Two years ago, the Marlin football program was in complete disarray.
The once-proud football community had little to crow about as the Bulldogs struggled through a pair of un-Marlin-like seasons in 2007 and 2008.
Even more disturbing than losses on the football field was a rash of problems on and off the field that put a black mark on the program in the final two seasons of coach Jerry Malone’s 16-year tenure.
It was an unfortunate downturn for a Marlin community that had witnessed 11 straight winning seasons — in six of which the Bulldogs won 10 or more games — from 1996-2006.
When Malone left after the 2008 season, which Marlin finished with a 3-7 record, it was clear the Bulldogs needed a new direction.
Enter Keith Willis.
When the former Waco High assistant was named Marlin’s new coach, he found a lack of discipline that had fractured the foundation of the program.
“I just felt like when we got here that Coach Malone had already left and the athletic department had lost a sense of purpose,” Willis said. “We needed to restore that sense of purpose . . . and that came with discipline.”
In 2010, the Bulldogs were back — and did it the right way.
Despite a rash of injuries that forced Marlin to compete with as few as 18 available players, the Bulldogs showed remarkable resiliency, and the community came along as they made a seven-game improvement and reveled in their first playoff victory since 2006.
“The community was crazy,” senior Kevin Murphy said. “We had pep rallies before we left (for games) and everybody showed up. I thank the people who showed up, because we know who our true fans are — the ones in purple.”
Marlin’s return to glory has earned it the Tribune-Herald ’s Jinx Tucker Award for the 2010 season.
The Jinx Tucker Award is given annually to honor the memory of a man who gained national respect in his 33 years as the Trib’s sports editor until his death in 1953. The award was founded in 1956 by Tucker’s successor, Dave Campbell.
The award is emblematic of Tucker, who stressed sportsmanship, fairness and team play. The winner must exhibit overall team success, improvement throughout the season, sportsmanship, fan support and a will to win in the face of adversity.
“I’m very proud of (the award), and being the fact that it’s my senior year, I’m extra proud,” Nate Thomas said. “For my team and the people that are coming up, it’s great to show them that we’re back.”
Ousting bad seeds
Before Marlin could restore the pride in its football program, Willis had to perform some surgery.
In this case, that meant removing some players from the team that didn’t have the right attitude
“He took out all the people who were spoiling everybody else’s attitude,” senior Kenwan Trotter said. “Most of the people who had bad attitudes influence other people that had bad attitudes, so he took those people away and left all the people who he thought would do good.”
Willis didn’t take that decision lightly, but sometimes to “preserve the integrity of the unit, you have to add by subtracting.”
“That’s never a good thing,” Willis said. “I don’t care if it turns out good in the end, it’s never a good thing. No coach ever wants to do that. I’m thankful the community got behind us and said enough is enough. We want a clean program, and if we have to sacrifice a few guys to do that, that’s what we’re going to do.”
It made for a long 2009 season.
Even with a depleted roster, Marlin managed to stay competitive in almost every game it played. The Bulldogs just couldn’t close games out, losing six of them in the fourth quarter as part of a 1-9 campaign.
Despite the paltry win total, the rebirth of Marlin football was under way, especially with an incoming senior class that was hungry to take control of the team and lead the Bulldogs to the postseason.
“Being a leader, you’ve got your little brothers on your team,” Thomas said. “You’ve got your brothers beside you, and little kids are looking up to you. They’re seeing everything you’re doing on and off the field. If you make a mistake, they see that mistake and they’ll change their mind about your or think they can do the same thing. So you have to always stay accountable to what you’re doing.”
All of a sudden, a group that was nothing more than a collection of individuals began to morph into a true team with a single purpose.
As the team’s bond strengthened through the spring and summer, Willis believed the Bulldogs were ready to put the “M.B.” back on the football map. That belief was tested in the first game.
Reaching the playoffs
Marlin jumped on Salado with a 14-0 lead, then watched the Eagles score the game’s next 26 points and take a 26-14 lead into halftime.
“That adversity was just what we needed,” Willis said. “We needed to see what would happen if we were down. When we got in the dressing room, we didn’t fret and we didn’t panic. We just said we’re better than this, remained calm and said, ‘Hey do your job. You do your job, and I’m counting on you to get it done.’ I walked out of the dressing room. Those guys stood up, talked to each other and the next thing you know, it was 42-26 by the end of the game.”
After dropping three of four, including losses to La Vega and a district defeat to eventual Class 2A Division I runner-up Cameron Yoe, the Bulldogs went on a tear.
A Chris Battise interception in overtime finished a 21-14 win over Troy, then the Marlin defense shut out Hearne and McGregor to help the Bulldogs clinch a playoff spot.
In its first playoff game, Marlin completely smothered former district opponent Teague — which picked up its only win of the 2009 season against the Bulldogs — in a 42-8 bi-district victory. The Bulldogs met their match in the area round, falling to second-ranked Tatum, 56-0.
Despite that loss, Marlin’s football-crazed fans had reason to walk proudly because the Bulldogs had achieved success with character.
“There’s always room for improvement, and we’re certainly not exempt from that,” Willis said. “We know we have plenty of room for improvement . . . but I’m so proud of these guys because they helped to enhance the brand of Marlin. The M.B. can walk with its head high because of these guys. They set the tone for next year and the future, and I’m just really proud of them.”
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JINX TUCKER AWARD WINNERS
1960 Gatesville and Riesel
1967 Bruceville-Eddy, Clifton
1973 China Spring
1977 Valley Mills and Marlin
1978 China Spring
1979 McGregor and Temple
1985 Hillsboro and Richfield
1989 La Vega
1998 Copperas Cove
1999 Waco High
2006 La Vega