Phil Zacharias has more than 25 years of college football and NFL coaching experience and, in his first season as a high school head coach, he has guided Mount Hebron to a 5-0 start and the No. 10 ranking in The Baltimore Sun’s Top 15 poll.
Last week’s Ravens’ High School Coach of the Week, Zacharias spent the last two years as a Mount Hebron assistant coach before taking over the program. The Vikings, who travel to No. 3 River Hill Friday night, have not had a winning season since 2004, but in just the first five games, they’ve already won more games than the last two seasons combined and scored more points than all of last season.
Zacharias coached defense with the Ravens between 2002 and 2004. At Maryland during the 2006 and 2007 seaons, he coached running backs, his first experience as an offensive coach. As a player at Salem College in West Virginia, he played tight end, running back and fullback in his first season before moving to linebacker for the next three years.
He has also coached at Cincinnati, Stanford, North Carolina, Morehead State, Eastern Michigan and Rutgers. He spent a year as defensive coordinator at Asbury Park High in New Jersery and was Mount Hebron’s defensive coordinator in 2008, coaching his son Jameson for his senior year.
A Pennsylvania native, Zacharias, 53, has a master’s degree in education from Georgetown and works with special education students at Mount Hebron. He is also a driving instructor.
As this week’s Coachspeak guest, Zacharias talks about his team’s strong start, playing Howard County powerhouse River Hill this week and his coaching philosophy.
What is the main reason behind your team’s terrific start this fall?
We have some kids who have some experience. We have a good number coming back and some of them are two-year starters and I feel like we had a good offseason. We’re doing some things differently. We put a lot of emphasis in our offensive and defensive lines. Everything starts there. All those things in combination I feel like have helped us. We tried to get off to a little bit of momentum and we were able to do that. It’s human nature to feel better about yourself when you’re 5-0 than when you’re 0-5. We won some tough games early. Obviously, all the games are tough and we showed some character even from our first game (26-13 over Reservoir). We were up 12-0 and they came back and we were down and we battled right back. Those things hadn’t been happening in the past. Against Long Reach (32-26), we were ahead, they caught up, they made a mistake, we capitalized and things like that give you some momentum. I’m just glad the ball’s bouncing our way a little bit.
What’s the biggest challenge River Hill presents, and what’s it going to take to get past them?
River Hill has been the model and the leader in Howard County and everyone has to look up to them. They’ve got an excellent program. Those guys do a great job of coaching. I know them and I’ve known them as a college coach and as a parent. They’ve had a very, very solid program. You deal with that. It’s a road game, so it’s always tough to win on the road. It’s homecoming. It’s all that. Everything they do starts with the running game. They control the ball on the ground, but they’re able to connect throwing it, hitting the deep routes this year. They’re very balanced and I think that’s important as a football team. I hope we don’t get overwhelmed by their uniforms. We need to go out and play football. I would like to believe we have been playing solid football. We’re trying to turn our program into a hard-nosed program on both sides of the ball.
You’ve coached at a number of colleges and with the Ravens. In what ways is being a high school coach more of a challenge?
In terms of preparation time, you have to be creative. At the Ravens, it’s 24 hours of football. At the college level, recruting has gotten to the point where it’s 50-50 when it comes to football. At the high school level, I have guys on my staff who have jobs and guys who teach. Doing things the way my training has structured me is one of the bigger challenges. You have time constraints during the day. I’m in the special ed program, so I’m in class sometimes when I want to be sitting there watching film and drawing cards and whatever, but you just have to work late at night and early in the morning to get things prepared. I’m used to my training and doing things a certain way and I want to try to do it that way. When you get used to doing things a certain way, you don't want to change that.
What do you enjoy about coaching at the high school level?
Everything is about developing the individual. There’s certainly great enthusiasm at the high school level. It’s been fun this year to see not only the players but the student body and their families rally around what’s been accomplished so far. That certainly makes the four-day, 7 a.m., lifting, out in the heat of the day and all those kind of things worth while. But in the end, it’s about developing the individual. It’s the same at all levels. I don’t find it terribly different. Working with young people, they make mistakes at all levels as we see and we’re here as coaches and guidance counselors and sociologists to develop all that stuff. I might be in high school, but I still recruit. I’m in the hallways every day, looking for the next guy who can help us be a better football team. I compare it to fishing. I’m always looking in the hallways. I want to know where everybody is. Sometimes, there’s kids that don’t even know they have a chance to play football and you’ve got to get them playing for you. You certainly are in a school, where you have to share athletes with other sports. We don’t have them all year. You’ve got kids who play lacrosse, kids who play basketball and AAU basketball. Selfishly, you want them to be with you all the time. That’s not the reality of high school sports, but you have to make it work. You’re demanding, but at the same time, you have to have a little understanding with that part too.
What is your coaching philosophy and how did it develop?
I’ve been fortunate to be around a number of excellent and successful coaches, a number of which are NFL head coaches. Being around Brian Billick, Ralph Friedgen and Tyrone Willingham, all left impressions on me. What we try to do is play the game right. We want to have a balanced offense. You’ve got to be able to run the football. I’ve been a defensive coach and the best place for the defense is on the sideline. If you can control the ball, you win the field position game and you don’t turn the ball over, then you move the chains and eat the clock up. It has been interesting this year, because I'm calling the offensive and the defensive plays. I’m putting together plans for both sides of the ball and that is a challenge. I’ve never called the offensive plays before.