Make no mistake: Coach Gus Kapolka loves to win. And his Cedar Springs High School football team is quite good at it, going 3-1 through its first four games this season.
For his players, however, victories don’t come only on the gridiron, Kapolka says.
“We talk a lot about process, the process of winning,” the Red Hawks head varsity coach said on a recent morning, sitting in the classroom where he teaches Advanced Placement U.S. and European history. “We talk about winning in the classroom and winning as men.”
When he tells his players to be a man, he’s not talking about macho stuff but about developing character. “It means doing the right thing all the time, particularly when no one’s watching you,” he said.
That approach helped Kapolka garner recognition recently from the Detroit Lions, when he was named the 2014 Farm Bureau Insurance of Michigan High School Football Coach of the Week. He is one of nine state coaches who will be so honored this season, with a coach of the year to be named at its conclusion.
The program recognizes coaches for developing players’ character and discipline, and ensuring their health and safety, as well as their teams’ success. Five media panelists choose coaches based on “the things they did on the field first of all, but also highlighting the success they have off the field,” said Chris Fritzsching, Lions’ Director of Youth Football.
Commitment Yields Success in Sports and Class
Now in his second year at Cedar Springs, Kapolka previously coached for nine years in Manistee. He turned around a team that was 0-33 over four years before he came to one that was 42-42 and reached the state playoffs three times under his guidance. He also was an assistant at Boyne City and Warren Lincoln.
A graduate of Warren Fitzgerald High School, where he played center and defensive tackle, he majored in history and English at Eastern Michigan University.
At Cedar Springs, Kapolka coaches 33 varsity players and is offensive line coach for 60 junior varsity and freshmen players. He also oversees an intensive off-season conditioning program that begins in January and runs through the summer. Players are expected to commit to the total program and to “being a Red Hawk, 365, 24/7,” he said.
Influencing Players’ Lives
“Make a commitment to the program over four years and you’ll have success, not just in football but in life,” he said.
The commitment includes mandatory study tables and passing all classes at all times. Players are expected to conduct themselves as role models for younger kids, to treat others with respect — no hazing is allowed – and to leave a positive legacy, Kapolka said.
“If you’re a ‘me’ person and don’t give back, you’re going to leave a legacy that’s pretty shallow,” said Kapolka, adding he tries to make contact with all his players each day. “We want to develop that sense of family, that welcoming atmosphere for our kids, so they know there’s a place where they feel safe and feel comfortable.”
While admitting he loves to compete, Kapolka also treasures the positive impact he makes on his players.
“I really enjoy it when I can touch base with former players, guys that have gone on to be successes,” he said. “You’ve made a difference in someone’s life, no matter how small or big it is.”