Kenneth Soper became Dolores County High School head football coach in 1964. But the keys handed to him weren't exactly that of a shiny new Ford Mustang.
The 27-year-old physical education teacher spent three years as an assistant before his predecessor was fired. Dove Creek football was such a mess, that every game on the 1964 season schedule was canceled, except one.
Only Moffat County High School in Craig kept the Bulldogs on the schedule for its homecoming game.
Playing 8-man football, Moffat County was, of course, expecting an easy victory over the beleaguered Bulldogs. The perceived lowly Dolores County football team ran the ball throughout the game on a series of sweeps and won, giving Soper his first win as a head coach. Now, 305 wins, 20 league championships, 28 playoff appearances and 47 years later, Soper remains the head man of the Dove Creek High School Bulldogs. Eventually, the name of the school changed to Dove Creek High School but its football coach has stayed the same.
Even after a half century on the coaching sidelines, Soper is still learning. The longest tenured coach in Colorado high school history attends coaching clinics on his dime every year. Mr. Soper, as the locals still address him, expressed that's how he became a better football coach.
“When I was younger, I didn't know near as much as I do now,” he said. “Now, I go to clinics every year. You're never too old to learn.”
After all the years, all the learning and all the games at Dove Creek, Soper stands just one win away from tying the all-time Colorado record for wins by a football coach.
COACH AND EDUCATOR
There are men who still live in Dove Creek that played for Soper. These individuals learned firsthand what it was like playing football under a young coach and educator, and the responsibilities that came with it.
“Back then, the practices and training were so much more physical than they are now,” said 1968 Dolores County graduate Lynn Crawford, 61. “He's tough. He's a good coach. I'd play for him again.”
Lynn's younger brother Larry Crawford, 57, graduated in 1972. He remembers some tough practices.
“We had to run in the mud to the (tallest grain) elevator (north of Dove Creek) for training and back,” Larry Crawford said. “He was all about getting you in shape.”
Soper wasn't just a coach, he was a strict educator as well.
Larry, the current groundskeeper at Dove Creek High, had a bad grade in a class. Let's just say Soper made Larry get his grades up.
“I had a low grade in his class,” Larry said. “I had to spend 30 minutes before practice with him in his classroom. I ran laps after practice, because it (the extra class time) made me late and him, too. That lasted about two weeks. I never got a bad grade again.”
With Soper as his coach, Billy Spitser, 54, found out fast how to be a gentleman.
“When I was a freshman, he taught me manners,” said Spitser, a 1975 graduate and a member of Soper's first Colorado state champion Class A-West baseball team. “He seen me over there in the lunchroom. I took a bite of fat, I spit it back out in front of some girls. After practice, I had to run 10, 100-yard dashes.”
Through all the hard work, the former players feel they are better men because of Soper.
“There's a lot of guys that wouldn't have graduated had there not been sports,” Lynn Crawford said.
After that one 8-man game against Moffat County, for the next 40 years, Dove Creek played 11-man football in the 1A San Juan Basin League.
In the 1960s and 70s, Dolores County High School had an enrollment nearly triple of what Dove Creek High has today. But the boom and bust of the uranium mining industry saw the student numbers dwindle over the years. Ultimately, Dove Creek was forced down to 8-man football in 2006. Another chapter in Soper's legendary career. Another adjustment to the game.
“In the early years, whoever you had as a freshman, you had them as a senior. There was no moving in, moving out,” Soper said. “Now a flock of people move in and move out. You really don't know who you got for next year.” However, Soper hasn't stopped winning. In fact, Soper has won 20 league titles at Dove Creek between 8-man ball and in the 11-man, 1A SJBL. The school has been in the playoffs every year since becoming an 8-man school, while winning its first three Western League championships.
A LOVE OF SPORTS
In addition to coaching, Soper knows fitness. Born in Caldwell, Kan., and raised in Medford, Okla., Soper attended Oklahoma State University after high school. The multi-sport Medford High athlete wanted a career in athletics.
“I always knew I wanted to be associated with sports in some way,” Soper said. “Back then, you had to go to college, if you wanted to be a coach.”
Soper earned a bachelor's degree in health and P.E., and recreation at OSU. He later earned a master's of science degree in health and P.E. from the University of Montana.
A major part of the Bulldogs success year in, year out is because they're so well conditioned. Soper also introduced and developed a weight training program at the school.
Former Bulldog lineman Grant Hobbs weighed 130 pounds in high school. His coach instilled mental toughness in him to be able to block opposing linemen 50, 60, 70 or more pounds heavier. Grant, who's father Rick Hobbs also played for Soper, was quick to take Soper's advice and focused on nutrition and weight lifting.
“He taught me some valuable things about all sports,” said Hobbs, who won two state wrestling titles and is now an acclaimed local Mixed Martial Arts fighter. “He really inspires you to work hard for yourself. He wants you to improve in every aspect. Not only did he teach you good values about having the right nutrition going into a football game, he applied that same thing in any sport that you do.”
One former Bulldog that took his game higher is 2010 graduate Jesse Poole. He is currently a redshirt freshman cornerback for the Colorado Mesa Mavericks in Grand Junction. Poole played cornerback, wide receiver, quarterback and linebacker within his four years of high school, and he credits Soper for helping him take his game to the collegiate level.
“He's a great coach. He knows what he is talking about,” Poole said. “He made everything easy to understand and learn. Everything he taught me still carries over now. All of the hard work and technical stuff, I still do. When I first got here, that's all I had. What coach Soper taught us.”
A HALL OF FAMER
Soper preferred coaching 11-man football, but doesn't mind the 8-man game. The biggest challenge adjusting to 8-man football has been on the defensive side.
“I keep wanting to put one extra guy out there,” Soper said chuckling. “It seems like we're always one guy short. That's where speed comes in handy more. You get by the linebackers, you're home free.”
As much as the game has changed and evolved, the size of the gridiron is something that one wouldn't think would change.
But when Soper's team moved to the 8-man game, the veteran coach had to adjust again.
A more narrow, 40-yard wide football field is played in 8-man, instead of the traditional 54-yard wide field. In 8-man, three to four defensive lineman traditionally stack the box; there are two cornerbacks, and two or three linebackers. But through all the changes, Soper continues to get it done. He continues to win.
As the second winningest high school football coach in Colorado history, Soper earned his 300th career victory on Sept. 17, at North Park. He has 305 total wins in his career, just two shy of passing the late Pat Panek of Denver East (306). Soper's success has seen him inducted into three football halls of fame. The first induction was from the Colorado High School Coaches Association (2001), then the National High School Athletic Coaches Association (2003), and the Colorado High School Activities Association (2008).
“I'm proud and surprised,” said Soper about his hall of fame inductions. “I wasn't in this field to be elected to the hall of fame. A lot of credit to all this stuff, the honors, the wins, needs to go to my assistant coaches and the players. They're the ones that made me what I am now. I don't care what you say, the player's got to win the game.”
In January, Soper was named to the second class of the Colorado Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, also known as the Colorado Dugout. Soper has led the Bulldogs baseball team the same amount of years as football, winning two Class A-West state championships in 1975 and '77. Not to mention 23 baseball league titles. Soper was also the head boys basketball coach for six years in the 1970s, claiming a district and a regional title to his credit.
Bottom line, Soper loves coaching. As for staying in the self-proclaimed “Pinto Bean Capital of the World,” Soper feels the strong community support has kept him there. Dove Creek is also where he met his wife, the late Barbara Soper. It's where they raised two stepchildren, daughter Terri Dane, and son Brad Donelow.
“The longer you're at one place, the harder it is to leave,” Soper said. “I had chances to leave, but I just didn't. All my friends are here, the people are so nice. Me and my wife, we were established. We just stayed.”
Before arriving in Dove Creek, Soper served in the U.S. Air Force and taught one year at nearby Egnar High School before it closed. He retired from teaching in 2004.
Soper can etch himself once again into the record books with a playoff win today at Elbert. A victory would put him in a tie for most wins in Colorado high school football coaching history.
“I don't even think about it, honestly,” Soper said about the most wins record. “Yes, I want to win. I don't care if it's my first win or 10th win. I just want to win. I came from a family in Oklahoma that believed in winning. We never give up, and that's what I'm trying to instill in my players. A winning attitude and never give up.”
However, his current players are thinking about it.
“He's like one win away from having the most wins. We need to at least win one more game for him,” senior tailback Chance Johnson said after the Bulldogs first-round playoff win.
As for continuing coaching, Soper would like to play his passion by ear.
“I'd like to coach more if I can,” he said. “If my health is good, I'd like to keep going. I still enjoy it. I still have compassion for football and coaching the kids. I'd just like to take it one year at a time.”
Before the season began, DCHS principal Ty Gray had a meeting with Soper to inform him that the school would not renew his contract after the 2011 football and 2012 baseball seasons.
According to an Oct. 20, article published by the Dove Creek Press, a Dolores County School Board meeting will be held this spring to determine if any coaching changes will be made for the 2012-13 academic school year.
For now, Ken Soper is taking the approach that all great coaches take: One game at a time. And the next game could be historic for Soper.
Reach Bobby Abplanalp at firstname.lastname@example.org.