Jason Dean was a typical freshman football player at McMurry in 1992, enjoying the freedoms of college life and dreading those early-morning wakeup calls for football practice.
At that same time, John Walsh was a junior wide receiver with a wife and newborn son, working the 4-8:30 a.m. shift at UPS before heading to class, then football practice. Sometimes he’d pull the overnight shift.
While doing all of that, Walsh was a record setter who owned the school’s career yards per catch mark before it was eventually broken. He still sits in second place on that list and was named to the All-Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association second team in 1993.
His teammates took notice of his hard work, both on and off the field. Just ask Dean.
“He was our go-to guy at wide receiver,” said Dean, who was a guard on the team and played with Walsh for two seasons. “If we were throwing the football, John Walsh was the guy we were looking to get open. He was always encouraging people to play harder. It was just a maturity thing for him. He was already married and had a family while the rest of us were young, dumb college kids. He was definitely the leader of our team.”
McMurry’s best season in the duo’s tenure came in 1993, Walsh’s senior year, when the team finished 8-2 and lost to a Mexican all-star team in the Aztec Bowl in Mexico City. After that year, the two went their separate ways.
Today, both men, now high school head coaches, will be on the same field once again when their respective teams play in the Class 4A Division I state championship game at Arlington’s Cowboys Stadium — Walsh with Guyer and Dean with Georgetown.
“It’s definitely different going up against a friend,” Walsh said. “I have a lot of respect for him. When you watch his team play on film, you know he’s running a real quality program. There’s a mutual respect.”
Walsh referenced some tough playoff negotiations recently with the Tyler John Tyler coaches prior to last week’s state semifinal, saying he was relieved to be dealing with someone this week whom he has a long history with, and Dean agreed.
“I think it’s great we know each other and have mutual respect for each other,” Dean said. “You don’t have to worry about what advantage he is trying to get. We were talking about officials. [My assistant] coaches were leery about talking with other teams and people trying to get advantages, but we’re completely honest with each other, so that’s been nice.”
Earning their stripes
While both men went to college in Abilene, they were not far from home.
Walsh grew up in Merkel, just 17 miles west of Abilene on Interstate 20. Dean calls Santa Anna, a small town 60 miles from Abilene and just west of Brownwood, home.
When taking their first jobs in coaching, the two didn’t stray far from their roots, either.
Dean took his first job under Steve Warren at Abilene while Walsh started his coaching career under Steve Freeman at Brownwood, where the Lions went to one state semifinal with Walsh as the quarterbacks coach and later the offensive coordinator. The two met as assistants when Brownwood and Abilene faced off in nondistrict play.
Following the 2004 season, Dean left Abilene to become the offensive coordinator at Georgetown before becoming the Eagles’ head coach four years later. That same year, Walsh left Brownwood to start the program at Guyer as the head coach. He went 1-19 in his first two seasons at Guyer, and since then has been to at least the state semifinals in all but one season.
Guyer lost in the 2010 Class 5A Division II state championship game with Walsh’s son, whom Dean remembers as an infant, as the quarterback.
Dean went 1-9 in his first season as the Eagles’ head coach, before going 5-6 and 6-4, and now in his fourth year has Georgetown making school history every week with a 15-0 record.
“There was no doubt about it,” Walsh said when asked if he knew Dean would be a head coach one day. “He always did things right through hard work and he was always intelligent. When he got to Abilene High, he was one of those right-hand guys for Steve Warren immediately.”
Dean said that while both men had successful mentors in the coaching business, it always helps matters to have good players — something both have in abundance this season.
“I think John would agree with me that a lot of that has to do with the material you have to work with,” Dean said. “There’s no question, though, that he’s an offensive-minded football coach and a great leader. He’s led those kids and has really gotten that program established. They’re doing great things.”
Proud of his pupils
There are plenty of people who know both coaches and have excitement surrounding today’s game. There’s probably been a fair share of friendly banter back in the Big Country. For instance, Dean’s mother is friends with Walsh’s wife, Amber, on Facebook and started sending her messages a few weeks back predicting their loved ones would match up in the championship game.
But there might be only one personally interested spectator today who genuinely has no rooting interest in the game’s outcome. He’s just proud of whom he’ll see roaming the teams’ sidelines.
Enter Joe George, who became the head coach at McMurry prior to Walsh’s sophomore year and before Dean’s arrival. He coached McMurry from 1991-94 before going back to the high school ranks and eventually ending up at Mary Hardin-Baylor, where he has been the offensive line coach for 13 seasons.
“I’m very proud of those two young men,” said George, who is now 69 years old. “They’re not young men anymore, but I’m very proud. They’re very hardworking and very deserving of being in the position to play for a state championship.”
George said he worked with Walsh and the receivers more than he worked with the offensive line, and said there was no question who was the best of the bunch out wide.
“He was the best receiver that we had,” George said. “He could run good routes, had good speed, could catch the ball and after the catch he’d get plenty of yards too.
“I also remember how important it was for John to be a member of our football team. He was married at the time and [Walsh’s son] J.W. was just a baby. … He is an amazing person. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s had all of this success.”
And while George might have worked more closely with Walsh at McMurry, he’s closer to Dean now, just a quick 30- or 40-minute drive on Interstate 35 from Belton. He’s been known to show up from time to time at Georgetown’s practices to see how his old pupil is doing. He’ll also call and text Walsh occasionally and sees both at coaching school and coaching clinics. He has more recently run into Walsh — this past summer at a camp at Hurst L.D. Bell.
“Both of those guys are special to me,” George said. “I just wish the best to both of them. It’s hard to root for one over the other. I just hope they both do well and the best team wins.”
George may or may not be in attendance today at Cowboys Stadium when his former players lead their teams onto the turf. He has yet to decide. He said that was “his style,” with a chuckle.
He wanted his arrival to be a surprise if he does indeed make the trip, but even if he’s not in attendance he said he’ll be planted in front of his television watching with keen interest.
“I’m not a bit surprised of their success,” George said. “If you knew them as players and as young people, you’d realize that they could accomplish a lot in the coaching profession.
“It’s a point of pride for me. I’m just happy that both of those guys have an opportunity to play for a state championship.”
ADAM BOEDEKER can be reached at 940-566-6872. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.