Don Simmons likes to joke that everything that happened up to this point in the history of the Shawnee Mission North football is BS — Before Simmons.
Recent SM North history has been mostly forgettable, including a winless campaign last fall, but it wasn’t always that way.
It’s easy to forget these days, but SM North won the first three Class 5A state championships — the highest classification at the time — after the Kansas State High School Activities Association was formed in 1969.
SM North added another championship in 1974 to its three-peat from 1969-71 and reached the state final again in 1977.
It was a proud program, but there’s no way around it. SM North has fallen on hard times of late, going 13-60 with one playoff appearance in the last eight seasons.
Simmons, who guided Riverton to the Class 3A state title in 1990, aims to change that and it all starts Friday as Kansas football gets underway. (OK, some schools start Thursday, but most kick off on Friday. I digress …)
Rebuilding football programs is kind of Simmons’ thing — and he’s pretty darn good at it too, which is why he is confident there’s hope for his latest reclamation project.
“That’s been my M.O., I guess — rebuilding programs,” Simmons said. “I’ve done it everywhere I’ve been. This is a big challenge, but that’s why I accepted it. I wanted another challenge. I kind of thrive on that. We’ll see if we can get things turned around.”
Simmons’ 29-year career as a head coach started in Riverton. He then built Independence into a Class 5A power before going 37-10 record with four district championships in five seasons at Blue Valley North from 1997-2001.
He briefly returned to Riverton after that stint with the Mustangs, which included a few renowned clashes with Sam Brown’s SM North program around the turn of the century.
Simmons spent the last nine years in Chanute, which is where I first met him as the sports editor at The Chanute Tribune — though really I was little more than a cub reporter fresh out of college. With no actual staff underneath me, editor was something of a ceremonial title.
Anyway, Simmons went 65-32 and led the Blue Comets to the Class 4A playoffs every season before accepting the SM North job in January and returning to Kansas City.
Simmons is an easier guy to root for and his teams play an entertaining, wide-open style. Chip Sherman proved that can work in the run-dominant Sunflower League in recent years.
New coaching staff only includes four holdovers with six new assistant coaches
Simmons overhauled SM North’s staff, retaining only four coaches and adding six new assistants, including his son Brandon (wide receivers coach) and a trusted long-time assistant from Chanute (Jim Coate).
There’s some talent to work with, including senior wide receiver/cornerback Jesse Patterson, Maceo Mitchell on the lines and another standout wide receiver/defensive back, Nick Perez, a junior whose brother Mason was the star the last time SM North made the playoffs.
“They’ve embraced the challenge,” Simmons said. “Obviously, some of them who played a lot last year felt like they were up to it, but I still told them they had to compete for their spots.”
Of course, Simmons isn’t a miracle worker. It’s going to take time for SM North to rebound to respectability.
He’s realistic about the task at hand, but I’m telling you — don’t bet against Simmons. I witnessed firsthand the rapid ascension of his Comets program and know that he’s found success everywhere he’s been.
This year’s modest goals? Simmons hopes SM North can crack the win column a few times in the first six weeks as his squad learns the new schemes, but the main goal is finish strong in district play and reach the Class 6A state playoffs.
“We feel confident with the offensive and defensive schemes our coaching staff has put together that we’ll get it turned around,” Simmons said. “It may not be this year necessarily, but we want to have some fun with it and hope to be competitive in this league.”
There may yet be more glory days ahead for SM North football.
Editor’s note: Previews of each of Johnson County’s high school football teams will appear in Wednesday’s 913, so be on the lookout.