Phil Bryant steps down as Whittell High School football head coach
Phil Bryant made a commitment to coach Whittell High School football for two seasons and attempt to turnaround a struggling program.
Mission more than accomplished.
After four enormously successful seasons, the beloved and legendary coach stepped down Tuesday, Jan. 16, saying it was a tough decision but the time was right. He will continue in his position as athletic director and as head coach of the varsity basketball team
“I feel really good about where the program is and accomplishing what I told the principal and kids that we would accomplish,” Bryant said Tuesday while leaning back in his office chair. “It’s really a good time because we have a good group of kids coming back next year. And you always would like a new coach to have an opportunity to come in when there are some weapons available. I want to go ahead with basketball and see my grandkids play in their sports. But my wife says she’ll believe it when she sees it.”
During his four seasons at the helm, Whittell won 38 games and lost just seven. In league play, the Warriors went 24-3 and battled for the championship each year, winning it in 2015.
In the 10 previous seasons before Bryant took over, the Warriors won 20 games and lost 66 and enjoyed just one winning season (6-3) in 2008.
Bryant’s teams went to the state playoffs each year, reaching the semifinals twice and the final once.
“Coach Bryant has made a tremendous impact,” said Whittell eighth-year principal Crespin Esquivel. “He made students believe in themselves and buy into his game plan. He definitely brought back the spirit of competing and winning with integrity and respect.”
Bryant came to Whittell after coaching for 37 years at Westwood High School — where the basketball court is named in his honor — in northern California. He returned to his old school Wednesday with his new team and came away with a victory.
“It was really a special time to be back in what we always called, ‘The Wood,’” Bryant said. “All the players got a real kick out of seeing and playing on ‘Coach Bryant Court.’ I was able to see a number of former players and teachers while there and even gave the players a little history lesson on Westwood; the western home of lumberjack legend Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox.”
On his office wall, there is a picture celebrating his 700th basketball coaching victory in 2014. With 15 wins this year, Bryant is closing in on 800 wins (779).
But he is a football coach who learned to be a basketball coach.
“I’ve been coaching for around 50 years, primarily football, and I’m still learning to be a better basketball coach,” Bryant said.
Whittell junior Isaiah Womack was shocked when he heard the news. It was difficult for him to believe. Womack, the Warriors quarterback, was the 1A Western League offensive player of the year this past season and flourished in Bryant’s offensive system. He’s not sure what to expect going forward.
“He’s kinda built Whittell football, because it was really bad before he came here,” Womack said. “And I’m a little worried because of all the guys we’re losing this year, and his knowledge of football and what he’s done for the offense. I’m just not sure what we’ll get out of a new coach.”
Bryant also impacted his student athletes off the field. The wins and losses — mostly wins — were important but Bryant stresses that the experience has always been about relationships.
“Even without looking at the sports aspect, in football he taught us about the educational part, the respectful part and the listening part,” said Warriors senior Corey Huber, who set the Nevada all-time 8-man career rushing yardage record under Bryant’s leadership. “Having him as a coach didn’t just fill me up as an athlete, he didn’t just influence me to be a better athlete, he influenced me to be a better me. I feel blessed to have him as my coach.”
“Not only what he does on the field, but when you think of a guy when you’re about to make any decision, other than your parents … he’s had a huge impact on my life,” Womack said.
Esquivel can see firsthand the difference Bryant has made in the culture at Whittell.
“School spirit is definitely different on campus from my first four years to now,” Esquivel said. “One of the biggest things I have seen is the commitment from our students and parents to believe in the culture of Whittell. Coach Bryant has brought leadership to our community and a philosophy of success. He has taught our students the meaning of working as a team and taking care of each other academically and socially. He teaches students to prioritize family, academics and sports in that order. He continues to teach lifelong lessons to our students and myself. His experience and wisdom is something that we can all learn from.”
Bryant says what he’s going to miss most is interacting with the kids on the field and the preparation for games at the end of the week and the satisfaction from his offensive game plan being successful. He’ll miss walking up the bleachers at the end of games through a tunnel of cheerleaders and parents.
“I’ll miss those little things that give such a reward as a coach,” Bryant said. “I think we took the field looking good and playing good and got tremendous support from parents, community and administration.”
Whittell will advertise the position and Bryant, with a few others, will decide on the new coach. The new coach could come from within if any of last year’s staff members show interest. But all applicants will go through an interview process and there is no immediate rush to hire.
The new coach will break in a brand new grassy field next season with a handful of good players, including Womack; the top offensive player from a year ago, all-league running back and linebacker Dalton Warwick; all-league defensive end Gunnar Barnwell; and versatile Trent Dingman.
“There’s a lot of kids that can step in and play,” Bryant said.
As for helping the new coach, he’ll offer advice and do whatever he can to help maintain the success, but he won’t be at practice or on the sideline during games.
“I’m comfortable with my decision,” said Bryant, “but I know I need to stay away from the practice field and support the kids every way I can from the bleachers.”