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Chiefs’ coach returned team to playoff contender

[12/12/04] ST. JOSEPH, La. Coaching is never so much a revelation as it is a process.

A football coach works with young men for four or five years, molding them into solid players and people. If his efforts pay off once in a while, he’s rewarded with praise and championships. When things don’t work out on the field, he hopes his players are at least better people for the experience.

At Tensas Academy, Chris Jacobs has been coaching for a decade. He’s been through highs and lows at the tiny private school, from an appearance in the South State title game in 1998 to last season’s tough 4-6 campaign.

Through it all, Jacobs has never stopped working. Several years back, after the Chiefs lost all but two starters from a team that went 9-2 and won a district championship, he started molding the next generation of players.

They went through some growing pains, suffering through back-to-back losing seasons, but persevered and finally broke through in 2004. The Chiefs went 7-5, reached the playoffs for the first time since 2001, and advanced to the second round before losing to eventual Academy-A champion Claiborne.

For his efforts not just this season, but over the last three years, Jacobs was named The Vicksburg Post’s all-area Coach of the Year. Jacobs is the first two-time winner of the award. He last received the honor in 1998.

“In 2001, when we had our last winning season, we lost 75 or 80 percent of our team. It was a rebuilding phase, to where we had to teach these kids how to win,” Jacobs said. “The word over the last few years has been patience. You’re not going to turn a below-average player into an above-average player overnight.”

Turning that trick takes time and hard work, something Tensas’ players were willing to put in.

“We’ll always remember how hard he pushed us. He ran us to death. He was just trying to get that potential to come through,” senior receiver Thomas Crigler said. “Sometimes we just thought he was being mean, or something else I can’t say. I can tell right now it was all for the good of the team.”

It took a while for the talent to come out of the Chiefs, however.

Saddled with a young team and a tough district, Tensas won just eight games combined in 2002 and 2003 after four straight seven-win seasons. The Chiefs struggled with turnovers, mistakes and some downright bad play before finally turning things around this year.

Tensas won three of its first four games, with the only setback a narrow loss to playoff-bound Tri-County. The hot start gave the team some confidence that was lacking after going 1-9 in the first five weeks of the previous two seasons.

“It was a vast difference from last year,” Jacobs said, referring to 2003’s 0-5 start. “The last couple years, the way the schedule fell, we got down a little bit and it was a slap in the face trying to build confidence. This time you were able to hold your head up a little bit more. We were able to see the fruits of our labor right off the bat.”

Tensas missed its chance at the District 7-A title when it lost to River Oaks, but swept through the rest of its district schedule unscathed. If not for Claiborne, the Chiefs might have made it to their first state championship game.

Tensas played Claiborne twice in the last three weeks of the season first in the regular-season finale, then again in the second round of the playoffs and was routed each time. Claiborne outscored Tensas 78-19 in the two meetings.

“Claiborne was the only team that just defeated us. The rest of them, even though we lost, we were in the game,” Jacobs said.

So, in the blink of an eye, another season ended and another cycle begins for Jacobs. The four seniors he’s losing from this team don’t seem like much, until you realize there were only 12 players on the varsity roster.

A large freshman class is expected to swell the roster to 18 next season, which is about normal for the small school. Jacobs has learned to make do with what he has and has kept Tensas competitive throughout the ups and downs of the last 10 years. During his time in St. Joseph, the Chiefs are 67-35.

“Next year we’ve got some big shoes to fill, and we’ll see how good a coach I am,” Jacobs said with a laugh.

If you ask his players, they’ve already got an answer. No matter how the season turns out, they know Jacobs’ grasp of the deeper meaning of coaching will turn the next generation of Chiefs into winners.

“He’s always been there for us since the seventh grade,” Crigler said. “It’s like having another daddy around. And that’s his nickname around here Big Daddy.'”