Coach Proud of Cougar Season, Hoping for Win Tonight

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Columbia Football Head Coach John Power had just finished meetings with parents during back-to-school-night. A special-education teacher at Columbia, the first-year coach of the 0-3 Cougars was in the car and back in coach mode, preparing for tonight’s home game against West Orange High School at Underhill Field (game time is 7 p.m.).

Power, who quarterbacked the Union High School team to state championships, played quarterback at the University of Georgia before jumping on the young-coach-in-training patchwork of graduate assistant (at Georgia), ultimately as a top recruiter last year at Penn State.

He and his wife, Stephanie, live in Jersey City. “Stephanie works in midtown, so it’s an easy commute for her,” Power said. “But we are actively looking for a house in Maplewood or South Orange. We got close last spring and will start looking again even harder once the season is over.”

Power talked about the young season and future of Columbia football:

What brought you to Columbia?

I great up in Berkeley Heights, I went to Union High School. This area is my home. There is a great tradition of overall achievement here in Maplewood and South Orange. The football team has done well, then struggled, and I saw this as a great opportunity to build a program here, a consistent winning program, that will end that cycle of being up and down. I believe that we will be able to do that quickly and will be able to compete with the teams in our very challenging division.”

What have you learned in the first three games?

“I have learned that our guys are resilient. The work we started on last February, when we began lifting weights and getting to know the players, is starting to pay off. We have great athletes, many of whom haven’t played a lot of football, so it has been a steep learning curve for them. But, even though we haven’t earned a win yet, the boys have kept their heads up and haven’t stopped fighting. We haven’t had success, but we are making progress. Each week is better than the week before.”

What has been the biggest breakthrough?

“We knew that we were making real progress this summer. I believe in having the kids play other sports. We don’t want them to be one-dimensional and competitive all year. So we waited to start having real workouts until June, when the spring sports had finished. We started with 25 regulars in the weight room, and the word got out that we were serious about this. After a few weeks, we had 50 in the weight room. Then it really felt as though we were making progress.

“From July through now, we never experienced a drop-off in participation. Now we have 59 varsity players and another 30 on the freshmen team. It’s gratifying to see their commitment and it pushes all of us on staff to make sure they know we care about every facet of their lives.

“We care about their life in the classroom and at home and want to breed a competitive culture, where these young men want to succeed in every part of their lives.”

What should fans expect to see at games?

“We really want parents, Columbia fans, everyone at the school, to see that we are creating an environment conducive to learning. On and off the field, it’s about how hard work and personal accountability and success work together. Kids crave discipline and structure and we are trying to instill in them an understanding that everything they do affects the team. On the field, they are showing the resolve to handle tough situations and keep fighting because they don’t want to let each other down.”

How has the community responded?

“Everything has been great. We know that we still haven’t gotten a win, but people in Maplewood and South Orange have been great. They support what we are trying to do and we appreciate their attitude.”

How have you responded to the season?

“Well, I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep, that’s for sure! I can’t promise that we will just start winning games, but I can promise that we won’t stop trying. We have a great coaching staff. They are true football guys and they work so hard to help the players understand all the big and little things that happen during play so that nothing surprises them in a game. The principal [Elizabeth Aaron] and athletic director [Larry Busichio] have been amazing; their belief in us helps us translate it to the kids. We get to show them that not everything goes well, but no matter what, they have to get up and go to work every day.”

You aren’t shy about those learning moments in a game, either…

“That is correct. I would rather burn a timeout early when I see the players get confused or nervous in a situation or after a big play. I tell them not to dwell on their mistakes, not to panic, to compete on every play, and enjoy the game.”

What do expect tonight?

“West Orange is a high-octane team. They play a fast, spread offense and throw the ball all over the field. They are really aggressive, and skilled, on offense and defense. I don’t know how it will turn out, but I know that we will compete for all 48 minutes.”

COUGAR FACTS: 7 P.M. OCTOBER 2, 2014, v. West Orange High School, Underhill Field

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