JENNIFER FIERRO • STAFF WRITER
MARBLE FALLS — After 40 years of coaching, Russ Roberts still believes most people are unaware what he and others in his profession really do.
“Almost nobody understands what your job is,” he said. “There’s an unbelievable misunderstanding of what a coach is. He’s basically a developer of young people.”
Roberts, who announced in late October he was retiring from coaching, started that journey in 1976. He wrapped it up at Faith Academy of Marble Falls after amassing a 225-189-4 career record as a football coach. But as he reflected on the past four decades, Roberts stressed that he won’t judge his success based on his record.
The marker on which coaches should be judged, he said, is how they impact the young men and women in their charge.
Sometimes, that means being “coachable” themselves.
During his public school years, Roberts coached traditional 11-man football. Before he and his wife, Tricia, settled in the Highland Lakes, they had lived in New Caney for three years as the coach finished his public school career. Other stops included Groom, Bartlett, Meridan, Giddings, Diboll, Hull-Daisetta, and Wharton. They actually came to the Highland Lakes with thoughts of retirement. But those thoughts shifted in 2010 when Roberts got the opportunity to shape the lives of more young men.
This time, it was at Faith Academy of Marble Falls, a private Christian school.
The main challenge Roberts faced wasn’t that it was a private school but the type of football the Flames played: six-man.
Knowing he didn’t yet understand the intricacies of six-man football, Roberts was humble enough to realize he had to become a student of the game.
Once he got the job at Faith, Roberts used the spring and summer learning all he could about six-man football. He credits former Marble Falls High School and Faith Academy coach David Denny for sharing his knowledge about the six-man game. Ironically, the two have simply talked by phone and have never met in person to this day. And Roberts attended every six-man coaching clinic he could.
It all fit together by the time he began his first season with the school in 2010. The Flames went 9-2, finished second in district, and won a bi-district title.
The following year, the Flames went 6-5, but they were poised to make a run at the state title in the 2012 season.
But in December 2011, then-Faith Academy administrator Mark Earwood threw a wrench in that plan as he made an announcement that would again test Roberts’ leadership.
Earwood decided to switch Faith to 11-man football. Though an exciting prospect, Roberts and then-Faith athletic director John Berkman had to sell the players on the move. After all, the team was eyeing a legitimate run at a state title in 2012. Now, they were facing the uncertain prospect of 11-man football.
And it wasn’t just getting them to buy in. Roberts had to develop an 11-man mindset complete with one of the most important aspects of 11-man: linemen. So Roberts went to work and led the 2012 Flames squad down the unknown path of 11-man football.
On Sept. 8, 2012, the Flames notched their first win in their very first game as an 11-man squad with a 16-8 victory over San Antonio St. Anthony.
That win came at a great sacrifice to those boys.
“They gave up their chance to win a state championship in six-man for the betterment of the school,” Roberts said.
But they found success in 11-man as Roberts guided the program to a 21-2 record the first two years with two district titles and a playoff win.
But coaching sometimes comes with a cost.
Among the hard realities of coaching is being shunned by people in public places when things aren’t going that well on the field. While it was difficult for him, what tore him up is when he saw that happen to his wife.
Roberts said the couple’s church family has been a comfort to them throughout his career, noting that some of Tricia’s friends in their Bible study have “kidnapped” her to grab milkshakes during uncertain times. And his true friends have called him during really difficult times to check on him and allowed him to pour out his heart.
And he always approaches those who may have shunned the couple with a heart of forgiveness, another lesson he tries to instill in the young men and women he coaches and teaches.
As for legacy, Roberts said it was never about the win total. It was always about teaching boys how to be contributing members of society, how to be leaders for their families and communities, how to continue to believe that things can change for the better if they keep trying, and how to love and forgive unconditionally without asking for anything in return.
“If all I have to show is 225 wins, it’s a wasted effort,” he said as his voice cracked. “You have to believe you can make better men.”