Gene Wier isn’t a towering man and doesn’t cut a particularly imposing figure.
He’s around 6 feet tall with a medium build, but among football coaches in metropolitan Kansas City, Wier is an absolute giant.
The architect of the Olathe North football dynasty, there was a time Wier couldn’t go anywhere in Olathe without fawning well-wishers scrambling for a handshake and eager to share what Eagles football meant in their lives.
Truth is, now that Wier has returned to the Eagles after a nine-year hiatus, he still can’t walk through Walmart without being stopped for some gridiron gab.
Wier is a living legend, and that is especially true around the halls at Olathe North.
“He had stay connected to the school, so we all knew him or at least knew about him,” senior two-way lineman Nick Scott said. “When we heard that Coach Wier was coming back, obviously we were excited to get to work with him, because he has so much experience and we respect him a lot around here.”
If it weren’t for the fact he’s too well-liked for politics, Wier might as well be mayor of “the City of Champions” after creating a high school football monster before leaving for Richland, Texas, in 2003.
He took over for another Olathe coaching legend, Bud Wheeler, when Olathe High School became Olathe North in 1981. Wheeler had left to open the city’s second high school, Olathe South, prompting the original high school’s name change.
During the next 22 seasons, Wier coached the Eagles to a 188-36 record.
Of course, Lawrence High was the powerhouse at the time and proved to be a significant stumbling block for Olathe North until the mid- 1990s.
But once Wier’s program broke the dam in 1996, the Kansas 6A state football titles started flooding back to southern Johnson County.
On Wier’s watch, the Eagles finished atop the state’s biggest classification six times in seven seasons, including three straight titles from 1996-98 and again from 2000-02.
When Wier headed south to try his hand in the nation’s most football-mad state, Olathe North – which added another championship in 2003 under his former assistant, John McCall, and reached the Kansas 5A final in 2004 – was riding a 38-game win streak.
Gene Wier’s gaze remains intense.
It’s not intimidating, at least not intentionally, but it’s always purposeful.
While it might be overselling it to say his name alone strikes fear into opposing players and coaches, it’s foolish to think the name and all it stands for doesn’t still resonate.
“He knows his stuff and he challenges the team,” assistant coach Eniak Mpwo said. “The whole community gets behind North, and he challenges us to be the best every time we come out. Everybody knows that about his program, so there’s no doubt just the name alone means something.”
Obviously, within the program, the name Wier is sacred.
“He’s got the name and a lot’s expected out of him, but that’s all right,” said senior two-way lineman Alex Maggard, who missed last season with a broken leg. “There’s a lot expected of us as Olathe North football players too, and we can’t take for granted that name on our chest. My whole family has gone here – aunts, uncles, dad, mom, my grandma worked here forever – so it means the world.”
Now, for many, having Wier back makes it seem like everything is right in that world again.
“He coached my dad (Rob) his senior year and he’s coaching me my senior year,” Maggard said. “That means a lot to me.”
Outside the program, there’s no doubt that, given his resume and experience, Wier’s colleagues have a healthy respect for what he brings to the Eagles.
“Gene’s teams will never beat themselves,” Olathe East coach Jeff Meyers said. “He doesn’t let that happen, and that’s something that isn’t going to change. He’s a great game coach, but his teams are always prepared.”
Naturally, the Sunflower League has changed since Wier left.
There are still some familiar faces –Meyers, Dirk Wedd at Lawrence and Bob Lisher at Lawrence Free State – but a lot is different now, too.
Olathe North is different.
The Eagles won another 6A title in 2009 under Pete Flood, who played for Wier and whose resignation last November opened the door for Wier’s return.
But Olathe North also endured the worst playoff defeat in program history, a 49-0 shellacking against Blue Valley in 2006, as well as the program’s only losing season in history during Wier’s absence.
The Eagles ended last season with a four-game losing skid – an unheard of impossibility during Wier’s days on the sideline.
“I don’t think people fear us or have the same respect that they once did,” Wier said. “But that can also be good for us with a young team and not much experience coming back. But absolutely, we want to get that back as well. I like the role of being the top guy. It beats the heck out of being the last guy every time.”
Gene Wier’s hair is white these days.
Even the tufts of chest hair that spill out from his practice jersey have lost their color.
He’s not the same firebrand who once coached Olathe North.
“He’s older and you can tell – I don’t want to say he’s mellowed out, but I haven’t seen the intensity yet,” said Mpwo, who led the Eagles to the first title in 1996 with 170 yards rushing against Wichita North. “Of course, he’s still knowledgeable and he’s picked up a lot from his time in Texas. He brings a different ballgame now.”
Wier, whose old Olathe North teams were famous for brutal ball-control offense and jaw-breaking defense, no longer shuns the passing game, so the Xs and Os also will be different.
But there are some things that never change.
Wier expects to win football games and so will the wider Olathe North community.
“Playing with North on your chest means a lot,” senior safety/wide receiver Lamont Neely said. “You’re playing for every player who came before you.”
And Wier remains as uncompromising as ever in the quest for the hard work and dedication, as well as its resulting excellence, that became the pillar of his Eagles creation.
“Excellence is our expectation at Olathe North, working hard every practice and trying to get better,” senior two-way lineman Ryan Garrett said. “That’s the goal, every game trying to get better. He demands that excellence from us – hard work, our best, 100 percent effort.”
But that isn’t limited to football.
“He tries to get us to be respectful young men, and not just on the field,” Scott said. “He demands respect and discipline in the classroom and school community. That’s a big part of it, and he won’t settle for anything less.”
People wonder if Wier can do it again much like Bill Snyder buoyed Kansas State last season in his second turn overseeing a program he had once brought to prominence.
The answer is, well, maybe.
Talent is always a factor in football, and Wier had that in abundance – highlighted by five Simone Award winners, Arland Bruce (1995), Josh Brewer (1997), Darren Sproles (2000), Maurice Mack (2001) and Jim Bouknight (2002) – during Olathe North’s heyday.
But how Wier coaxed the most from that talent is something else that hasn’t changed.
“To me, this is my three-hour classroom and I plan every single minute,” Wier said. “We’re on task every minute. It’s an outstanding classroom, and that’s the way it should be.”
Few teach the lessons quite so well as Wier, which means Olathe North is excellent hands for another run at excellence.
“No doubt, he can restore the program, but it’s going to take a lot of effort,” Mpwo said. “Most people think, ‘Oh, Wier’s back, so the magic will suddenly pop up too.’ It might take a year or so, but we believe.”To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.