Swanton elected to go with familiarity and experience when picking its next football coach to replace Denton Saunders, who stepped down in January.
Taking over the reins is Eric Keller, a 1978 Swanton High School graduate and former longtime head coach at Sylvania Northview.
“Coach Keller brings over 30 years of coaching experience to the table, including 16 years as a head coach in the NLL (at Northview),” said Swanton superintendent Chris Lake of the hire. “The interview committee liked the fact that Coach Keller grew up here in Swanton, is an SHS graduate and is deeply invested in seeing the program become successful. We liked that Coach Keller is confident in his coaching abilities and that he knows how to keep calm under pressure.”
After serving two years as an assistant coach at Padua Franciscan High School in Parma, Ohio in 1984 and 1985, Keller began a 25-year run at Northview, including serving as head coach from 1996-2010. He spent the 2011 season as head coach at Evergreen, was defensive coordinator at Rossford from 2012-2018, and after a year off he has been on the staff at Swanton the last two seasons.
Lake feels that Keller holds the necessary traits it takes to help the program turn over a new leaf.
“His experience has taught him how to handle the ups and downs of coaching a varsity football team,” the superintendent said. “Much of being a successful coach is about building strong relationships with your players, and having observed Coach Keller during his two years as an assistant on the varsity staff I could see that he was good at building rapport with players.”
In the interview process Keller, 61, laid out his plan for rebuilding the program.
According to Keller, his first objective was to obtain a solid coaching staff. “This was completed within the first four weeks of my tenure,” he said.
Next was to meet individually with the returning players to discuss the 2021 season, ask their expectations going forward, announce his expectations, followed by revealing his direction for the program.
He also wishes to expand the roster, recruit more athletes to play, hence increasing the overall numbers in the football program. Lastly, Keller aims to “directly involve the middle school players and coaches in the same activities as the high school program.”
“At this point we are right on schedule with each of these goals,” he said.
Also during the interview a little bit of self-reflection took place. Both Keller and those conducting the interview were in agreement as to the toll that the struggles of the last few seasons took on the kids, and that the atmosphere within the program needed to change.
“We all acknowledged that the past few football seasons have been very tough on the kids in our program and the school community in general; I explained that we will have to develop a program that kids WANT to be involved in. To do that we are working daily to create a positive atmosphere in which our kids can learn, improve, and grow as athletes and football players,” explained Keller.
For Lake, he has already seen the positive impact Keller is making.
“I have had the chance to observe some of Coach Keller’s off-season work with the kids and I have been impressed,” said Lake. “The kids and coaches are having fun and working hard. I’m excited to see Coach Keller rebuild our program.”
But rebuilding the program will be no easy fix. Keller is inheriting a team that went 3-26 over the last three seasons.
“Turning around a football program takes time and patience,” said the new Bulldog mentor.
The focus out of the gate will be on steady improvement.
“At this point we are working to change minds and attitudes by focusing on the process of improvement, attention to detail, demanding excellence, and developing the team concept at all levels. Our three guiding principles are: hard work, team work, and never quit,” explained Keller. “I have told our players that I cannot turn around this football program by myself. It will take a great commitment and effort from all of us to do this. Our players are learning that we have assembled a great group of men who believe in them and are investing a lot of energy and effort in helping them develop and improve as players. We will expect each player to do the same.”
Being a Swanton alum himself, Keller is highly aware of the strong reputation Swanton football built for itself ahead of the millenium. The program won a combined five Northwest Ohio Athletic League titles from 1981-1995.
He does not wish to turn back the clock, instead hoping to re-instill the same sense of pride those teams had about being a Swanton Bulldog.
“Swanton football was pretty strong during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I was fortunate to come up near the beginning of that time period,” said Keller. “We will not be talking about this a whole lot. We cannot re-create the times and conditions that were present in Swanton 40-50 years ago. That was my time. This is their time. We can re-create the attitude and the work ethic and the pride that was present during more successful times.
“Our coaching staff is made up of Swanton guys, former Northview players, and long-time coaches that I’ve worked with before. Our coaches know my expectations and how I feel about this opportunity. I’m very fortunate that they feel the same way. We will be talking a lot about pride, team first, excellence, and toughness. If we accomplish anything this year, we expect our players to walk, talk, and feel differently about being a part of Swanton football.”
Reach Max Householder at 419-335-2010.