New Coach Sees Winning Potential at Long-Struggling Dayton
“Give ‘em ice cream.”
“I love a challenge.”
Without context, two phrases seemingly disconnected.
But dig deeper beneath the surface and these words are the glue holding together a football program long an afterthought to many in the Northern Kentucky area.
Jesse Herbst returned to his alma mater, Dayton High School, to take over a struggling Greendevils football program after serving as defensive coordinator at Simon Kenton.
He told The River City News that ice cream was referenced when his daughter offered a suggestion on how to help his new team.
“She’s a big football fan. Goes to all my games, all my stuff," Herbst said of his daughter, who was previously a fan of "the blue team" when Herbst was in Independence at SK. "I was playing one day when I took this job, I said, Hey, we’re not going to be at the blue school anymore, we’re going down to the green school. She goes, daddy, they are not any good!"
“What can I do to make the green team better,” Herbst said he asked his daughter. “Daddy, that’s easy. Just give ‘em ice cream.”
But these weren't just words from a child to be dismissed as funny or irreverent.
Herbst took them very seriously.
“Freaking genius…just give ‘em ice cream…,” he recalled thinking.
“Give ‘em ice cream.”
“This has been a toxic environment down here. Practices have been head-hunting, unorganized, un-coached, cliquey, big kids picking on little kids. Just…awful,” Herbst said, adding that he longed to bring the kids a positive environment and a place they would look forward to being around.
As Herbst looked around the newly renovated locker room, he changed gears into reflective mode: “This locker room, this is all brand new. I walked in here the first day in January after I took the job and looked at the locker room and I went, what has happened to this place? The walls were all bluish-green. The ceilings were yellow from 1983, 30 years of all the dirt and dust buildup. The floors were black with speckled paint on it, all chipped up. The lockers were red, blue, black, and dark blue. We had stuff donated from other schools. It was dirty. It was embarrassing. How can we have any pride walking in here? This is our home. This is where we start every day. So…ice cream.”
The kids that make up his Dayton program are also a motivator.
"Making a product. Making everybody better at what they do. I love a challenge. That’s it, that’s why I’m here. I was out at Simon Kenton for fifteen years and had it made out there," he said about a Pioneers program that had grown strong in recent years in Class 6A. "Had the greatest job in the world, we’re chasing championships and life is great. It’s the same thing every year, chasing championships, chasing championships, it’s all about me. But what about the game? What about the kids?"
Now, Herbst is back in Class 1A working to build a program that has not had a winning season since 2007.
"Dayton football has been a joke for a long time," Herbst said. "The program was so bad down here and so far gone, they almost shut it down and weren’t going to play football anymore. I love a challenge more than anything in the world. The opportunity to come and change up my game and try to do something special somewhere else, that’s what it came down to. That was my biggest motivator. I love a challenge. This is a challenge.”
Signs of a change are already in view.
The Dayton football locker room has been remodeled (RCN)
Dayton put together back-to-back winning seasons in 2006 and 2007, but from 2008 to 2018, the program's record has been 16 wins and 100 losses.
With more than half of the 2019 season behind them, this year's Dayton Greendevils are 4-3, which included four consecutive wins, something Dayton hadn't done since the 2007 squad went 8-3. That win streak started with a win over rival Bellevue, in a 36-12 rout on August 31. The team stood at 4-1 after blowout wins over Gallatin County and Bracken County, and a close win over Pendleton County.
Dayton has dropped its last two games, including on Friday night in a rematch with Bellevue in the Battle for the Paddle. The last three games of the regular season will also pose challenges for the upstart Dayton squad, with Newport Central Catholic, Ludlow, and Carroll Co. all currently with winning records of their own.
Herbst started his rebuilding process by restoring what he called the family-like atmosphere for the team, to go along with their revived competitive spirit.
“These kids did not like each other. When I got here in January, these kids hated each other. Jealous of each other, they didn’t hang around each other, they didn’t like each other. It was terrible. They didn’t play for each other and everybody was out for their own, trying to get theirs," he said. "The biggest thing for me to do was build family, a brotherhood. Are we there one hundred percent? By no means. But are we further along than we were? Yes. We did a lot of team-building things all summer long and in the offseason.”
Herbst is now looking to the future with hopes to build upon the roster.
“It’s a numbers game,” he said. “Football is a straight numbers game. The guy prior to me, Coach (Chad) Montgomery was held hostage. He had 20-22 guys on the football team. A couple of injuries and it was down into the teens. You can’t hold them accountable. You can’t challenge them. You can’t create competition. So that’s the key long-term goal, is getting numbers. If I get 60 kids on this team, lookout, man. You have everything you need and you also have a future and build a program, not just a team. A team is one year, a program is every year being competitive.”
Herbst took over for Montgomery, who compiled a 13-73 record after eight seasons.
Herbst lost his first game as head coach at Dayton, in a week-one battle against Bishop Brossart, 24-8. But he saw progress.
“I told the guys in the very beginning, I won’t promise you a win, I’m not promising anybody a single win. I promise one thing: We’ll compete. We will not be embarrassed and have the score run up on us. We will compete. That’s what it’s all about. We competed our butts off against Brossart and we lost that game though we should’ve won," he said. "We were so tight in the first half we were a deer in headlights. Second half, we played lights out. Owned the second half but just couldn’t put the ball in the end zone. I was the happiest guy in America. We got beat by two touchdowns but I didn’t care. We competed all night long. From there, the kids started believing. They had more faith in themselves.”
A typical goal for the struggling program in any given season was simple: Beat Bellevue. But that is evolving under Herbst who wants to "beat everybody." He is building a team and staff that he hopes can do that.
“I have a wonderful coaching staff. It’s the coaches around me. You’re as good as the people around you and I got a wonderful, wonderful staff," he said. "We have guys that know their stuff and are dedicated to Dayton football. They are from here, they take pride in it and want to make it better and they are knowledgeable, motivated. At the end of the day, I’ll put my two cents in, but my job is the team.
"Team morale, state of the union, team, team, team. That’s what my job is. I’m just a cheerleader, get my pom-poms out, go team go. Our success right now is the kids and the coaches around me. The best thing I ever did was hire these guys."
Dayton plays at Newport Central Catholic next Friday night.
Written by Jason Finnell, RCN contributor