As someone who grew up in Henry County, Denton Saunders is no stranger to the Northwest Ohio Athletic League. So when the opportunity came to take his first football head coaching job in Swanton, he jumped at the chance to lead the Bulldogs.
Saunders, 29, grew up in Liberty Center and attended school there through his freshman year. After that, he moved to Patrick Henry for the final three years of high school, graduating in 2008.
“I grew up in this league. I know this league. And I have tremendous respect for this league,” stated Saunders. “To me, it’s just an honor to be back in the league.”
Saunders had interest in the head coaching jobs at Delta and Wauseon that also opened up after last season, but felt something different with Swanton.
“I told my wife when I applied to all three jobs, I told her I thought Swanton was the best job,” he said. “For me personally. That may not be the same for everybody else. But I just thought Swanton would be the best fit for me with the athletes they have currently.”
School officials felt the same about him, touting his knowledge of the game as the main reason he was chosen for the position.
“When he starts talking about football and the kind of program he is looking to build, you can feel the passion he has for the game,” said Swanton athletic director Wade Haselman of Saunders. “That, combined with his football knowledge, it really made him stand out.”
They are sure Saunders is the right man to lead them into the future.
“It is because of this passion and knowledge, we feel extremely confident in Denton’s ability to lead our football program and we are very excited about the future of Swanton football,” explained Haselman.
After high school, Saunders attended Bowling Green State University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Education in 2012. He later received a Master’s Degree in Administration, also from BGSU.
While attending college, Saunders kick-started his coaching career, beginning a nine-year run as an assistant coach which eventually led him to Swanton.
He spent time as a position coach at Woodmore from 2010-13 under former Patrick Henry assistant Britton Devier, who coached Saunders in high school. Together they helped lead the Wildcats to their first winning season in over 10 years in 2013.
He then moved to Fremont Ross, serving as an Intervention Specialist at the school and coaching under Craig Yeast, a former fourth round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. He spent two seasons there, even serving as offensive coordinator for the 2015 campaign.
Over the next three seasons, Saunders spent time at Lakota and Gibsonburg.
Prior to accepting the Swanton job, he served on the staff at Gibsonburg, where the Golden Bears posted back-to-back 9-1 regular seasons and made the playoffs each year. First he was offensive coordinator under Steve Reser, then after Reser took the head job at Tiffin Calvert, new coach Mike Lee tabbed Saunders to lead the defense.
“We had a very successful defense. We gave up less than 12 points per game,” said Saunders on making the change from coaching offense to defense. “We had five all-league players on the defensive side of the ball. And our defense was the backbone of our offense.
“It was a great experience for me. It helped me develop as a football coach.”
But when thinking about the main influences on his coaching career, Saunders looks back to his playing days in high school.
“I am very fortunate to have played under two legendary head coaches. Rex Lingruen and Bill Inselmann,” he said of his former coaches at Liberty Center and Patrick Henry respectively. “Rex was always, you had to be tough (to play for him). You had to be disciplined. He ran a tight ship. So, I know to be successful I got to run a tight ship too. Bill was great at adapting his offense and getting the most out of his players. You can’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole. I got to be flexible as a coach.”
As a result, Saunders now has an idea of how to build a successful program, as learned from observing Lingruen and Inselmann.
“Be true to yourself,” he said. “People win with people. Bill does a great job of getting the kids out and getting them to play. And so did Lingruen. But they had different styles and different personalities. But they were true to themselves. So I got to be true to myself. Know who I am and know how I can motivate people to be the best they can.”
Tactically, Saunders will pull concepts he learned under Devier and Yeast to develop his offense. And, like Inselmann, he will emphasize having balance on offense.
“You’ve got to be balanced if you want to be successful. I believe the same thing,” said Saunders on the primary lesson learned from Inselmann about offense. “You’ve got to be balanced if you want to be successful and you’ve got to be able to keep defensive coordinators on their toes.”
Defensively they will run a 4-2-5, but Saunders says they will be able to make changes each week to match the opposing team’s offense. A focus will be put on first taking away a team’s strengths.
On and off the field, he hopes his new team can adopt his four core values: being tough – physically and mentally, disciplined, having a great attitude in everything you do, and working hard. “I believe if you apply those four values to your life in general, you’ll be successful in whatever you do,” explained Saunders. “And if you can apply them to a football team, you should be successful as well.”
The first-year coach has already begun working with his new team. They have had three camp days so far, affording him the opportunity to introduce the base of his offensive playbook. Saunders is also running the weight room throughout the summer.
“I’m very impressed with the work ethic of some of our upperclassmen,” he said, speaking on weight room attendance. “Some of our juniors and seniors have nearly perfect attendance, and they are working their tails off. Nobody leaves with a dry shirt, it’s always soaked. So they’re working their butts off.”
Although he is not from Swanton, Saunders knows the benefit a strong relationship with the community can have on a team. He hopes to strengthen that bond between the Swanton community and his players.
He is requiring the players to complete four hours of community service. In July, they will help paint a building in the community. They will also help set up and tear down at the Corn Festival in August.
Saunders is fully invested in molding the Swanton program to fit his image. Although he and his wife, Olivia, currently live in Bowling Green, the plan is to move closer to Swanton in the next few years.
“Every time I left or changed jobs, was when a head coach was changing jobs. It drove me crazy and it drove my wife crazy,” said Saunders. “I don’t want to be that coach that jumps ship every two years. I want to build a foundation here in Swanton.
“So I definitely see this being a long-haul gig as long as Swanton will keep me around.”
Two-a-days are slated to begin Thursday, Aug. 1. Swanton begins the regular season Aug. 30 when they visit Rossford.
Reach Max Householder at 419-335-2010