One last ride: Sacred Heart-Griffin defensive coordinator savors special season with son
Jim McMann could share a number of stories about longtime Sacred Heart-Griffin football coach Ken Leonard.
Leonard surfaced during McMann’s sophomore year in 1984.
McMann contributed as a nose guard before graduating from what was then Griffin in 1987. He returned a few short years later as an assistant coach and has remained on Leonard’s staff ever since.
Leonard will not only retire at the end of this season but McMann also has a son, Hudson, in his final season with the Cyclones.
“It's kind of crazy how fast 30-something years has gone by,” said Jim, who has been the defensive coordinator for about the past two decades. “I can remember a lot of stuff out on the field. I can remember coaching my two boys (J.T. and Hudson) and having coach Leonard involved with that, it's been awesome."
Answering the challenge
Hudson helps form a potent linebacker corps that includes seniors Cory West and Richard Jackson as well as junior Jake Kepler.
Hudson and West combined for 40 tackles in No. 2 SHG’s gritty 28-16 victory over No. 10 Waterloo in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs on Saturday.
Hudson ranked third in the Central State Eight Conference last season with 113 tackles while West (133) topped the list. West leads the defense again this season with 140 tackles, followed by Hudson’s 100.
“We definitely have a great group of linebackers this year,” Hudson said. “Last year, we also had another group with Salomon (Dessalines). But something about this year, I think we're getting some work done and I trust all of them.”
That defense marshaled several key stops in the second half, securing SHG a spot in a 2 p.m. Saturday quarterfinal against No. 6 Murphysboro (9-2) at Ken Leonard Field.
West set up the go-ahead touchdown drive with a tackle-for-loss on fourth-and-short, while Kepler and senior defensive end Reggie Thomas each had a sack on Waterloo’s final possession.
“We knew with our offense struggling, our defense had to step up,” Hudson said. “We had to do our part and not get worried about what was happening on the other side of the ball. We had to just focus up and get our jobs done.
“At halftime (trailing 6-0), the conversation was kind of just like, 'We know who we are and we need to come together.' There was not a whole lot of doubt. I didn't have any doubt.
“But as a group of seniors, we all knew that if we didn't turn it back up, this could be it. But we got the job done.”
SHG, unbeaten at 11-0, also stonewalled the Bulldogs (7-4) inside the red zone following a turnover in the third quarter for a manageable 9-0 deficit.
Senior Colin Johannes scored a 90-yard TD on the ensuing kickoff.
“These guys No. 1, they like to hit,” Jim said of his linebackers. “They take it serious when they're out here. They study in school and the film of their opponents. In football ... we try to get them prepared to kind of know what they're doing before they snap the ball. But with the inside guys, Cory and Hudson there, I tell you what, when they hit you, they hit you and they've been fun to watch and it makes our jobs a lot easier.”
As difficult as it was for the team, Jim said it was likely harder on Leonard, who missed the game due to the flu.
“We could've folded the tents and felt sorry for ourselves,” Jim said. “But the kids on both sides of the ball dug down and the defense held them in check until our offense got clicking a little bit. We needed that and give credit to Waterloo. They came out and smacked us in the mouth on both sides of the ball, woke us up and I think there's good things coming for us.”
Last of the boys
Hudson proceeds his older brother, J.T., on the SHG defense.
J.T., a 2019 graduate, played on the defensive line.
Their dad, Jim, established clear rules in regards to football.
“I've told these guys J.T. and Hudson, when you're out on the field, you're not my kids,” Jim said. “I said you are an SHG football player. Just because you're my sons you will not get an advantage and no one will ever say anything about their playing because he's a coach's kid. Sometimes when we go home, I try not to bring what happened out here home.
“I've jumped him, I've jumped J.T. It's like I tell the kids all of the time, it's nothing personal. This is Griffin football and we hold ourselves to a high standard.”
Hudson said he doesn't feel burdened by any pressure as a son of an assistant coach because of the team’s camaraderie.
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“Out here, he definitely gets on me a decent amount but when we go back home, there's some football but it's not all football,” Hudson said.
It’s also a blessing. Jim knows plenty about football.
“It definitely makes things a lot easier, just knowing that he's been here this long, and I can just trust everything he's saying,” Hudson said. “It's pretty easy for me out there getting everything lined up because I know what he's telling me is working.”
Jim discerned early on that Hudson would be a gifted linebacker. He has dabbled in other positions on the offensive and defensive line whenever necessary, as well.
“I knew he had really good instincts,” Jim said. “He had instincts when he played defensive line in JFL and then coming to Griffin, I thought linebacker was going to be a great spot for him.
“He gets everybody lined up correctly, so he is the coach on the field. And without him, we'd have somebody else step up but with him out there, it takes a lot of pressure off me.”
Jim intends to remain on the coaching staff after this season.
Both father and son are soaking up their last ride together.
“I'm just very proud of J.T. and Hudson because if you graduate as a player in our program for four years, you're going to have a heck of a work ethic,” Jim said. “That starts with Coach Leonard and ends with Coach Leonard. And these kids have done it and this is a great senior class and they showed some great leadership Saturday, so hopefully we'll keep going.”
Contact Bill Welt: (217) 788-1545,email@example.com, Twitter.com/BillWelt