S.C. football staff takes on a distinct Slicers flavor
UNION MILLS -- There's the makings of a reunion for the defense from La Porte's 2014 Class 5A state finalist team in place.
The difference is, the linebackers coach, the line coach and the star linebacker are all defensive coaches at South Central, where Satellites head coach Buzz Schoff has added Joe Wagner and Matt Otwinowski to his staff.
"The good thing about having both of them, a lot of times, the linebackers and DBs are going to do drills together, so I know they can do that stuff and it's going to be done perfectly," Schoff said. "I can stay with the linemen, work with them, knowing they won't miss a step. I'm going to call the defense, but we have three coordinators out there. All three know the defense, the strengths, the weaknesses, what we want to do with it."
Otwinowski, La Porte's all-time tackles leader, graduated in the spring from Buffalo, where he was a three-time selection to the Mid-American Conference All-Academic team. He is back living at home while pursuing his Master's degree in Accounting.
"It's on line, which is why I'm able to come out here," Otwinowski said.
Wagner coached La Porte's linebackers during most of Otwinowski's prep career before turning his focus to
basketball in 2015. Schoff moved from line coach to linebackers coach and defensive coordinator the next
Matt Otwinowski season, Otwinowski's senior year.
"There are players that like the game and players that love the game, and Matt's always been a guy who loves the game," Wagner said. "You can tell that love has grown. I'm very excited for him and our players that he wants to share that knowledge. The things Matt brings to the table, he has a very deep knowledge, obviously he's a lot closer to these guys in age, he can relate to them in things, and he can talk to them in a very calm demeanor. He's able to give them a lot of detailed things. They're listening to him and we're seeing a ton of improvement from our linebacker group."
The addition of Otwinowski actually stemmed from a random meeting with South Central's Matt Mulligan, a linebacker, by coincidence, and his dad Brian, at a gym in Michigan City.
"Brian texted me and said Matt Otwinowski is showing some interest in coaching, do you have any openings?" Schoff said. "I told him, if we don't, we'll find one. I still had his number from high school. I texted him, what do you think about South Central? As much as I respect the La Porte coaches, I wanted to beat them to the punch. It's easy to go back to coach your high school team. You're talking about his two high school position coaches here."
Otwinowski has come to S.C. the last few years as Wagner, the Satellites' basketball coach since 2017, had him speak to his team.
"I knew who he was because coach Wagner talks about La Porte all the time," senor Brady Glisic said. "I watched him play Penn State, too."
The visits left a good impression on Otwinowski.
"It seemed like a really close atmosphere around here," he said. "Everyone just seemed laid-back and really bonded. I just wanted to be a part of that. Going forward, obviously work is going to determine that, but I do want to be involved in the game of football and I think out here is a great place to do that. I saw I had the opportunity to stay involved in the game and give back in this way."
It took Otwinowski all of a day to fit in like he'd been coaching for years. He began to describe to Schoff what type of players he was looking for at each position, without knowing names or faces. Schoff then gave Otwinowski the players who fit the bill and a few weeks later, the pieces had fallen into place.
"It's been fantastic," Schoff said. "I knew it would be because I know his understanding of the game. The only thing I was worried about coming in was, will he know too much? This is not Buffalo football. I met with him and Joe, we went over the defense we wanted to run, the ins and outs about it. A lot of times, when you get a first-year coach, they're afraid to voice their opinion, but he knows the game so well and he has a personal relationship with both of us, so we don't look at him as a first-year coach. His first year was his junior year of high school, when he was still communicating with us about what he's seeing, and it's really carried over into his coaching career. If he's already at this stage, he's going to be a really, really good coach."
Right away, the trio were bouncing ideas off each other, doing chalk talk via text on a near nightly basis.
"It's never one-sided," Schoff said. "If we get two years out of him, it'll be a good thing. I'm hoping he's here as long as I am. With us three coaching defense, you never know what kids will do, but they're going to be prepared better than they've ever been. He communicates real well with the kids. They have a high respect for him. We tell them, a guy from the University of Buffalo is going to come in and coach the linebackers, the linebackers are excited. It doesn't give you a ticket to Buffalo, buy they're getting well-coached."
Mulligan's certainly glad his dad initiated the conversation back in June.
"We have a great staff," Mulligan said. "Both coaches are really good. If you make a mistake, they tell you, they're in your ear. He's brought some great stuff to South Central. For me, specifically, he's teaching me how to use my hands to get off blocks. He told me he wasn't consistently doing that until college. He wants all the linebackers to get that in now so we're ready for the next level if we want to do that."
A football player since third grade, Otwinowski wasn't ready to give up the game just yet, even if it means not wearing the pads and helmet anymore.
"It's been a busy four years," he said. "I can take the things I learned from college and I'm also learning from them every single day," he said. "We can collaborate on those things, to help the players, help the team. We just talk about ideas, come up with a game plan, how to put everybody in the best position to do their job. It's great to see the progress we've made, July compared to now, and now compared to October and November, it's going to be awesome. I just love being out here helping the guys day in and day out, talking about scheme and technique. It's just been great overall."
The process of getting Wagner to join the staff has been ongoing since Schoff took over.
"When I took over as head coach, it was the same year Joe became head basketball coach," Schoff said. "Every year, I hinted at the idea, why don't you come out and coach football? He would always waver, yeah, maybe. It was always a struggle. If he'd have basketball practice, he could never make a commitment to it. His dad would be up in the stands and would say, when are you going to get Joe to coach football? I told him at one point, I'm trying, it just doesn't make any sense, the best linebacker coach in Indiana is the basketball coach. When everything went down (with COVID-19), he got cornered to the point he needed something to do earlier. I said, what do you want to coach?"
Wagner actually went to La Porte with Schoff's older brother Adam, but the two became close friends. They spent some 13 years together at their high school, both starting out as volunteer freshman coaches. Wagner stood up for Schoff at his wedding.
"We've got pretty deep roots," Schoff said. "I've known the guy forever. He was a pretty good linebacker in high school. It was 2014 when he kind of started to know each other's strengths and weaknesses as coaches. We've kind of got the same personality. It was an easy fit. The past seven days in school, if he's not in my room, I'm in his room, and it's not always football we're talking about. Now that he's got his program established, he sees a lot of
basketball players who play football, so it's the same kids coming to shoot around. The timing was just right. It wasn't me just trying to fill a spot. He's a guy that can help me out."
Though he jokes about being bumped from his old coaching spot to the secondary, Wagner's happy to be back.
"I'm coaching a different position because we've got a Division I linebacker on our staff," he said. "I'm having a blast honestly. It was an opportunity, especially coming out of quarantine, to be able to get back into it. I kind of forgot how much I missed it."