Heber Springs Coach Steve Janski, approaching his eighth season with the school, has orchestrated an unbelievable turnaround of a program once mired in frustration. Heber's success ¬ six straight playoff appearances including two trips to the state quarterfinals, certainly has not come easy.
Heber Springs Coach Steve Janski, approaching his eighth season with the school, has orchestrated an unbelievable turnaround of a program once mired in frustration. Heber's success ¬ six straight playoff appearances including two trips to the state quarterfinals, certainly has not come easy. Each Saturday morning during the season, the coaching staff meets at the field house from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in order to dissect the previous night's game film and begin working on the next opponent. The staff also arrives at 6 a.m. each day throughout the season to watch film, prepare practice scripts and help out at junior high practices. “We get in here bright and early Saturday morning and begin breaking that film down, finding out what we did right and what we did wrong,” said Janski. “We grade each play and every player on that play so that takes some time. Around lunch time we will start working on our next opponent with our scout cards and we usually get home around six or seven o' clock Saturday night.” Last season the Panthers' hard work culminated with their first conference title since 1979. Along with an undefeated record in the regular season (10-0), Heber beat three-time defending state champion Shiloh Christian twice, once in the Hooten's Classic and again in the first round of the state playoffs. Janski, who holds a record of 54-28 at the school, deserves a ton of credit for having the vision to build a perennial playoff contender from scratch. Upon taking the job at Heber, Janski said he knew there was a lot of work ahead. “I was in Raleigh, North Carolina a few weeks after we had been told we were let go [at East Carolina]. It's funny, if you would have told me you were going to be coaching at the worst 4A program in the state of Arkansas and you will be fired from the job you have now I would have said, 'You are out of your mind. I am a Division-1 football coach. I am a recruiting coordinator. I'm on the fast track.' I would have never believed I would end up in Heber Springs. “But, once we got fired and I saw how it affected so many families, that's when I realized in college you are either going to be fired or you are going to be getting a better job in the next few years. The longevity of Division-1 coaches is gone. I had my first son Luke out there and being on the East coast was tough because we didn't have any of our family out there. When this job came open I did a lot of research on it and found out they were successful in every sport. They had a very successful basketball team, they were successful in baseball, track and cross-country were successful but in football they weren't even competitive. It was embarrassing. I thought there has got to be something to it. You can't be competitive in all the sports and not football. It just doesn't make any sense,” added Janski. “I talked to the basketball coach at that time [Eric Fleming] and he was the one that made me finally decide this is where I wanted to be because he said, 'Coach you can be competitive here.' Fast-forward seven years and the Panthers are considered one of the top contenders in the 2-4A conference and one of the Top 10 most consistent programs in the state. Heber's win total of 58 in that time period (2005-2012) is more than any school currently in the conference other than Stuttgart, which has won 64 games during the span. However, since 2008, the Panthers have won 36 games ¬ three more than the Ricebirds. Since 2005, conference newcomer Pine Bluff Dollarway has won 45 games, although several more have been forfeited, Clinton has won 49, although 11 of those came while playing in a different conference in 2005, Lonoke has won 45, Newport also has 45 but only 14 over the past three years. Marianna has won 25 and Southside Batesville, which started its program in 2006, has won 12 games since Janski's arrival. “When I got here I never thought of how bad it was,” said Janski. “I had on blinders. The only time I went home was to go to sleep. I was up here studying the previous film, getting to know the kids and recruiting [more] kids to play. If you look back at it, there were 64 teams in 4A at that time and we were ranked No. 64. We just said 'Hey, this is going to take a little time but it's going to be fun. It was almost like building a new program. I never dreamed of having the success that we've had. We just wanted to get to where we could compete a little bit.” The Panthers took some lumps in 2005, finishing 4-6, but Janski said that season helped lay the foundation for what was to come. “That first year probably rivals my best coaching year because we only had two kids that could bench over 200 pounds. Nobody could power clean or squat or anything like that but boy they were hungry. They were not necessarily hungry to win but they were hungry to work,” said Janski, mentioning Devin Tillman, Stuart Tillman, Sean Engle and Nick Fair as key leaders. Beating Bald Knob in 2005 was the Panthers' first step towards building the program's foundation. “I have to start with our first game here against Bald Knob. We put so much emphasis on that one game. Talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket, we really did that. It ended up being a good decision because we won. I remember the crowd was packed and they were so excited that we won that game. They gave us a standing ovation and the kids finally got to see that hard work pay off. “I will always remember that game. D.J. Davis, a young man who lost his life in a motorcycle accident a while back, came up to me and gave me a big hug and he was the first one to say 'I love you coach' and I will always remember that.” In 2006, the Panthers switched from a pass-oriented offense to a Double Wing run-based attack and won nine games, including their first playoff win in over a decade. “In my second year we put a lot of emphasis on the Clinton game [Hooten's Classic]. The reason we did that was because in my first year they beat us 28-0. That was the first time and the last time we have been shut out. It was a big rivalry. We totally changed offenses, tried to keep it under wraps and tried to be secret about it. We had some great backs with Curtis Decker and Ryan Grist. They were small backs but they would get lost and we would do a lot of misdirection. That was a lot of fun.” Clinton returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown but the Panthers shut them down from there, cruising to a 29-7 victory. The Panthers opened the 2006 season with four straight wins, highlighted by a monumental 20-14 win at Lonoke, where Heber used a fourth and short defensive stand to pull out the victory. Janski, who has been on the sideline for five of Heber's seven playoff victories in school history, led the 2006 team past Greenland 21-12 for his first playoff victory on a freezing night in northwest Arkansas. “That first playoff win was a landmark victory because it had been so long since we had won one.” During Week 6 of the 2008 season, the Panthers pulled off a remarkable comeback at Marianna, where they won 32-30 after trailing by 30 points midway through the second quarter. Janski had a big grin while recalling the game. “The Marianna game…To be down 30 points, and then we scored right before halftime, and to be able to come back. That was really impressive for them to play that game like they did in the second half.” The comeback win over Marianna sparked a seven-game winning streak that included playoff wins over Prairie Grove (33-30) and West Fork (28-24). But, of all of the memorable wins, Janski said last season's 36-17, season-opening win over Shiloh Christian in the Hooten's Classic at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville was the most enjoyable. “I'd have to say the kicker was the Shiloh Christian game. When I walked into that stadium and saw Heber Springs on that huge Jumbotron with Shiloh Christian, I got chill bumps. It's unbelievable how far our program has come. And to look back with all the adversity we had with injuries to Derrik Fisher and Markeyvus Mays, nobody was giving us a chance to win. To be able to win that game in the fashion we did topped all of them. That topped any college wins at Arkansas and East Carolina. That game was huge.” Janski said the 2011 team was the most complete but he also admires the work ethic of the 2006 squad. “I would have to say 2011 was the best. Each team had something special. You look back with Jake Fair of the 2006 team. That was fun because they weren't all that talented but man they were disciplined,” stressed Janski. “When we won nine games that year in a tough conference because of work ethic and discipline, that's when I knew these kids can make the playoffs every year and hopefully, if the stars line up, win a conference championship. “Our 2011 team was probably the most versatile. We had linemen, a versatile quarterback, Clint Ligon at receiver, Ethan Bly, Markeyvus Mays and Geoffrey Anderson carrying the ball…I could go on and on and name all of the guys. It was the most unselfish team I have ever had because when Markeyvus went down Geoffrey stepped up and played that tailback position. When Markeyvus came back Geoffrey said, 'Hey I will go back to where I was.' All they wanted to do is stay together and win. They didn't care who got the glory or the credit. I would have to say the 2011 team was by far the most unselfish I've had.” With success now clearly established, Janski has the task of maintaining it. He is confident that will be done, especially with his system in place and a hungry staff surrounding him. “The passion and fire is still there but the way we do things has changed. I have been blessed to have an administration that has given me the leeway to hire unbelievable coaches. “When I came in it was just me and Coach [Brandan] Blew,” said Janski, who served with Blew for two years on East Carolina's staff. “It was just us in that fox hole together because that's all I really trusted. I could bounce things off him and knew there was no animosity. Now, there are coaches in here that come from different backgrounds and different schools, but their work ethic is phenomenal. I hate to lose coaches. I hated to lose Coach Blew, hated to lose Scott Davenport, hated to lose Jason Bynum but they all went on to bigger and better things. “But, having new coaches come in and bring in new ideas kinda keeps you excited. The fire is there but now, when you have a group of coaches like we do here, that are willing to spend the time and watch the tape you can delegate different responsibilities instead of having to do everything and micromanage everything. I have so much trust in them now, whatever Coach [David] Farr brings to the table for a defensive game plan may be tweaked, but, I have the confidence that he has put in the film work. And, the same thing can be said for Coach [Darren] Gowen. Then, you take a coach like Marc Moody, who as a volunteer, wants to be here everyday to be around the kids. That really fires you up. “The program is built. We don't have to yell at them in the weight room any more. We don't have to yell at them to run hard. They have been through it since seventh grade all the way up now. The work ethic is in them so now all that stuff we used to have to do, like running bleachers...We don't have to do that anymore to get them to work,” said Janski, adding that he thinks a parent called the police on him while the players ran bleachers before his first season. “I remember that day. We did 58 bleachers because we had 58 loafs on the spring practice film.” Moving forward, Janski said he would like to see the football program continue to succeed along with the rest of the sports. “Our football program has been brought up to a statewide level when it comes to publications and publicity. And, with that, all of our other programs have come up. Our track and cross-country program has always been there. It's at the same championship level it's always been. That's been kinda the backbone of our athletic program. “Now baseball and both boys and girls basketball have been brought up to a higher level. We have volleyball now. What we are seeing now is all of these programs having a lot of success and we don't want our athletes to get caught up in specializing. I had a kid come to me and say 'I don't want to miss off-season (football) to go to another sport. I tell them you need to represent our school, our community and it's going to help you become a better athlete. Sometimes kids want to specialize and be a football player. Well, they don't…There is nothing wrong with being a multi-sport athlete and that's something we need to teach these kids to participate in all sports.” A 1993 graduate of Central Arkansas Christian High School, Janski earned a bachelor degree in political science at the University of Arkansas where he also served as a graduate assistant under former coaches Danny Ford and Houston Nutt. Janski coached with some of the brightest minds in football during his time at Arkansas and East Carolina. “I started in 1995 under Danny Ford coaching quarterbacks with Rockey Felker. I learned a lot about option play, reading the option and identifying defense. Joe Ferguson came in 1997 and I learned so much about passing mechanics. He played 18 years in the NFL. My years with Coach Ferguson really taught me everything about quarterbacks and fundamentals and how to refine a quarterback's throwing ability. “Coach Nutt came in 1998 and he told me that if I really wanted to know football and to be a coach then I needed to learn the offensive line, so he reassigned me to Mike Markuson, the offensive line coach and I think he is one of the best in the country,” Janski emphasized. “He continues to produce NFL linemen and he taught me about offensive line play that we still do today. With Coach Nutt it was really what you see is what you get. He would bend over backwards to help his players out. He would always treat his coaches with respect and his door was always open. He taught me that it's more than just winning on Saturday. He taught me about the opportunity to mentor a young kid whether a good or bad situation. Just being involved in a kid's life. When you do that, they will do anything for you. They will play hard, work hard and get their academics if you build that relationship.” Janski also mentioned gaining valuable experience while working with former Arkansas defensive coordinators Keith Burns and John Thompson, as well as Noah Brindise, who coached offense under Steve Spurrier at the University of Florida and later in the NFL (Washington Redskins).