“Looking up from the Practice Field….”
By James Tilson
” I didn’t know how bad it was” Says former Manti football coach
MANTI—Have you ever played on a losing high school athletic team? I have. Frankly, it was a pretty miserable experience. I remember playing high school football, and wondering if we could ever have a winning season.
During my four years, we had a winning season only once, and had only two wins a couple of seasons. We never made the playoffs. It wasn’t that we didn’t work hard in the off-season, or play as hard as we could during the season. We just never put it all together and turned the corner.
Manti High School football was in a similar place in the years prior to 1985. From 1969 to 1984, Manti football had a 38-106 record over 15 seasons. The best coach during that period was Russ Felt, who had a 17-18 record over four seasons. Every other coach had miserable losing records.
In 1985, Manti High School hired a new coach, Robert “Buck” Gent. Gent had been coaching and teaching in Oregon and Idaho, with a fair amount of success. Gent was brought to Manti knowing he had to turn around the program, but according to him, “I didn’t know how bad it was.”
Gent had served in the U.S. Army before taking up coaching high school football. Motivation and attitude became the building blocks behind his coaching methods. So, the fact of Manti’s record of futility was not a drawback, but actually a plus.
“This was exactly the school I was looking for,” says Gent in his book “A Season of Victory, Manti Football.” “Little was expected of the team members, so they gave exactly what was expected and built a loss record legendary in the history of Utah sports. I could change that attitude, and I was determined to do so.”
Gent started by instituting an off-season workout regime, and getting to know his team personally. But he knew he could not magically transform the kids in one season. Gent would build a game plan around deceptive plays and the passing game. And getting his kids to have fun.
“Teenagers struggle with self-worth,” said Gent. “If you get them to stop comparing themselves to others, they believe in themselves.” Gent knew from his previous experiences, “there’s greatness in all people.”
When the first game of the year came around, against the Parowan Rams, Gent knew his team would prevail. He saw the lack of focus and discipline in the Parowan team (their record was nearly as bad as Manti in those days) and Gent knew his team “had bought into my belief in discipline, respect for each other, and focus on what the coach was telling them.”
“I was firmly convinced that tonight we would sacrifice the Rams,” said Gent. “My team sensed it, too, and their expectation radiated through the huddle.”
Manti defeated Parowan that night, 41-6. In Gent’s words, “The euphoria of our victory over Parowan washed over the town of Manti for the entire weekend.” The town was given a taste of something they had not had for a while—hope.
The next game was a different challenge. The Millard Eagles were then, and still are now, a dominant team in Utah small school football. At that time, they had achieved nine state titles, and expected victories.
But they were not ready for Manti’s new-found discipline and deceptive strategies. The Templars took down the mighty Eagles, 19-0. The news was reported all the way to Salt Lake City, and astonishment went before it. Manti was no longer “Manti.”
Over the next three years, Gent and Manti continued to take on, and defeat, many of the giants of Utah small school football. Richfield, Emery, Millard and culminating in the 1987 defeat of the Delta Rabbits, the undefeated and defending Utah AA state champs.
Since then, Manti has gone on to have many playoff runs, including 32 playoff victories and 22 straight years of making a playoff appearance. The Templars have now won four state championships of their own, in 1999, 2003, 2011 and 2012.
Gent moved on as well. After he finished his coaching career, Gent took up competition himself, winning championships in the pentathlon competition for the 60-64 age group. That he did so after accepting a heart transplant is even more remarkable.
This week, the Manti High School football team is in the midst of another successful run, undefeated so far this season. On Friday, Manti will celebrate a special Homecoming, looking back on 50 years of Manti football. Gent is expected to make an appearance at the ceremonies.
The current run of success owes a great deal to Gent, and his ability to turn around the mindset of the Templar football team. Gent gave those kids a belief in themselves, and their ability to succeed. “I wanted to make sure the kids knew they had a chance to win.”