Pilot soars as Panther coach
It’s true that some people have long commutes, sometimes just across town, sometimes all the way into another town.
But for Troy Schmidt, head coach of the Middle Park High School Panther football team, the commute between his job and football practice is a bit farther: more than 900 miles.
Schmidt is on active duty as a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, working out of Scott Air Force Base in Illinois three days a week. However, Schmidt wasn’t about to let distance affect his commitment to the Middle Park High School football team.
Now, he flies between his job at the Air Force base (where he often puts in 16 hour shifts) and his position of high school football coach in Grand County.
Coaching in the blood
Schmidt’s history with Grand County goes back to 1983, when he moved here in the 8th grade. His father coached him while he played both quarterback and safety positions at the high school, and also participated in track, graduating from Middle Park High School in 1986.
Schmidt went off to college at the Air Force Academy (where he also played football) and then on to Northern Colorado University in Greeley. After graduation, Schmidt assisted his father with coaching, before taking off on pilot duty.
Ten years later, Schmidt returned, starting as an assistant coach in 2001, and making head coach three years ago in 2009. Even after his time away, football and coaching still called to him.
“I grew up around coaching,” he said. “A lot of it’s psychology, and leadership too. … It’s a full-time job.”
As a pilot, Schmidt has flown for 22 years. Now he’s made the transition, he says, “out of the cockpit and into the desk.”
In the past, Schmidt has flown T-37s, T-38s, Learjets, and Special Operations C-130s while on active duty. He has flown in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, Schmidt uses the expertise picked up during his missions in his job at the air base, which is the headquarters for the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command.
“I’m more of the overseer of the battle, making the decisions,” he said. “It’s a young person’s game. … You let them do that, and they get to spend the night in the tents over there. You get experience and you learn how things are supposed to work.”
Much as he coaches his high school football players, Schmidt works to guide the young pilots.
“You try to make them make their own decisions, and that’s another correlation between football and that. When things are happening, it’s like your players out there.”
While talking of the military Schmidt is serious and calm; at the mention of sports and football, a certain energy shines through.
“I’m pretty passionate about it,” he said. “It reminds me of my military training, because there’s a fear factor out there. It takes courage to go out there and do it.”
In addition to requiring individual courage, Schmidt says, football is the ultimate team sport.
“There’s nothing else like it as far as teaching brotherhood and relying on each other.”
Though Schmidt enjoys the sport of football (he is, of course, a Broncos fan), it quickly becomes clear that it’s the coaching aspect he loves best, and the interaction with the players.
“You watch these kids grow since they were freshmen, and watch them learn,” Schmidt said. “You’re passing stuff on to other people, other young men, so it’s very fulfilling.”
When asked what the most difficult part of coaching is, Schmidt didn’t mention the long commute (the most he’ll say about it is “it’s challenging”), or any of a number of other possible complaints. He didn’t even hesitate when he said, “Anything besides the practice time. … Everything but when you’re with the kids, and get to have a couple hours of practice with them, and talk to them, and get things done the way you want to. Everything besides that is the tough part, ’cause when you’re out there with them, that’s why you do it.”
Recognition and respect
Few can understand the dedication and sacrifice of a head coach so much as another. Todd Bitner, Middle Park High School Athletic Director, has worked with Schmidt for more than a year.
“He has the highest level of integrity,” Bitner said. “He doesn’t just teach the boys about football, he teaches the boys about life in general, and how to be great men.”
When Bitner began his position as athletic director, he leaned on Schmidt, among others, for guidance, and to help him “forge a certain sense of spirit and camaraderie with all the sports.”
Schmidt’s coaching skills extend beyond football, and into other sports, including track and basketball. However, unlike some coaches who like tight control, Schmidt prefers his players to think for themselves, and often lets them change plays and tactics without direct orders, admitting that often the players’ decisions are right.
“They know what we want almost better than we do. They know when we call a wrong play, and [if] it can’t be done like that they just correct it automatically.”
Nor is he afraid to let others pass him.
“Sam Little last year broke my school hurdling record,” he said with a smile, referring to his high school track career. The coach in him was proud.
Schmidt’s main source of inspiration comes from his father.
“He taught me a tremendous amount about everything – football, life, leadership which I get to apply every day in my job.”
This is what Schmidt channels into his dedication to his athletes and job as a coach.
“[His commitment] is a testimony to his faith and his belief in his players and his community,” Bitner said. “I don’t know of another coach in this state that believes in his athletes as much as Troy believes. He’s a Panther through and through.”
Schmidt’s own players echo this sentiment.
“I think he’s a good coach, I really like him,” said Nick Brynoff, a senior. “He’s really enthusiastic, and keeps your spirits up so much.”
Brynoff, who plays the positions of both linebacker and offensive line, has been involved with football since the third grade. Schmidt has been his coach throughout his four years at Middle Park High School.
“He inspired me to make me just play better, and do better in school and everything,” said Brynoff, who says his teammates feel the same.
“He’s very dedicated and he’ll pick the time to teach you what you need to do. He’s just an all-around great coach.”
There in spirit
Though Schmidt won’t make it to the Homecoming game on Friday, he is confident in his players’ ability to do what needs to be done.
“We’ve grown up so much, that nothing and nobody intimidates our team anymore. I can guarantee that.”
The Panther football team homecoming game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14.
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