Football: Building winners – Koch takes on newest project

By Reece Waddell | Published Saturday, June 2, 2018
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Joe Koch

JOE KOCH. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Joe Koch had to take a moment to figure out exactly how many seasons he’s spent in the coaching business.

After doing some mental math, Koch finally broke out a pen and pad of paper. Eventually, he started to shake his head.

“No, that can’t be right – is it?” Koch muttered to himself.

The numbers didn’t lie.

TAKING THE REINS – Then-offensive coordinator Joe Koch (right) looks on with former Paradise head coach Ronnie Gage at practice last fall. Koch was recently hired to replace Gage as athletic director and head coach. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

When Koch starts his first season as head coach and athletic director for the Paradise Panthers in August, it will be his 37th year coaching. And no season has been more important to him than the upcoming one.

“I’ve worked my whole life for this point,” Koch said. “For me, this is a dream. If you’re in a profession, you always want to be challenged to the highest level. And Texas football is that.”

The 59-year-old took over for former Paradise athletic director and football coach Ronnie Gage, who announced his retirement in May. Koch was Gage’s offensive coordinator the last two years, but spent nearly three decades in Wisconsin.

He compiled an overall record of 157-69 with four different high schools in the greater Milwaukee area.

Koch’s resume – which includes multiple state championship appearances and a nine-year stretch where he only lost seven games – earned him a spot in the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

But perhaps Koch’s biggest accomplishment is his ability to turn programs around. The year prior to his arrival at Dominican High School, the Knights did not score a point and had not won a game in a year.

Despite not having a field to practice on and no athletic period during the day, Koch went to work with what he had.

“Our team had to get on a school bus and drive to a city park,” Koch said. “We had no goal posts or lined fields. It was a city park. There were homeless people – everything you can imagine. There were times there would be gang fights and gun shots going off and we’re practicing in that environment.”

Within two seasons, Koch and Dominican won a state title.

“He’s a heck of a guy and a heck of a coach,” Gage said. “His pedigree is as good as anybody’s when you look at it on paper. I was tickled to death and absolutely felt wonderful when he got the job.

“I think [Paradise] is in great hands and has a chance to compete. For me, it was a no-brainer. I felt like he was the only one for the job. I’m so glad they went that direction.”

Koch went on to turn the program at Oak Creek High School around a few years later. When he arrived, the Knights were the worst team in their conference.

Over the next nine seasons, Oak Creek lost only seven games. Koch had worked his magic yet again, going to titles games in 1997 and 1998.

“They were dead last for years,” Koch recalled. “We turned them around in short order. If I have something I’m very proud of up there, [it’s] that I took over four programs that were last, and when we finished, we were at the top.”

At Pius XI High School, Koch went 10-10 and broke the conference scoring record, averaging 46.5 points per game. His final job in Wisconsin came at Greenfield High School, where he led the Hustlin’ Hawks to their first conference championship since 1978.

When he got there, Greenfield had the worst winning percentage in Milwaukee over the past 25 years.

“I know firsthand the kids he had and the talent he worked with versus some of the opponents they went against,” said Koch’s son, Tommy, who is the defensive coordinator at Krum. “It’s pretty phenomenal at Greenfield that they could win a [conference] championship with the talent or lack thereof. They were playing teams that were significantly better.”

Although he coached in Wisconsin for 29 years, Koch frequently made trips to Texas to talk football with Gage. The two Hall of Fame coaches implemented similar option-based offenses, and Koch wanted to learn from the best.

When Gage won his second state title at Lewisville in 1996, Koch picked up the phone and called him.

Ironically, 20 years later, it would be Gage who was calling Koch. Only this time, he was offering him a job.

“One day I get a phone call from Ronnie, and he says ‘I’ve got a position open for you as [offensive] coordinator. Are you ready to make that move?'” Koch said. “And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?'”

Gage was hired to replace former Paradise head coach Scott Broussard in January 2016 and needed an offensive coordinator who was familiar with his scheme.

Koch left his job at Greenfield, packed his bags and moved to Texas. He served as Paradise’s offensive coordinator the past two seasons.

The year before Koch got to Paradise in 2015, the Panthers averaged 15 points per game. The last two seasons, Paradise has averaged 21.8 points per game – a 6.8-point increase.

“The foundation has been set here,” Koch said. “[Gage] did a great job with that. It’s my job now to keep it going and step it up.”

Now, after nearly four decades of coaching, Koch will once again be tasked with revitalizing a football program. He inherits a Paradise team that has not made the playoffs since 2008.

The Panthers are 25-66 over the past nine years and have not won more than seven games in a season since their last postseason appearance in 2008. Paradise went 10-1 that year before falling to Callisburg in the bi-district round.

“It doesn’t matter if his team is less talented or traditionally has been not as good. They are going to win. And they are going to make the playoffs,” Tommy said. “He will turn them into a championship program. He hasn’t just done it once. He’s done it at every school he’s been at.”

The Panthers were one win away from making the playoffs last year under Gage, but lost the final two games of the regular season to Bowie and Boyd. After realignment in February, Paradise was put in District 4-3A Division I with Boyd, Bowie, Pilot Point, Ponder, Whitesboro and powerhouse Brock.

The Eagles were the 3A runner-up in 2017 and won the state title in 2015.

“We understand we have arguably some of the best teams in the state in our district, and probably a team that’s favored to win state in Brock,” Koch said. “I’m not foolish enough to say we’re going to cake walk through district.”

Koch is confident in his team.

Paradise returns a large junior class next season littered with all-district selections. Quarterback Jace Essig will enter his third season as the Panthers’ starter. He was second-team District 8-3A in 2017, throwing for 581 yards and five touchdowns. Essig also ran for 259 yards and five scores.

Tight end Mitchell Sellers (6-6, 245 pounds) will also return for his junior campaign. Sellers earned first-team honors last year, catching 15 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown. First-team running back Jacob Robinson is also returning. He led Paradise in rushing with 917 yards and eight touchdowns.

On the defensive side of the ball, hard-hitting safety Jack Ishmael will be back to anchor the middle of the field. Ishmael was a first-team selection and recorded an interception last year.

“Anytime I had success, your foundation is the blue-collar kids,” Koch said. “I’m not going to lie, to get you over the hump you have to have that little splash. Someone that gives you the juice. But we have that. We have guys that give you a little spark.”

Paradise opens the 2018 season Aug. 31 at S&S Consolidated. The Panthers begin district play Sept. 28 at Whitesboro.

Koch knows the upcoming season will be a challenging one. But like he’s done all of his life, Koch relishes difficult tasks.

He’s ready for another one – and ready for Paradise to get back to the playoffs.

“There’s high character in this community with the kids we have,” Koch said. “We have the foundation you need to turn something around. Coach Gage and I both felt very good in the offseason that we were right on the brink of turning this thing around.”

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