It is exactly the scenario Ron Lewis, the Division III co-coach of the year for Rocky River faced. Fairfield, a Division I school near Cincinnati was the first to beckon Lewis' services, but after much consideration he pulled out of contention in the middle of January.
Not long after, it was Lewis’ alma mater, Lakewood who made the call. After much contemplation he decided to take the post, which was vacated when Jim Slagle stepped down earlier this month.
“It's my alma mater, and a lot of coaches will tell you that is attractive to them,” Lewis said. “There is also the fact it is a Division I school, and you get to play at the highest level in the state. It has a great history; we were 15-5 when I went to school there, and it's one of those things where now you as a coach get to teach the things you learned in the game at the place where you learned them. I've already had a lot of people who instead of saying congratulations, are saying welcome home or welcome back, so that has been special.”
Although excited about the opportunity to coach Lakewood, Lewis also said the decision was not an easy one, and that it was very hard for him to leave not only River's program, which he had taken to the playoffs back-to-back years, but also the friends and kids he has in Rocky River.
“I'm very grateful for Rocky River giving me a chance like they did,” Lewis said. “I'm really going to miss the kids, the parents, the coaches and the teachers I work with. They are all great people, and leaving them was not an easy task. It's been a really tough decision. You don't want to walk away from the kids and relationships and good friendships you have made, but you have to do what is best for your family and for your coaching career.”
There have been rumblings around Rocky River that Lewis left because the cupboard had finally dried up. True, Rocky River, which set a school record for wins with 11, was a senior laden team in 2007. But the school returns a strong core of underclassmen who saw action, and will be contenders again for another West Shore Conference title.
“I understand that people in Rocky River are going to be mad at me; that is to be expected,” said Lewis. “Those people love Rocky River and Rocky River football, and I respect their feelings. But I feel the program is in a much better situation than when I got there. There are a lot of kids out, the facilities are excellent and even the little stuff such as technology-wise, it's in much better shape as a program.”
The Lakewood job will be no walk in the park, and Lewis is aware of that. The Rangers play in one of Ohio's toughest conferences, the North East Ohio League with the likes of perennial playoff powers Solon, Brunswick, Strongsville and Elyria. But while the team has struggled of late, there is a history there as Lewis mentioned.
Over 100 years of football have been played at the school, and the win percentage is well over .500. But challenge is something Lewis likes. When he got at Rocky River, they were the doormats of the Southwest Conference, and by the time they switched to the West Shore, they were virtually untouchable.
“It will be tough, no doubt,” said Lewis. “We play against some great competition. But we have 40 kids coming back in grades 10-11, and 30 from the freshman roster. One of the things about River our first year was we were so young. We had Mike Milano, so this is a different scenario.”
When asked what it will be like to run out onto the surface at Lakewood Stadium – wearing the purple and gold once again – Lewis said he was excited.
“It's funny, because I think about that first game and I'll need to be settled down more than the kids,” Lewis said. “As an assistant in 1998 for Strongsville we played Mentor there, and then last year against Lake Catholic, it was very special to be able to coach there, and that is something I've been thinking about quite a bit since I was approached about the job.”
Lewis, who coached in the Big 33 game last year, and led his Pirate team to perfect WSC records the past two years, said he wouldn't be in the position he is now, if not for his players and staff.
“It's funny, a couple of years ago, no one knew anything about (me),” said Lewis. “It's a credit to my players and to the coaching staff I had at Rocky River. I owe a great deal to Rocky River for giving me a chance and I am still humbled for that fact.”
Sources within the Rocky River school district have said that over 80 people have applied for the job, and that it is now down to five finalists.