The minute Keith Carey received the offer to become the defensive coordinator at Fort Worth Polytechnic, he figured he’d made it.
After all, hadn’t he been groomed his entire life to become a highly successful high school football coach like his dad? Leonard Carey had been the defensive boss of a Richardson Lake Highlands team that won a state championship in 1981, and his son planned to follow in those footsteps as soon as he completed his playing career as a two-way end at Tulsa.
Keith Carey had spent two years at his dad’s side as a defensive assistant at Lake Highlands before a one-year apprenticeship under Gary Patterson at TCU.
And when Marvin Sedberry called about a job at Fort Worth Poly not 2 miles from the TCU campus, Carey was set.
“I was on my way to stardom and riches,” he recalled.
At 28, he and his players took their lumps, winning seven games over two seasons in a program that still struggles today, having posted an 0-10 record this fall.
“I didn’t know God was preparing me for Reagan,” Carey said. “It was like a miracle we won as many games that we did.”
History has repeated itself at his latest stop on Berkman Drive in East Austin, but Carey’s a guy who believes in miracles.
A staunch Christian who worships at Austin Stone church, Carey couldn’t resist the chance to find solace and a purpose in reclaiming a piece of the storied past at Reagan High School, restoring pride to a tattered program that won three state championships almost a half-century ago.
On Thursday, Carey will take Reagan’s overachieving 7-3 Raiders to Georgetown for a Class 5A, Division II playoff game. It’s a far cry from his first season three years ago, when the Raiders won two games.
Anabel Garza can appreciate the rise. She made the jump to principal at Reagan eight years ago, recalling Wednesday, “I don’t know anyone in their right mind who would have taken this school.”
Well, she did, and the feisty 53-year-old administrator hasn’t a single regret. Her loyalty to the old “MacGyver” television series reveals her love of challenges and problem-solving. She’s done wonders: Reagan’s graduation rates have increased from 47 to 84 percent, and enrollment has grown 41 percent in the past five years to its current total of 1,136 students.
Oh, and she hired Carey, a man with a vision and perspective. The same goes for the Raiders’ bearded offensive coordinator, Pat Bailey, who said, “We were 0-20 when we got here. People said we couldn’t win a game here.”
They started at ground level, rebuilding trust between coaches and players — what few players Carey inherited. On Thursday, he’ll suit up 30 players for a playoff game. Asked how many will play both ways, he joked, “It’d be easier to count those who don’t.”
Carey and his staff resurrected a dying program that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2003 but made an albeit brief return to the postseason last year, losing 68-0 to eventual state finalist Cedar Park in the first round.
“We’re always putting out fires,” Carey, 36, said Tuesday during a break in practice. “But my wife, Lindsay, and I always say, ‘We love the fire.’ “
He brought fire and passion with him from McCallum, his previous job.
Four years ago, Bailey knocked on the McCallum portable where Carey taught and told him Reagan was looking for a new head coach. Bailey told his friend, “We’re about to find out how big your aspirations are,” or words to that affect.
They found out together, laying a proper foundation for a Reagan program that had no more than 50 players combined on the varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams and played too often in games with a running clock to ease the pain of blowout losses.
Carey put an immediate stop to that practice, marching onto the field and directing those in the press box to stop the clock, even during an embarrassing loss to McCallum in year one.
Slowly, gradually, Carey has refashioned this program, and he’s done it with cutting-edge technology — he bought a $1,000 drone, for Pete’s sake, to film the gaps in an inside blocking drill — and a firm commitment to skeptical players who don’t consider third-and-long much of a hardship. Not when 88 percent of their school’s student body live in households that exist below the poverty level.
Carey can count on one hand the number of his players who come from two-parent homes. His roster includes one player who he says is homeless but still makes A’s and B’s, and another who bunks at the house of the starting quarterback, who has a 2-year-old son. A few Raiders ride city buses to 7:45 a.m. practices, and those who arrive late have to run sprints without exception.
“Most live with a single mom and have no man in their lives,” Carey said. “Some of the dads are around, but they’re not really around. They’re raised by their moms. And all the problems you see in young kids are magnified.”
That includes his team’s starting quarterback, Amado Aguilera, who not only plays both ways as a top safety but handles just as much responsibility off the field. He fathered a child before he became the sophomore quarterback of a 1-9 team and juggles football practices and games with caring for 2-year-old Adrian.
“I have a job to do at home and here on the field,” Aguilera said. “I wouldn’t quit on either family. It’s been a culture thing at Reagan. Things kind of went downhill, and not everybody wanted to be a part of teams that went 0-9, 0-10. But for us who have the courage, we’re not scared. Win or lose, we’re going to play for Reagan.”
Those are the types of issues that Carey and his assistants cope with on a daily basis. It is not uncommon for an angry player to confront the head coach, even push him in the chest, and he’s not above suspending players. “But only for a quarter,” Carey said. “If I suspend them for a game, they probably wouldn’t come back.”
Carey inherited a total football budget of $6,000 and just 70 bucks in the booster club fund, but he immediately began to drum up support by reaching out to Reagan alumni, who have embraced Carey’s vision.
“What made an impression on me was his desire to make a difference in the lives of these young men,” said Reagan ex Buddy Dryden, an Austin homebuilder who, along with alum Johnny Kleinert and about a dozen others, mentors such Raiders players as star University of Houston-bound running back Mulbah Car. “These are basically fatherless boys, and coach Carey has a desire to be a positive influence.”
In his first year at Reagan, Bailey bought three 5-gallon drums of paint out of his own pocket and spent his spring break painting a “dungeon” of a weight room with bright Columbia blue, not the cheaper, in-stock navy. Carey found the 110 pictures of former alumni who played in college, dusted them off, framed and hung them on a newly dubbed Hall of Honor leading to the dressing room with chairs and a custom-leather couch decorated with a giant R.
Safeties coach Jerry De La Huerta constructed the filming tower with help from his uncle, while defensive line coach Brandon Gonzalez coaches up the linemen and also handles DJ duties, whether it’s Tejano Tuesday or Country-Western Wednesday. On Tuesday, the players were going about their paces to Aretha Franklin. “He’s our musicologist,” Carey said. “He’s a young guy with an old soul.”
This past spring, boosters raised more than $54,000 to help outfit the Raiders in three alternative uniforms of white, gray and blue. Yes, Columbia blue.
Former Longhorns kicking great Phil Dawson has donated shoes to the entire team, and former Reagan athletic trainer Elliott Hill, now a Nike president for sales, persuaded his company to donate gobs of high-end equipment. From the remnants of a band that used to number as few as 15 members, band director Ormide Armstrong upped the tempo and now coordinates one of the best marching — and dancing —bands around.
The kids appreciate it all.
“Coach Carey has taught us everything,” Car said. “We’re one big family.”
“He’s done a miraculous job of transforming the culture,” said Garza, who worries constantly that Carey could be hired away. “We’re trying to create athlete-scholars who are gentlemen. He keeps his thumb on them, but he is a man that loves the kids. And I have the best job in the world.”
Is it utterly illogical to dream that Reagan could someday hoist another state championship banner?
“It would be unbelievable to this community,” Bailey said.
A community that now has hope.
“Reagan will always be Reagan,” Carey said. “Like they say, tradition never graduates. It’s been a tough decade but there were a lot of good decades before that. A lot of people are proud to be Reagan Raiders, and a lot of these players will be proud to be Reagan Raiders for the rest of their lives.”
The UIL football playoffs begin Thursday night with these matchups involving area teams:
• Pflugerville (3-7) at Lake Travis (10-0), 7 p.m.
• Reagan (7-3) at Georgetown (7-3), 7 p.m.
• Thrall (8-2) vs. Junction (7-3), 7 p.m. (Marble Falls HS)
• Bastrop (7-3) at Cedar Park (10-0), 7:30 p.m.
Complete area schedule, C6