While spending all but one year of his lengthy coaching career in Middle Tennessee, Ron Crawford was a perennial playoff contender and captured a state championship in 2002.
Under coach Benny Monroe, Cleveland High School won three consecutive state titles from 1993-95.
Crawford and the Blue Raiders have come together in 2012 with the hope of reestablishing the glory days of Cleveland’s football program.
“Every day has been a scramble,” said the 51-year-old Crawford, who left Brentwood after a 10-year stay to take the Cleveland job following E.K. Slaughter’s resignation. “When you’re in a new situation you don’t always know what’s going on, you don’t know who to see and how to get things done. You put one fire out and another one pops up. But, we’ve made quite a bit of progress.
“We’ve been all about building relationships with the kids, the administration and the community. Winning is the by-product on a lot of different processes. First, you have to build those relationships and the X’s and O’s will take care of themselves.”
The clock is ticking down.
Cleveland, which hasn’t won a playoff game since beating Knox Carter and Knox Central in 2002 (the Blue Raiders lost to Maryville in the quarterfinals), opens the 2012 season against powerful Maryville at 5 p.m. on Aug. 18.
“That’s a really good opportunity for us to play the best Class 6-A team in the state the past several years and a chance for us and the kids to see how a champion acts,” Crawford said.
At Brentwood High School, Crawford was a proponent of the spread offense with the intention of throwing the football all over the place. He still is and that means Cleveland’s junior quarterback Austin Herink is likely to be a busy man who regularly need to use an ice wrap on his shoulder on a regular basis.
“We’ve got good experience at the skill positions,” Crawford said. “We’ve got two good senior running backs – C.J. Bryant and David Morgan – and I feel good about the young guys.”
Defensively, the Blue Raiders will use a 3-4 alignment.
“We’ve got a lot of linebacker and safety type players,” Crawford said. “Morgan is a force at outside linebacker. Jonathan Terrerio played a lot of ball last year and defensive back Reed Allison will be starting for the fourth year and those guys will carry the defense.”
Coming off a 5-5 season and failing to reach the playoffs for only the second time since 2000, the Blue Raiders face a tough opening three-game stretch – Maryville, Knox Catholic and Ooltewah, Cleveland’s first District 5-AAA contest.
Maryville, which has won nine state titles dating to 2000, boasts an overall 93-20 playoff record.
Knoxville Catholic has reached the postseason 12 times in the last 13 years and claimed a state title in 2008.
Ooltewah beat Shelbyville, Crawford’s high school alma mater, 42-20, in a 2011 first-round game before losing to eventual state champion Powell, 42-21, in the second round.
“We’re going to know pretty quickly where we stand,” said Crawford, who was named the Blue Raiders’ coach in April. “It’s a tough, tough start for us.”
Crawford wasn’t necessarily looking for a new job after finishing his 10th year at Brentwood, a season in which the Bruins went three games deep into the playoffs.
But he knew of Cleveland’s tradition and faced the Blue Raiders in 1992 while an assistant coach at Riverdale in Murfreesboro. Crawford was aware of Monroe’s ultra-successful tenure in Cleveland and his perception of the program from the outside looking in was very favorable.
“It’s the only high school in the city school system, it’s a good place to live and people are rowing the boat in the same direction,” Crawford said. “I also had a desire to get back to a smaller system. And I liked the tradition here. I needed a place that was a good fit for me, and this is a good fit.”
During the interview process, Crawford listened intently to what Cleveland High administrators had to say about what they wanted in a new coach and let his successful past do the speaking for him.
“I didn’t have to sell myself because we’ve done some good things in my career. I’ve been blessed and we’ve won quite a few games. My questions were did I fit their vision and I knew some things needed to be done to help any coach coming in here. So, were they willing to work on that,” the veteran coach said.
Upon his arrival in Cleveland, Crawford was immediately accepted by the Cleveland High community and he spent a lot of times talking Cleveland football.
“I was like a new puppy,” he said. “They didn’t want to put me down.”
But, in the end, it will all come down to success on the field.
Before that, however, Crawford worked hard to improve the atmosphere around the program. The field house has been painted, new flooring installed and new weight equipment is in place.
He has welcomed back former Blue Raiders coach Leon Brown as an assistant head coach and Monroe has been involved in Crawford’s transition. Crawford and Monroe have been intentionally vague about what role Monroe will play in the future.
Clearly, Crawford and Monroe have a relationship through football. In fact, Crawford said Monroe had “a lot to do with me coming to Cleveland.”
Crawford has said publicly that he wants to find something for Monroe to do related to the program.
Former Cleveland players Matt Ingram and Heath Ware also have joined Crawford’s staff.
A native of Summerville, Tenn., Crawford moved to Shelbyville when he was in the eighth grade and later attended Middle Tennessee State University. He spent one year coaching at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and then had stops at Shelbyville, Riverdale, Coffee County (head coach), back to Riverdale and then to Brentwood High as head coach.
In his first season at Brentwood (2002), Crawford led the Bruins to a 14-1 record and the state championship. Brentwood started the season with a 17-7 loss to Brentwood Academy and then reeled off 14 consecutive victories, a streak that included a semifinal win over Germantown and a 10-7 victory over Riverdale in the title game.
Dating to 2003, Cleveland has made seven playoff appearances and lost in the first round each time. The Blue Raiders missed the postseason in 2005 and 2011.
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com)