CHS graduate has led program he once starred for since 1998 season. Guided Hornets to 144-74 mark in 20-years tenure, including 10-2 mark, conference title in his final year. Also coached at Kearney and Moberly high schools early in long career
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — When Chillicothe High School’s 2018 varsity football team takes the field for its season opener next August, for the first time in 55 years, it will do so under the leadership of someone other than national football coaching Hall of Fame member Bob Fairchild or one of the top players of the first half-dozen years of his historic 35-years tenure.
Phil Willard, a late 1960s standout as Fairchild was establishing CHS football as one of the state’s top pigskin “brands” and essentially the legendary coach’s handpicked successor when Fairchild abruptly stepped down in the early summer of 1998, today publicly confirmed to local media what has been rumored and largely anticipated since last summer – that he has submitted a letter of resignation from the CHS head coaching post he has held since 1998 with the intention of permanently retiring from coaching.
“I’ve been coaching for 45 years. When you’ve been doing something that long, it’s never an easy decision,” he shared during a joint interview with the C-T and KCHI Radio late this morning as he publicly made official his retirement. “I just thought it was time to spend some more time with my family.”
He acknowledged that, even with that natural desire to have the freedom to stay fully engaged in the lives of his and wife Debbie’s children, both of whom will be in college next school year, hanging up the whistle and clipboard was a decision he wrestled with.
“… To give something up you’ve done that long and really enjoyed” is not easy, he shared.
He emphasized that returning to being a head coach in 1998 after both more than a decade away from that pursuit and in light of his personal situation at the time – the Willards’ first daughter, Elizabeth, had died at age 2-1/2 less than two years before and Debbie was a couple of months pregnant with daughter Alexandria at the time – likely would not have happened and certainly would not have lasted for two decades without the staunch support of his wife.
“There’s no question you think about those things,” he recalled today (Thursday) his mindset when the opportunity unexpectedly presented itself.
“I was very, very lucky. My wife Debbie is the daughter of a coach and she understood the time that it takes to be successful and she encouraged me to go ahead and pursue that. That was huge … to have that kind of backing (in that) she was going to put the (parenting) time in that maybe I was going to be missing with our children.”
Willard’s not-surprising departure – he has been retired from teaching and school administrative posts for about a decade and has admitted to considering stepping aside as long as five years ago – leaves temporarily vacant the head coaching post at one of Missouri’s most-renowned and consistently-successful high school football programs.
Not only has CHS’ gridiron program been highly-successful, in terms of wins and losses and caliber and character of play on the field, but it has experienced a degree of stability of leadership totally-unparalleled in Missouri prep football history, but perhaps across the country, having had only two head coaches the past 55 years.
How quickly a new coach will or might be hired is uncertain – Chillicothe school district Superintendent Dr. Roger Barnes is out of his office until about mid-afternoon today. The C-T plans to be in contact with Dr. Barnes upon his return to find out specifics of the district administration’s plans for the process.
With Willard’s decision – his letter to the district’s board of education will be considered and, presumably, accepted and become official at next Tuesday’s regular board meeting for December, according to Barnes, the Chillicothe district will move full-steam into the process of selecting and hiring a replacement.
The field of interested applicants from around northwest Missouri and across the state figures to be large and could well even include some current college-staff assistants. Multiple former CHS players from both the Willard and Fairchild head-coaching eras currently are active as head or assistant coaches in the prep and college ranks in- and out-of-state.
Enjoying good to highly-successful seasons – at least seven victories each year – his first seven years at the Hornets helm and wrapping up his two decades with a return to prominence with 9- and 10-wins campaigns in 2016 and ’17, respectively, Willard’s run at the Hornets’ helm concludes with a composite won-lost mark of 144-74. That is a winning percentage of .661.
The best of those 20 seasons, in terms of wins and winning percentage, however, was 2008. That year’s squad rampaged through the regular season undefeated – winning by wide margins most weeks, but also squeaking past keen rival Maryville by a point on the road – before dominating three playoffs foes prior to unexpectedly dropping the Class 3 state semifinal on the road at Cassville to finish 13-1.
Two other Willard-guided CHS clubs also won in double digits – both having a highly-memorable triumph as a “signature” win of a 10-wins campaign.
The 2003 Hornets stood 9-1 as they travelled to nemesis and fellow Midland Empire Conference member Platte County for a state-playoffs sectional-round game against not only a team CHS had never defeated, but also one on a 52-games winning streak.
Aided by a bad break for PCHS, in the form of an injury to the Pirates’ top running back on his very first carry of the game, Chillicothe nevertheless played outstanding ball and stunned Platte County 23-14 for win No. 10. Unfortunately, a week later, a 6-0 shutout loss in rainy Richmond ended their season in the quarterfinals.
This fall’s Hornets – Willard’s last team, as it turns out – halted MEC rival Maryville’s 5-years-long winning streak in conference play with a dominating 24-0 home win Sept.1. That paved the way for CHS (and Smithville) to unseat MHS as MEC champion after six such crowns in a row, but Maryville got the last laugh when it stunned the Hornets 20-12 in the district playoffs. As in 2003, the 2017 Chillicothe squad ended up 10-2.
In between the early- and late-tenure season successes Willard’s Hornets teams had and straddling the 2008 high point, there were a handful of disappointing years of sub-.500 marks, including a low-water mark 3-wins campaign in 2012. However, even in those sub-par seasons, Chillicothe’s teams were competitive in many of their losses, while always playing with great character, as their coach exemplified.
This past season’s 10-2 mark not only boosted Willard’s final record as CHS head coach to 70 games over .500, but left his career head-coaching ledger at 181-132, a solid .578 winning percentage.
That encompasses a 13-14 mark at then-modestly-sized Kearney from 1975-77 in his first head-coaching gig and a 24-44 run guiding Moberly’s long-moribund program from 1978-84.
Until beckoned back to the sidelines in Chillicothe by his former coach and then replacing him, Willard previously has admitted he expected and intended for the combined 37-58 mark from his time at Moberly and Kearney to be his final career log. Instead, he now departs the coaching ranks as a member of the Missouri High School Football Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame (inducted in 2008) and with a career record 49 games over .500, rather than 21 under.