BY ETHAN LILLARD
FORT MADISON – Pending school board approval, long-time assistant coach Derek Doherty will be the new head football coach for the Fort Madison High School football team.
As head coach, Doherty’s goal is to turn his players into coffee beans.
Yes, Coffee beans.
“I tell our guys every morning in the weight room, ‘Be a coffee bean,’” Doherty explained. “If you put a carrot in boiling water, it softens the carrot, it’s changed by it’s environment. If you put an egg in the boiling water, it becomes hard boiled, it’s changed by it’s environment. But if you put a coffee bean in there, it’s no longer boiling water, it’s now coffee. It – changed the environment.”
As a science teacher, of course Doherty had to use a chemistry metaphor, but his team needs to take it heart in order to have success in 2019.
“That’s one of the biggest things we need to do here is change the environment. We need to change the mentality and we need to change the culture. That’s on the forefront, that’s what we need to do there,” he said.
“The X’s and O’s, sure, we need to sit down and figure that out as a staff, but just being in these guys ears and getting them to believe in the things we see in them, and not just us as a staff, but what the community sees in them. We’ve got great kids, it’s just getting them to believe in themselves.”
Doherty knows what it like to have that self doubt.
After graduating from Fort Madison High School in 2003, Doherty took his four years of football experience to Monmouth University where he moved to inside slot receiver.
Things were going great for Doherty, that is until the end of his sophomore season.
“I ended up getting hurt the very last practice,” Doherty said. “I caught a ball over the middle and I got hit. They thought I had dislocated my hip at first, because I was having a ton of trouble walking.
“I battled that and finally got into a doctor and found out that I had two herniated discs in my back. I ended up having to have back surgery and have some nerves moved. They actually gave me a 25 percent success rate for the surgery.”
Despite such a low percentage of success, Doherty defied the odds.
“I feel like I dominated that because I lift weights still, I roll Jujitsu still, I wrestle still, I feel great,” The Hounds soon-to-be Head Coach said. “I got really lucky, but I was in a lot of pain for several years.”
The pain and the road to recovery was difficult for Doherty. After a heart-to-heart with his then head coach Steve Bell in the weight room, Doherty made the decision to give up full contact football for good.
“Coach Bell pulled me over and started talking to me,” Doherty said. “He asked me what my goals were and said I needed to start thinking about longevity and not being a crippled young man.
“It was a pretty powerful conversation. It hurt, but it is what it is.”
Having sports as the centerpiece of his life and goals for so long, Doherty didn’t know what to do with himself after realizing he was done playing football.
That’s when times got the toughest.
“My senior year was really rough not being able to accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish,” Doherty said. “Getting hurt in college and being told I couldn’t play football anymore, I was in a really dark place.”
That’s when Bell offered Doherty an opportunity that would end up changing his life for good.
“Coach Bell knew I was pretty devastated not being able to play,” Doherty said. “He reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in helping out with the staff and doing that side of things. That was my first little bit of coaching experience.”
Still being the same age as his teammates and still possessing the motivational drive to compete, Doherty enjoyed coaching, but it was still a challenge for him mentally not being on the field with his teammates in full pads.
“I remember liking it, but I was probably too immature and still pretty upset on the inside that I couldn’t play,” Doherty said. “So I kind of asked to be removed from it. I needed my space.
“I think I just needed some time off. I couldn’t really separate myself learning to be a coach versus still being a teammate because I really wanted to play still, I had the competitive itch and felt like I could play mentally, but physically, I couldn’t.”
Doherty used his time away from the game to try to mentally switch gears from student athlete to full-time student, but it was still weighing on him.
Luckily for Doherty, his support system had his back once again.
“My senior year I had a buddy that was on the football team,” Doherty said. “I was still hurting emotionally and he could tell. He told me, ‘Hey, I want you to help me coach wrestling.’ It was a junior high gig. I tried putting him off and avoiding him because I didn’t want to do it. And then finally he talked me into it.”
After the first practice, Doherty wasn’t sure if he wanted to go back, but after persistence from his friend, Doherty returned for day two. He’s now glad he did, as his life changed forever after that second day at practice.
“I was helping out these kids I didn’t know, had no idea who they were,” Doherty said. “The next day my friend came down to get me … I went, and it sounds weird, but I remember a little kid came up and he gave me a hug and said, ‘I’m glad you’re back.’
“Honest to God, I remember calling my mom that day heading home and I said, ‘I think I want to be a teacher.’ She thought I was crazy because I had never mentioned anything about being a teacher ever in my life. It’s funny how things work out because I think this is the best job in the entire world.”
Doherty switched his major from business to education heading into his junior year and never looked back.
In his fifth year at Monmouth, Doherty started student teaching at West Burlington High School. Hearing he was back around the area, then Fort Madison wrestling head coach Ryan Smith called Doherty and said he wanted him on his staff at Fort Madison.
Doherty joined the team’s coaching staff and the next year started substitute teaching at Fort Madison High School. After one year of being a sub, Doherty landed a full-time gig as the school’s Physical science teacher and now teaches Physical Science, intro to physics, intro to chemistry and biology, on top of being the weight room coordinator.
During Todd McGhghy’s second year as FMHS’s head football coach, he asked Doherty to join his staff and become his secondary coordinator and later wide receiver’s coach. Doherty agreed and starting pulling double duties as a wrestling and football coach on top of his teaching and weight training positions.
Not having been involved with football since his sophomore year of college, Doherty came into his new gig a little rusty.
“I was young and I think a little naive on what I thought it took to be a football coach,” he said. “I was not prepared, but I learned a lot from (McGhghy). He was very demanding, so it was a rough start for me, but I built off of it.”
After McGhghy, then athletic director Andrew Mitchell took over as the head coach of the football team. That was Doherty’s first taste of being a coordinator.
“I was the junior varsity head coach and helped Mitchell with the offense,” Doherty said. “Luke Rickelman, who’s my best friend, was our defensive coordinator at this point. I was helping him breaking down film and coming up with schemes and the stuff we thought we should be working on that week.
“I had my fingers on a lot of different things at that point just trying to be helpful – trying to be useful.”
Two years later Mitchell resigned and Tony Shiffman became head coach. Doherty remained on staff and took over as running backs coach, knowing long-time friend and fellow wide receiver Justin Menke would be a great wide receiver coach.
Fast forward two years and Shiffman is out and everything has come full circle for Doherty, as (upon school board approval Monday) he will become the next head coach of the Bloodhounds.
While just having been recommended for the position Tuesday, Doherty wasn’t exactly sure what all of the X’s and O’s were going to look like, but was more focused on the big picture.
“It’s been a wild experience because the one thing I’ve known for a long time is that we lack consistency here,” Doherty said. “I played four years of high school football, I had three different head coaches. In the ten years I’ve been back, I’ve been under three head coaches.
“Really just building a program has been the No. 1 thing I’ve felt we need to do here. We need to build a football program. This isn’t an activity anymore, this is a program and I think we have the right guys to do it.”
Joining, or soon to join Doherty on staff, are Menke, and defensive coordinator and fellow Fort Madison graduate Jason Crooks, who also played linebacker at the University of Iowa.
Doherty has another Fort Madison graduate with collegiate football experience in mind, but wouldn’t divulge names.
For Doherty, this is the opportunity he’s dreamed of. Not only does he get to be a head coach, but he gets to do it at his alma matter and with his fellow teammates and fellow Fort Madison graduates.
With nearly everyone currently on the staff from Fort Madison, the pride they all feel in revitalizing this program is something special to witness.
“It’s everything,” Doherty said. “selfishly, I’m super excited, but it’s not about me. It’s about these kids No. 1, it’s about this staff, it’s about administration – it’s about this community.
“I’m very proud to say I’m from Fort Madison. I chose to come here, I chose to come back to this area specifically because I have a lot of pride. There’s a lot of things I wanted to do and things that I wanted to accomplish here and I want our guys to feel a lot of the cool things I got to feel.”
While Doherty puts much emphasis on building a football program and getting kids to buy in, he doesn’t neglect the fact that at the end of the day, he has an obligation to his kids.
“I believe in education through football, that’s my mission statement, ‘education through football,’” Doherty said. “This is an extension of the classroom. As a classroom teacher I’m teaching content no doubt, but I’m also teaching life skills, social skills and that’s what football is about.
“It’s about making these kids be better men in the future and that’s my No. 1 goal. We’ll worry about the rest of it as it goes.”
When Shiffman was the coach at Fort Madison, his team started a motto, ‘Brick by Brick.’ Becoming head coach this season, Doherty will not only adopt the slogan, but his team will become a physical metaphor for the saying as the long-time Hound builds the football program back to where it once was, brick by brick.
“We lost a head coach, an offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator, this is bare bones,” Doherty said. “(Shiffman) started laying those bricks his last two years and the goal is to keep building and building.
“I think the foundation has a great start, just piece-by-piece we are going to plug away. I’m not afraid of hard work, I know this staff isn’t afraid of hard work and our kids aren’t afraid of hard work. That’s our mentality. Very blue collared, just laying bricks.”