Only three are still in college, but the coach is looking forward to seeing those three graduate this spring. In his second year, he again had 13 seniors. Six are still in college. In his third year, there were 12 seniors. Nine are still in college. And last season, with 24 seniors on the team, Powers helped all 24 enroll in college.

"We need our kids to be prepared after high school so the streets don't eat them up," Gordon said. "Ricky touches the lives of some kids, who, if it wasn't for sports, their lives might have gone a different direction."


On his first day as football coach, Powers set his rules. They were nonnegotiable. Grades had to be kept up. Players couldn't mouth off to teachers. Attendance was mandatory. He told players, "No hats, no droopy pants, no swearing."

On the second day, a player walked in with his hat on. Powers made every player do wall-sits as the player with the hat stood in front of them and apologized 100 times, "I'm sorry I wore my hat."

"One," the players on the wall shouted.

"I'm sorry I wore my hat," he said.

"Two," they responded.

Players were showing up to classes and improving their grades, but they went 2-8 that season. Phone calls and letters flooded the school calling for Powers' firing.

"It's an uphill battle. It always has been," Powers said. "I fight within our community. I fight the low, low expectations. I fight a lack of motivation, trust and values. I fight the people who don't want to see these kids succeed. Then I fight the outsiders who believe these kids are young thugs. It's just what we have to endure."

"We" is the term he always uses. He is the coach, but his team is a family, sometimes in place of the nuclear family most of his players lack.


In 2010, Powers' fourth year as head coach, a player quietly left the junior varsity team. He had natural athletic ability, but he also had an attitude. He had all the potential in the world, but he wanted instant gratification.

In many ways, Powers saw himself in that player.

[+] EnlargeRicky Powers
Chantel Jennings/ESPN.comThe Buchtel football team has risen on the field and off it under the tutelage of Ricky Powers.
But there was one difference. Taliaferro Claridy had quit. He had left the team to spend time on the streets. At 15, he had watched as kids younger than him had guns in their hands, drugs in their back pockets. For six months, he had heard his mom cry herself to sleep. "I played it out in my mind, a before-and-after type of thing," Claridy said. "It wasn't worth it. I have an opportunity to do something with my life. I wasn't going to die in the streets."

Claridy knew Powers had no reason to take him back. He'd been a deserter. He wanted to apologize, and he wanted to do it face to face.

He admitted he was wrong and asked for a chance to try out for the varsity team in the fall. He told Powers what he had seen on the streets and how he saw that he was endangering everyone around him.

"Please," Claridy said. "I would like to come back and play football for you."

Just as Moeller always had given Powers a clean slate, he passed on what he had learned. Powers would give Claridy a second chance at football. Football would give Claridy a second chance at life.

"Nice to meet you, Taliaferro," he said. "I'm Coach Powers. Welcome to Buchtel football."


Twenty years after Schembechler sat in Powers' living room in Akron and said those who stay will be champions, Powers delivers a similar promise to a group of boys striving to be men in a world that does everything to pull them back.

He makes a promise in a city filled with doubt.

The promise is not easy. It requires Powers to work harder in the off-season forming relationships with college coaches. It requires Powers to act like his players' spray-painted $40 cleats are just as good as the opposing team's kangaroo leather ones. It requires Powers to look his 16-year-old players in the eyes after their best friends have been shot to death and tell them they still can choose their own fate.

And for everything that Powers is willing to give, a singular promise that comes with heavy burdens, his players receive hope. A desperate hope that those who stay really will be champions. Champions who are not measured by wins or losses, banners or trophies, but simply in living productive lives.

Powers starts every team meeting the same way Schembechler did, the same way Moeller did, the same way Brady Hoke does today.

"Good evening."

Hoke asks his players how many conference championships Michigan has won.

42.

Powers asks how many league titles Buchtel has won.

31.

Hoke asks how many years the Michigan football program has been established.

132.

Powers asks the same about Buchtel.

81.

Powers has one more question.

"College?"

His players respond: "Forty-two."

It's how many Buchtel players have enrolled in college over the past five years.

"Those who stay will be champions."

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com or or on Twitter @chanteljennings.

Chantel Jennings | email

Oregon/Pac-12 reporter