RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Coach’s main focus will be to build up program’s numbers
It’s a new football era at Rio Grande High School.
An old school era.
Jim Danner, 66, is old enough to collect Social Security, but he’s back in the trenches in the South Valley as the head coach of the Rio Grande football team.
He is a former assistant at Cibola and La Cueva, and is a former head coach and principal at Belen. He had been Belen High’s principal for 2½ years before he decided to come back and pick up a whistle again.
His voice remains firm, and he hasn’t lost his convictions.
“They’re having to deal with a litlle bit of a jerk in me,” Danner said with a slight laugh. “And I don’t know if they’re used to that. (But) they didn’t hire me to rebuild. They hired me to win.”
The Journal visited with Danner during a recent summer workout session at Rio Grande for a Q&A session.
Journal: You’re 66 years old. It’s an unusual time to try to be a head coach again.
Danner: I had to get out of coaching early, for money purposes, because of the family. So I went to 12-month jobs. I ran a swimming pool, then I was an athletic director, then I was the (Belen) principal.
I never lost my interest in coaching. What we thought was going to happen was that my son (Mark) would be a head coach and I would help him. But he moved, and when that occurred, well, I had always wanted to go back and be a head coach.
I applied twice here in APS — I’d rather not say where — and I’m very thankful that Rio Grande hired me. People keep asking me why I would go to Rio Grande. Well, the kids are a lot like Belen’s. We have some really good athletes; our key is numbers. But that will come with time.
Journal: John Lerma, the head coach at Belen, is also in his 60s and he’s having tremendous success there. Did that factor into our decision to get back into coaching right now?
Danner: No, no. I had been planning on getting back into football. I had planned on staying (in Belen) for two years as the AD, but then the superintendent talked me into being the principal and I told her I would help her for a short time.
It’s always been my intention (to leave). I just went back to Belen to be an administrator, because there was a need. I’m very happy to be here at Rio Grande.
Journal: You are taking on a program that is coming off a very difficult year, both on and off the field. Can you talk about how the program puts all that behind it in 2011?
Danner: I think the one big thing we’ve talked about since the very beginning is that this is one team. The parents want us to be successful, but they’ve got to help us out. It’s never been a problem with the kids, it was always outside. But the parents have just been exceptional with me. A new fresh face really helps.
Journal: What are the specific challenges you face here?
Danner: The No. 1 challenge is (lack of) numbers. Another is that we’ve got to develop an attitude toward school that is more positive than it is right now.
When I came to talk to (Rio Grande AD Pete) Pino about the job, he told me that one of my main concerns is going to be eligibility. So we’re going to institute some things. They’re going to be students and there will be high expectations about what they do in the classroom.
Journal: Rio Grande has certainly had some sporadic football success over the years, and even has been to the state semifinals a couple of times. What are your goals for the program?
Danner: I expect us to be district champions. I hope we’re gonna make the playoffs. I’m hoping for 5-5. I came in looking at 5-5. But it’s gonna be tough, because in our first four games, three (Manzano, Las Cruces, La Cueva) are against teams that were in the state semis last year.
But we’ve told our kids, we’re going to be ready and we’re going to do some things. In basketball, you take the air out of the ball. We have to do that in football. We can’t line up, because one injury will kill us.
Journal: How did you try to address the lack of numbers that have hampered other coaches at Rio Grande?
Danner: We didn’t address it … it’s tough getting them here for the summer. We’re trying to put our whole offense in, our whole defense in, so on Aug. 1, they’ll have some idea of what we’re trying to do.
We’re having a hard time getting everyone here on a regular basis, but it’ll be better next year. I’m very happy with what we have.
Journal: Did you have an impression of Rio Grande football before you applied for this job?
Danner: When I was at Cibola, we played (Rio Grande) every year, and they would always hit you. But they would run out of gas or somebody would get hurt, and they didn’t have the backup.
Our initial plan is to try and two-platoon. We’re going to two platoon.
Journal: That’s pretty ambitious.
Danner: We have to. Because our goal is to be full strength when we play West Mesa (in the district opener).
Journal: With the preseason a month away on Aug. 1, what are your emotions?
Danner: I’m just bubbling.
Journal: Can Rio Grande be a factor again in 5A football?
Danner: Yes. Yes. I really believe if they continue to buy into our philosophy of hard work and being really sound fundamentally and running to the football, whether it’s on offense or defense, then we’re gonna change.