Flagstaff High School has brought in a familiar face to lead its football team, just not in terms of previous head coaching experience.
Former Sinagua standout Robbie Rusconi takes over the lead role for the Eagles following the man who coached him. Ed Campos retired from Flagstaff after three years of leading the Eagles.
Flagstaff’s new hire will be the eighth man to serve as head coach for the Eagles since 2006.
Flagstaff last reached the postseason in 2007, when Erik Affholter and Pat Harlow split the season after Craig Holland was not renewed. Their postseason appearance was the last of four straight before the recent drought.
While new Coconino High head coach Jeremiah Smith has ties to each of the two schools in town, Rusconi’s path to the head job at Flagstaff landed him at the other two before taking over the Eagles.
2003 Sinagua grad
Rusconi graduated from Sinagua in 2003, beating both Coconino and Flagstaff in his senior year for the school’s final city title, following his tenure as a running back under Campos. From there, he played at Glendale Community College for two years before returning to Flagstaff to attend Northern Arizona University. Under David Moran, Paul Wolf and Dave Dirkson, Rusconi helped at Sinagua until its shutdown in 2010.
As did most of Sinagua’s staff and students, Rusconi moved over to Coconino and coached at the freshman, junior varsity and varsity levels, including a season under Moate at Coconino. After a year away from the field, Rusconi has found his first varsity head-coaching job at Flagstaff with the departure of his former coach in Campos.
With that time spent around town, under different coaches at the different schools, Rusconi said he has been able to take bits and pieces of everyone’s style to make his own. For the most part, the city has seen a steady run of similar men around town leading the local programs.
“If you are around town, all the football guys know each other,” Rusconi said. “If you have seen the last couple years, it’s kind of been a big rotation of all the head coaches. If you're a football guy in Flag, you get to know each other.”
Rusconi had heard about the Flagstaff job opening up and called Campos to get an understanding of why he was stepping down. From there, Dirkson worked with Rusconi in an effort to get him into the program that finished 6-4 in 2013, but missed the playoffs.
For now, Flagstaff has taken hold of the all-time rivalry lead thanks to its recent success within the city. Leading 24-21 all-time over Coconino thanks to wins in eight of the last nine years, it wasn’t too long ago that Flagstaff was trailing in the same manner. From 1996 to 2004, the Panthers won seven of the nine matchups.
However, over that time span it was actually the now defunct Sinagua High School running the city alongside Coconino. Under Campos, Sinagua won the city title from 1997 to 1999 and again in 2002, the senior year for Rusconi.
Those four city championship years stand as the only times Sinagua topped Flagstaff, with Rusconi vital in the final game.
“If they would have kept Sinagua open, to be honest I would probably still be there,” Rusconi said. “Getting to see the dynamic of all three schools is awesome and I have enjoyed that. I have got to learn a whole lot from different sides and different philosophies.”
While Coconino is on its seventh man leading the way over four decades, Rusconi is Flagstaff’s seventh head coach just since Holland left following the 2006 season. Affholter opened the 2007 season as the head coach, compiling a 3-4 record. Harlow then took over for the final three regular season games and coached the team to a first-round loss in the state playoffs.
It appeared Harlow would continue as the head coach into the 2008 season, but he resigned in July before the season started. Smith then took over for the two, coaching for a full season in 2008 and seven games in 2009. When Smith was on personal leave during the middle of 2009, Greg Lees took over for three games. After a single, winless season with Kevin Kortsen at the helm, Campos took over for the last three.
The constant turnover did not worry Rusconi, with the new head coach saying he was excited to be taking over the team regardless of past inconsistency or success. Replacing the coach who taught him in high school seemed to be the perfect situation for the first-time head coach.
“I have very similar philosophies,” Rusconi said. “Taking over a program that he has kind of put his stamp on is perfect. I can just build on that and stay within the same philosophies. I think everybody wants that stability; I don’t think anybody wants to keep transferring through.”
That desire for stability is echoed by the man in charge at Flagstaff and expectations are high at the top. Flagstaff principal Tony Cullen was a graduate of the school in 1982, having played on the 1981 Class AA State Championship team under Rick Smith. Flagstaff would go on to win four straight state titles, its last such success at the state level. Cullen meanwhile went on to play at NAU in both football and hockey, eventually earning himself a spot in the university’s hall of fame.
“I have had the most of anybody in the state I bet,” Cullen said of his school’s coaching turnover. “It is difficult because you make some choices about letting people go or hiring people and you hope that you make the right decisions. I had let some people go, hired new people and thought I made the right decision, and then find out I had to turn around and fire the person I just hired because they weren’t right for the program.”
LESS ATTENTION TO FOOTBALL
However, Cullen did clarify that he did not feel the program would be in any better shape if Holland had stuck around past his departure in 2006. Holland had been the head coach at the school from 1985 to 1990 and again from 1994 to 2006, after assisting on Flagstaff’s four state title teams in the early 80s. He reached the playoffs 11 times, but never moved past the second round of the playoffs.
After leaving Flagstaff, Holland went on to coach basketball at Youngker High School in Buckeye before leaving in 2011 to coach football at Agua Fria High School in Avondale. He retired after two seasons to return to Flagstaff, where he helped out at Coconino during this past season.
“I think we would be in the same spot,” Cullen said. “You look at Craig Holland’s days, he had unbelievable athletes. His last years were probably the best athletes we saw ever at Flagstaff High School. But the problem with those kids, is that they just weren’t disciplined. That’s when I really started to notice that their lives are so much different.”
Cullen said that in his eyes, students have begun to transfer their attention away from just football with the result being weaker programs in the city.
“I don’t think it’s talent pool, I think the kids are just as talented, if not more, as they were back in the ‘80s,” Cullen said. “It’s just life has changed. When I was playing back then, I didn’t do anything but play football and have a good time.”
Additionally, the danger of football and the rising popularity of other sports have taken away some of the potential players in Cullen’s eyes. Since the city found state success on either side in the ‘70s and ‘80s, club sports have taken off into a year-round process rather than simple high school seasons.
BIG LOSSES TO GRADUATION
Both schools took big hits in terms of losing players to graduation. Of Flagstaff’s 35-man varsity roster, 22 left for graduation. Among those 22 included Kyle Wilson, who threw all but one pass for the Eagles last season. On the ground, Flagstaff loses its top seven rushers in terms of total yards, with Darian Scott’s 33 yards on eight carries being the most among returning runners.
The same story can be said for its receivers, as Flagstaff lost five of its top six players in terms of yardage. Again, Scott stands as the most experienced returner after finishing his junior year with 137 yards on nine catches, three of which went for touchdowns. However, the Eagles do return offensive lineman Mark Russell, who earned Division III Section Four 2nd Team honors.
Defensively, five of the top seven tacklers will not return for Flagstaff. Scott’s 39 and Zach Bierman’s 62 were among the top seven on the team in terms of those who return. Only eight juniors and two sophomores made tackles for Flagstaff last year.