Former Pawhuska coach takes reins in Nowata

Mike Tupa |

Bob Craig — who has carved out success in his previous coaching stops — has taken the reins of the Nowata High School football program.

Principal Bron Williams confirmed the hiring last week, which promoted Craig from the “interim” label he carried after leading the Ironmen through much of last season.

“Stability,” Bron answered when asked what biggest strength the veteran grid skipper brings to the position. “Bob understands football in the towns and communities the size and kind of place Nowata. … He brings stability to our kids in a time we’ve needed it.”

And, how.

Following four blockbuster seasons (2012-15) during the Matt Hagebusch coaching era — and a strong 2016 campaign (7-4) for Hagebusch’s replacement Cory James — the program suffered major turmoil in 2017.

First, James left late in the spring, which disrupted May football practice. Another head coach was quickly hired and prepared the players, as best he could, for the season. Partway into the campaign, Craig — who had came on board as the offensive coordinator — became the team’s third head coach in five months.

As a result of the changes and disruption, both numbers and focus waned. The team finished 0-10 — although it displayed notable progress in the final half of the year, with Craig pulling the strings.

“Our kids aren’t exactly confident in the leadership right now,” Williams explained. “Having Bob around is what we need. He knows how to get the kids back.”

Craig willingly — and humbly — accepts the challenge of guiding Nowata back to the ranks of the top programs in Class 2A.

“At this point in my career, I want to be in a place where football is important,” he said Wednesday evening. “I feel football is very important at Nowata High School. They (the administration) assured me they would to everything the could to give us the parts we need to have a successful football program.”

Craig said he recognizes the community nurtures high expectations for the Ironmen football program — and he appreciates that.

During Hagebusch’s four seasons, Nowata steamrolled to a 40-10 overall record and a state championship game appearance (2014). Linked with the playoff season in 2016, that means five consecutive winning seasons, capped by playoff appearances.

In addition, Nowata has played for the state title three times the past 23 seasons (1995, 1999 and 2014), coming up just shy each time of the Gold Ball.

Although Nowata faithful are accustomed to winning ways, they haven’t deserted the program when things have gone south.

Even during last season’s winless ordeal, the fans continued to support the team, he noted.

“They (the members of the community) need our best effort,” he added. “Last season, I think the people understood what our young men were going through. I thought their support was a great testament to the community and to the town.”

There is a lot of good news for Craig as he looks to steer Nowata into a U-turn in its gridiron fortunes.

For one thing, he graduates only three players off the 2017 campaign.

And, one of next year’s returnees is a major key to the team’s revival.

“I think anytime on the offensive side you can come back with an experienced quarterback like Skyler Thornton, that puts you ahead,” said Craig.

Two other key veteran pieces back next season are linebackers Dillon Barnes and Josiah Clark, Craig said.

Even though the Ironmen — particularly the youngsters — took some beatings last season, Clark said that hard-earned experience “hopefully will gives us an edge,” for next year. The big thing is we’ve got to have numbers. That’s the thing that hurt us most last fall. … We could not conduct quality practices.”

Craig is familiar with the process of progress and the fruits of hard work.

From 2000-04 he turned in a very successful stint at Beggs High School before moving on to coach from 2004-08 at Collinsville High School.

He then return to Beggs for several seasons before becoming the Pawhuska High head coach in 2013.

From Pawhuska, Craig worked as an assistant at Tulsa Edison for a couple of years before coming on board in 2017 at Nowata as the offensive coordinator.

But, fate saw him elevated to head coach, first on an interim basis and now as a permanent position.

“Hopefully, it’s a win-win on both sides,” Craig said. “Now coming into late spring, the players know what’s expected of them. We talked about it before we left for Christmas. At the end of the day, Nowata is a football town.”

Craig’s primary focus now is assembling a good staff of assistant coaches.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about players,” he added. “If you have the quality players and the coaches to go with it, you have the opportunity to be successful.”