The first day of Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference football practice opened Monday with two new coaches on the sidelines — McDonogh's Hakeem Sule and Gilman's Nick Bach, men who followed vastly different routes to opposites side of the 103-year-old rivalry.
Sule, a McDonogh graduate, never strayed far from his alma mater, spending the past eight years as an Eagles assistant coach. Bach, a Buffalo native, coached in an Atlanta suburb, taking Mountain View High School to the second round of the Class 7A state playoffs last fall for the first time in school history.
Sule and Bach, who both took over their MIAA programs earlier this year, played high school and college football — Sule at Maryland and Bach at Buffalo State. Sule knew he wanted to coach. Bach started as a premedical student. Eventually, he said, he realized he'd rather spend "100 hours a week" as a football coach than as a doctor.
After Sule, 31, graduated from McDonogh in 2005, he kept returning to watch Eagles games and help with summer camps. In 2010, he became an assistant and then a teacher.
"McDonogh's always felt like home for me," he said. "I remember coming here in the ninth grade and being given an opportunity. I saw the impact that it had on my life and I knew after leaving college that's what I wanted to invest my time in and that's just giving back to kids and just hoping they can have the same opportunity I had."
When Sule interviewed to be a McDonogh assistant, he was asked where he saw himself in 10 years. He said he hoped to be fully involved in the program and that if the head coaching position opened, he figured he would have a chance. That came when Dom Damico retired after 24 years.
At Gilman, athletic director Tim Holley had stepped in for two years to steady the Greyhounds program after Biff Poggi and most of his staff left for St. Frances. Poggi had coached the Greyhounds to 13 A Conference titles in 19 years and Holley took them to the championship game last season.
In many ways, Bach, 39, also a teacher, is stepping into the same kind of situation as Sule as he's handed the legacy of one of Baltimore's storied programs. It's a program and a conference Bach became familiar with in 2003 while an assistant at Johns Hopkins.
"We had a couple of young men from Gilman on our team at Hopkins and they were always just very, very selfless, highly motivated, pleasant guys and they would do anything for their teammates and other people in the community," Bach said. "I remember telling a couple of coaches, 'Some of those kids are so impressive,' and they would say, 'Well, they're Gilman guys.' I said, 'Man, I've got to learn what that's all about. These guys are fantastic young men,' so I checked out the school a couple times and I really, really liked the place. … There was probably only one job in Maryland that could have pulled me out of that situation in Georgia and Gilman was that one job."
Neither coach is planning wholesale changes in his program, but not everything will remain the same. Both are defensive minded. Sule played linebacker and Bach defensive end, and they've retained offensive coordinators from last year, McDonogh's Travis Holmes and Gilman's Russell Wrenn.
As far as X's and O's, Sule said that will be "similar because I was part of [Damico's] staff and my background is as a linebacker and on the defensive side, but offensively, similar concepts. We'll want to pick up the tempo a little bit more and just kind of looking around the league and seeing what some of the other teams are doing and what's going on in college football, looking for ways to incorporate what some of those teams do into what we do."
Bach inherits a program that was built on the running game, but he said he'll adapt the Greyhounds' style to the players' strengths. His first year at Mountain View, he had a strong running game, but the past few seasons, he said, they went to the air.
"Every year that I've been a head coach, the offense is going to be built around the players that you have," Bach said. "When we have exceptional guys in certain positions, that's who we're going to highlight. There's no problem with me changing that on a dime if someone emerges."
Last season, with the exception of No. 1 and unbeaten St. Frances, the A Conference was as competitive as it's ever been. Five teams tied for second place in the seven-team league. Through a tiebreaker, both McDonogh and Gliman made the playoffs. Gilman lost in the title game to St. Frances, which the other conference teams have decided not to play this fall.
For the remaining teams, Sule said, he expects games to be as competitive as last season.
"A lot of us have been competing throughout the summer through the seven-on-sevens," Sule said. "It looks like we're all even on paper. We'll see how things come together, obviously, when you add the line of scrimmage, but obviously a lot of skill positions, a lot of speed in this league a lot of competitive teams, a lot of great kids and coaches."