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September 22, 2008

TODD WILLS: Candid talk with Johnny Ringo

The swagger is still there. The smile too. The man with the best name in Texas high school football is doing OK.

And no, Plano East coach Johnny Ringo isn't sending out his resume, as much his critics probably wish he would or probably think he is.

Plano East's latest loss was a 42-0 loss to Skyline. The game couldn't have started any worse for the Panthers, who watched as the Skyline's Dominque Patterson intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown nine seconds into the game.

It put Plano East on the way to an eight-game losing streak. That's right eight games, which seems unfathomable for one of the state's largest schools, and one its best football programs, even if there is no state championship to show for it.

"We are in a uncharted territory," Ringo said.

It's safe to say Plano East has never endured an eight-game losing streak -- four to end last season and four to start this season. The streak will probably grow to nine games this Thursday when the Panthers get Plano, the No. 2 team in the state.

It's safe to say that the negative carryover from last season has stunned Ringo, who spoke confidently about his team before the season. There are talented players like running back Toben Opurum and safety Josh Peprah.

And even though the varsity went 6-4 last year after a 6-0 start and missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade, there were no indicators that the losing would continue.


The Panthers JV went 8-2 last year. The Clark freshman team went 8-1. The Williams freshman team went 5-5.

So what has happened at Plano East?

-- It could be instability. Ringo has had eight coaches move on to become head coaches or coordinators in the last four-plus years.

The big one was defensive coordinator Mike Lawrence, who I'd rank as one of top two or three defensive minds in the area.

Offensive coordinator Gerald Perry left to take the head coaching job at Bastrop last spring.

-- The schedule has been tough. Plano East's first five opponents, including Plano this Thursday, are all still undefeated. Abilene and Plano are state ranked. Skyline should be.

"We may have over-scheduled with our youth," Ringo said. "But it's hard to find games when you're Plano East."

-- Plano East had 423 players in the program from ninth to 12th last year. That number is down to 376 this year. It's the smallest senior class Ringo has ever had with 37 seniors.

But he says the numbers in seventh and ninth grades are very good. So this could be a good time for rivals to get their licks in on Plano East.

-- The tailspin last year has definitely carried over. The losing streak started with an overtime loss to a struggling Richardson Berkner team, and as Ringo said, that became two losses the next week when Plano East played awful in a loss to Wylie.

Then came the Plano game when the Panthers played well but lost. Then a loss to Allen to end the season. The Plano loss was particularly bad because it was spotlighted on the NFL Network with a NFL Films special in which then quarterback Riko Smalls, now at Virginia, made a complete fool of himself, "embarrassing the program" as one former East coach told me this summer.

The NFL Films show made you wonder if the way Smalls disrespected his coaches that night carried over to his younger teammates.

Ringo said last week that his staff and his players are working harder than ever.

"The first games there hasn't been 100 percent effort," RIngo said.

Ringo's critics on the internet message boards speculate that the players aren't listening to the coaches anymore. Ringo dismisses that.

"No one does more from a motivational standpoint," RIngo said. "We leave no stone left unturned. We're on the cutting edge of reaching out to today's youth."

Ringo really opened himself up in last week's 56-7 loss to Colleyville Heritage when he went for it early in the game on fourth-and-one at his own 25. Plano East didn't get the first down.

"I was trying to send a message," Ringo said. "I wanted to see if we could go toe-to-toe with someone. I wanted to instill in the kids that we can go do it. If I had to do it again I would punt and go play defense."

It's a strange turn of events for Ringo, who made the playoffs his first two seasons despite mediocre records and then went 10-3 in 2006, reaching the regional semifinals.

That East team had Keenan Robinson and the defense playing great in the playoffs. And Smalls and the offense on fire. The Panthers had a big lead on Spring Westfield on the regional semifinal and were on their way to a rematch with Allen when Smalls broke his collar bone for the second time that season and East couldn't hang on.

Who knows what the Panthers would have done against Allen and then Southlake Carroll in the state semifinals.

What is for sure is Plano East is far removed from that November day.

Ringo is still a great coach, and for those who think East hired a "recruiter" from SMU, you're just foolish. I first knew of Ringo when he was a middle school coach at my alma mater, Austin Westlake. We would welcome him back in a heartbeat if coach Derek Long, who is having his own tough season, retires at some point.

Ringo was the third choice to replace John Crawford after Hardy McCrary and Joey Florence turned down the job. And there are some East fans who still throw that in Ringo's face.

Pete Carroll was like the eighth choice at Southern Cal, and look where he is now.

RIngo has developed a reputation as someone who looks at other jobs because it became public that he was a finalist for the Carroll job. Even if Hal Wasson was a shoe-in for the job, hand-picked by Todd Dodge and maybe Ringo should have read the "tea leaves" a little better, it still shouldn't be held against him.

This is a good man. A standup guy. No one is more honest with the media about his team than Ringo.

Ringo insists he's going nowhere. He's had two losing seasons in his coaching career -- one when he made the playoffs -- and he says East will recover from this.

"Everything happens for a reason," Ringo said.


READ ADDITIONAL AUSTIN AVENUE REPORTS FROM TODD WILLS


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