Thursday, September 2nd, 2010
By Robb Hemmelgarn
McKirnan coached a special team in 1971
Last Curtain Call
With his elbows nuzzled amongst yellowed newspaper clippings and 40-some year old scrapbook images of himself, Mike McKirnan twists and turns the gold ring on his finger while he proudly discusses that it was a gift from his 1971 Marion Local Flyers football seniors.
That year, McKirnan was a 26-year-old industrial arts teacher when he was asked to take over the Flyers' football program in relief of eight-year veteran coach Jim Judy. The inheritance was uncommonly generous for McKirnan, as the Flyers concluded the 1970 campaign at 9-1 overall and returned many of those responsible for the best record in school history to that point.
"I remember when Jim stepped down after being there for a few years, and I was just in the right place at the right time," recalled McKirnan, who played four years of varsity football at Celina High School in the mid-1960s. "I was an assistant in the program for a few years, so I knew I was fortunate to have a really good group of kids coming back. I had known them all and worked with them since they were in junior high."
In an era free of shotgun offenses, 7-on-7 passing camps and five-wide receiver offensive sets, dominant teams oiled their machines with stingy defenses and punishing running attacks. The Flyers excelled on defense and had a strong rushing attack during McKirnan's tenure.
McKirnan opened his rookie season on the sidelines with a 20-0 shutout at home against Ridgemont. The Flyers followed that up with a 7-0 blanking at Coldwater and a 46-0 slaughter over St. Henry.
"Teams back then just didn't throw the ball predominantly," commented McKirnan. "I think every team in this area geared their offenses around running the ball, which fell right into our hands."
Following a 21-6 victory against Sidney Lehman, things grew slightly uncomfortable in Flyer camp, but McKirnan and his crew prevailed with wins over Parkway, Bradford and Minster by an average of just under two points per game. A 3-0 win over Versailles set the table for their final league game of the year with Ansonia and the opportunity to clinch the outright league championship.
Led by a meager 125 yards of offense, the defense flexed its muscle with six takeaways in the Flyers' 20-0 win, sealing their predicted fate as the 1971 Tri-County League champions. With a sparkling 9-0 record, the Flyers shut the season's door in Waynesfield with the opportunity to become the first team in school history to finish the year unblemished.
Stout defense was the primary ingredient in another suffocating shutout, as the Blue and Gold rolled to an easy 31-0 blasting of the Tigers.
With no high school postseason in existence, the campaign ended at 10-0 for Marion Local, and the Flyers were ranked eighth in the state's final Class A poll. McKirnan, who was named TCL Coach of the Year in 1971, reflects with a sense of "what if" when asked how his team would have fared had there been a playoff system.
"We knew that if we were fortunate enough to go 10-0, that it would be the end of the line for us as far as the season was concerned," he explained. "There were no playoffs around back then, so the only reward for going unbeaten was the accomplishment itself against a rugged schedule. There were a few other undefeated teams around the state and it would have been really interesting to see how we would have done against them."
McKirnan commanded the program for only two more years after his spectacular fall of 1971, guiding the Flyers to 7-3 records in both 1972 and 1973. In 30 games as the head coach, his teams recorded a remarkable 15 shutouts and allowed just under 6.7 points per game, while finishing 24-6 overall.
The rigors of teaching, coaching, family life and the commute from Celina - sometimes multiple times per day - eventually led McKirnan to hang up his whistle at the close of the 1973 season.
"I was just starting a family back then, bought some property here on the lake, and had a few rental properties I was working on, so I simply did not have time to coach any longer," he said with a tinge of regret in his voice. "It just wasn't fair to the players to be spread so thin, so I stepped down. The one thing I really missed after I got out of the teaching and coaching aspects of the education field were the kids. They were always a joy to be around."
McKirnan stayed on board at Marion Local until 1979 as the industrial arts teacher and athletic director before moving to his high school alma mater where he filled various roles at Celina until his retirement in 2009.
"I remained in education for 42 years, and always stayed close to athletics in some aspect," he remarked. "I was an assistant coach in Celina for a couple of years, a scout, and the facilities manager, so I never got away from the sport, but my time coaching at Marion Local will always be special to me."
When asked how his former teams would stack up against the area football juggernauts of today, McKirnan presented his thoughts objectively.
"The kids today have so many more opportunities as far as fitness. They are just so much stronger and more athletic, and I think that would give them a big advantage. Plus with the advent of throwing the football, it may have been difficult to keep up with all of that."
He was quick however, to interrupt his train of thought.
"Now if we are talking about run defense, I would take ours from those years and put them up against anyone today," said McKirnan. "No one was going to run against us."
Just by looking at the size of the kids in the front row of the team picture from 1971, there was no way I could disagree.
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Mostly cloudy, rain, thunder