BRADFORD — Football has changed since 1961. Ernie Simpson hasn’t.
With a no-nonsense approach and desire for discipline, the 70-year-old Simpson is as old school as it gets. But the coaching veteran, now in his 47th season, brings a new attitude — and a few sore muscles — to struggling programs. Simpson has a knack for taking those underdogs and giving them some bite of their own.
That’s what led Simpson to another stint at Bradford High School, his latest football challenge. The Division VI school, one of the smallest in the state, borders Miami and Darke counties in the Southwest District. With just 20 players on the roster numbers are small. Help is still a couple years away with an eighth grade nearly a dozen strong. Until then, the Railroaders will rely on what they have plenty of.
“I wouldn’t say he’s an easy coach to play for,” senior lineman Logan Dunlevy said. “It’s his way or no way. You cannot negotiate with him. He demands perfection from us. It’s what we needed.”
Dunlevy’s dad, Don, was a wide receiver for Simpson during the coach’s first stay at Bradford from 1977 to 1981. His dad’s reaction when he heard of Simpson’s return? “He was really pumped about it,” Dunlevy said.
And with good reason. Before Simpson arrived in 1977, Bradford went 5-5. The ’Roaders lost just eight games over the next four seasons. His success, and reputation, continued to build. Other success stories include:
• Lima Perry: After going 1-9 in 2005, led the Commodores to a 6-4 record in 2006 for first winning season in 23 years.
• Waynesfield-Goshen: Went 3-6 in his first season in 2003, then led the Tigers to a 6-4 record after string of 12 losing seasons in 13 years.
• Northwestern: In 1999 took over team that had gone 7-59 the previous six years, including three 0-10 seasons. Won nine games over next three seasons, including four in 2001, and helped snap 29-game losing streak in 2000.
• Triad: Went 2-8 first season, 8-2 the next. Led the Cardinals to one league title with five runner-up finishes in 10 seasons.
Simpson, though, down plays his results. He doesn’t understand the fuss and chuckles at the media attention he gets. That’s what makes Simpson sought after. Instead of taking over a powerhouse program, he’d rather build one, hand it off and move to the next challenge. And to Simpson, he’s not just building a program. He’s giving his players a foundation for life.
“Life is about discipline,” said Simpson, who stresses academics first and athletics second. “You have to get up every morning and go to work. When you get married you have a wife to take care of. You have to take care of your kids. You have to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. That’s all discipline. You can’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, I don’t know. I’m kind of tired. I think I’ll stay home today.’ That’s what we try to get across. It’s more than football. It’s life.”
His players might feel life is a bit unfair sometimes. Music in the locker room or weight room is not allowed. Practices are tough. Simpson has no problem speaking his mind. He’s even given cheerleaders football tests to make sure they know what’s going on.
“Oh, I’ll drive kids away because they don’t want to put up with this,” Simpson said. “They have the easy life with the Nintendo games, the air conditioning and they don’t want someone yelling at them. Some kids don’t like that, but they’re the same kids who are going to have the same problem later in life.”
Just to make no mistake what his players were getting in to, Simpson delivered the following message at his first meeting with players and parents.
“This is not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship and you’re looking at the dictator,” he said. “We don’t fire players. We don’t fire fans. We don’t fire moms and dads. But we get rid of coaches when things don’t go well. If it’s not going to go well it’s going to be the way I want it done.”
The players’ response?
“He’s a lot tougher than what we thought he would be,” senior running back/defensive back Kris Abney said. “He knows what he’s talking about so we go along with what he says. We believe in him.”
Simpson doesn’t have a timeline to get Bradford to .500 or better. The Railroaders went 4-6 last season and haven’t won more than three games in the six seasons prior.
“Winning is contagious and so is losing,” Simpson said. “You either go out on the field expecting to win or go out on the field expecting not to get beat too bad. … It depends when the light switch comes on. When they decide they’re getting tired of losing and in order to win they’re going to have to do these things, then we’ll go.”
• Simpson has been head coach at 11 schools: Bradford twice, Lima Perry, Waynesfield-Goshen, Northwestern, Ridgemont, Triad, Riverside, Graham, Tippecanoe, Sandy Valley and Pymatuning Valley.
• First head coaching job was in 1964 at Pymatuning Valley.
• Has been a coach for 47 years.