By MIKE KAYS
Confirming earlier reports, Rafe Watkins was introduced Friday as the new head football coach at Muskogee High School.
Watkins accepted the position on Friday after being selected as one of three finalists for the position. He replaces Josh Blankenship, who took the quarterbacks coaching job at the University of Tulsa in January after three seasons.
“We’re thrilled to have him,” superintendent Mike Garde said in a media release. “Coach Watkins comes with the experience to move Muskogee in a positive direction. His proven experience in 5A football will be beneficial in developing our students into champions on and off the field.”
Garde was not available for further comment.
Watkins, Wagoner coach Dale Condict and McAlester coach Bryan Pratt were three finalists who arose out of a list of seven called in for an interview this week. Condict and Pratt both said they withdrew during talks on Thursday. Pratt and Condict were among three who interviewed Monday. David Heath and Antwain Jimmerson were among three who interviewed Tuesday. Watkins, a late applicant who was one of two finalists for the Broken Arrow job, was the lone candidate interviewed on Wednesday.
“I was lucky to get in. Pratt got called the day I was still waiting to hear from Broken Arrow,” he said. “They were basically closing at that point, and I thought I had a good shot at that job. To be honest I didn’t know there was an ending date because it hadn’t been that long since Josh had resigned.”
He said he doesn’t view Muskogee as a second option.
“Both (Broken Arrow and Muskogee) obviously pay well, but Muskogee reminds me a lot of Guthrie,” he said. “The talent pool for building a program is there, the community seems to be exploding at the chance to win again, and if the kids are willing to work, it can be done because I’ve seen it done in what I think is a very similar community.”
Under Watkins, Guthrie became a dynasty during the last decade or so. He arrived in 2001 and led the Blue Jays to Class 5A state titles in 2002, 2007, 2011 and 2013.
His overall record as a head coach is 147-48, 133-30 at Guthrie.
“I don’t think he’s coming in with an idea that it will take 2-3 years to get where we want to be and that’s kind of what I wanted to see,” said Boyd Jones, a member of the interview committee and president of the Muskogee Quarterback Club.
Watkins was in the process Friday of making temporary living arrangements. His first day on the job is Tuesday. His wife Karen, an elementary principal in Guthrie, will move here at the end of the school year. His son Hunter, a tight end on the 2013 championship team, will move here in time for spring practices. The Watkins also have a daughter Ashley, who attends Northwestern State.
Ironically, Watkins will reconnect with Heath. The two were teammates briefly at Northwestern, then Heath became a graduate assistant coach while Watkins finished up his playing days. Watkins indicated on Friday a willingness to resume that connection on the staff here.
“We go back 25 years and he and (Heath’s wife) Carmen were dorm parents there,” Watkins said. “We got to know each other. We’ve visited and I think the world of him. He knows the system, knows the kids. We’ve visited and I look forward to that opportunity.”
Watkins did say he talked with the administration about making some staff additions. He said he would interview the existing coaches soon.
“We’ll see who is on board and can work within the objectives and vision we have,” Watkins said.
Those objectives and vision, he said, focus on defense dictating the flow, mental toughness, physical football and an emphasis on the running game — all, he said, defined his program’s success at Guthrie.
“When I got to Guthrie the facilities weren’t there. We have great facilities here, we’ve just got to go to work with the kids,” he said. “I want a tough mentality. People think we were overly talented at Guthrie. We had some good talent, but I truly believe we were successful because we worked hard.”
Guthrie defeated McAlester 51-21 in the 5A championship game in December.
In 2011, Watkins was assessed an eight-game suspension from the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association for an ineligible player carrying a dual residency. The player and his parents had moved to Guthrie and their house in Prague had not sold. An older son who had moved out was staying in the house in Prague.
“I didn’t explain that no matter what you can’t have a family member still in the house,” he said. “It was an oversight on my part regarding the paperwork. I think if there’s anything good that’s come from it is that the OSSAA has had put some emphasis on workshops to make sure everyone has a better understanding of the rules so if we had to go through it so everyone could benefit, great.”