*Note, the following article appeared in the LSJ’s football preview section, which is available at local stores and restaurants.

By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Ask Mike Ribecky how many state football championship teams he’s coached at Muskegon Catholic Central, and he will shake his head.

“I don’t know,” he says with a shrug. “It’s on the wall in there.”

Ribecky shouts instructions from the MCC sideline. Photo/Tim Reilly

One obvious reason for his reaction is that there are a lot of state titles to remember, including an amazing four in the past four years.

For the record, the Crusaders have won 12 state championships during Ribecky’s coaching career, with the latest coming in last year’s 35-6 victory over Ottawa Lake Whiteford in the Division 8 title game.

But he doesn’t seem too impressed with that number. He respects the effort it has taken from so many people to be the best for so many seasons, but doesn’t seem obsessed with it.

He says he just likes to coach.

“I played football starting in the second grade through four years of college,” Ribecky said. “It gets in your blood, you enjoy it, and you want to give back to the kids and teach them what you’ve learned.

“You coach each year to try to give the kids the best experience they can have. They only go through it for a few short years.”

Ribecky has been at it for a great many years. This will be his 40th season of coaching varsity football at Muskegon Catholic. Head coaches and assistants have come and gone, including some great ones, but Ribecky is still there when the ball is teed up every fall.

He insists he’s just been “one spoke” in MCC’s wheel of success, and is quick to deflect credit to other coaches, the players and their parents.

But Steve Czerwon says Ribecky is being more than a little modest, and he should know. Czerwon played under Ribecky in the 90s, and has worked with him for the past 13 years – nine as a fellow assistant coach, and the last four as MCC’s head coach.

“He has been as big a part of the success we’ve had as anyone,” Czerwon said. “He’s been the one constant through 12 state championships. I think that says a lot.

“He gets a lot out of kids. First and foremost, he gets along great with kids. He has certain expectations of how they should play and do things correctly. When they screw up, he will let them know about it. But the kids love playing for him – there’s no question about that.”

While all the MCC coaches have a hand in all aspects of the game, Ribecky has been the Crusaders’ defensive coordinator since the early 90s, and defense has long been a strength for the program. There may have been no better example than last season, when the Crusader defense was nearly impossible to score on.

MCC’s first-string defense only gave up 25 points last season in 14 games.

“We bent but didn’t break,” Ribecky said. “We went to more of a three-down defense rather than having a traditional four-man line. We didn’t have a ton of big guys. We wanted to get the better athletes on the field.”

The defense was decidedly undersized, without a single player who weighed at least 200 pounds. The stereotypical defender is a big, burly guy who dominates the player on the other side of the ball with sheer bulk, but Ribecky’s 2016 squad shattered that myth.

As it turns out, Ribecky prefers the smaller, faster guys on defense, so last season’s players were perfect for him.

“It’s always been my thing to get my faster kids on the field,” he said. “I’m not much for big, fat kids. That’s a pet peeve of mine. If you’re big and you can still run, that’s a bit different.

“I’ve always preached quickness, get everybody to the ball. It’s worked out. We’ll see how it goes this year. We have a lot of holes to fill.”

‘This is where my loyalty is’

Ribecky makes a point to players during summer drills. Photo/Tim Reilly

Ribecky, 62, grew up in Muskegon Heights and spent all of his K-12 years in the Muskegon Catholic school system. He played football for the Crusaders under legendary Coach Roger Chiaverini and got an early taste of MCC gridiron success.

The MCC teams he played on didn’t win any state titles (there were no high school playoffs in those days), but they were still very good while competing in the old Lake Michigan Athletic Conference, which included big school powerhouses like Muskegon and Traverse City.

“I graduated in 1973, and my last season of football was 72,” said Ribecky, who is widely known by the nickname of Bunny. “Chev, Pete Kutches and Dave Mills were the coaches back then. Chev was in his second year as head coach during my junior year.

“In my senior year we were 8-0 going into our last game, then we lost to Muskegon 15-0. Traverse City beat Muskegon, we beat Traverse City, then Muskegon beat us, so we ended up in a three-way tie for the championship. That was a great league.”

Ribecky won a full-ride football scholarship to Western Michigan University, where he continued to experience success and learn what it takes to put a winner on the field.

He was a starter on the offensive line, and the Broncos finished second in the nation in rushing during his senior year. That means Ribecky and his fellow linemen successfully moved a lot of defenders out of the way over the course of the season.

He returned to MCC after college for a semester of student teaching, and fully expected to find a teaching job at some school somewhere.

As it turned out, he started coaching the Crusader football team and never left.

“I stared working with the varsity right away when I came back,” he said. “Chev said if I was going to be here, he might as well get some use out of me, so I coached with him in 77 and 78.

“They were laying off teachers back then, so I was looking for a job, and I ended up taking the civil service exam for the Muskegon Heights Fire Department, and ended up working there for 29 years.”

Ribecky’s inability to find a teaching job, and his subsequent career as a firefighter, allowed him to stay at MCC and continue to coach football at his alma mater. Besides the 1979 season, which he skipped for personal reasons, he’s been on the Crusader sideline every year.

“The good thing about it was that we worked 10 days a month, 24-hour days, and I saved most of my vacation for the fall, and we were allowed to trade time,” he said about his firefighting job.

Ribecky almost left Muskegon Catholic once, in 1984, when the legendary Pete Kutches resigned as head coach to take the same position at Reeths-Puffer, where he went on to win a state championship.

“Pete wanted me to go with him, and I was almost there, I was real close,” Ribecky said. “But I went through school at MCC. My sister, Pat O’Toole, was the principal here at the time, and my parents were pretty big MCC fans, so I stayed.”

MCC has changed head coaches several times during Ribecky’s career. He has coached under Chiaverini, Kutches, Ken Diamond, Dean Jewett, Mike Holmes and now Czerwon.

Many Catholic fans have probably wondered if Ribecky was ever offered the head coaching job. He doesn’t confirm or deny that, but says it was never an option for him.

“I think a head coach should be in the school,” Ribecky said. “Somebody should be there making sure the kids keep up on their academics.”

Ribecky shrugs when asked if other area schools have tried to hire him as a head coach.

“Not very often,” he said. “They pretty much knew I was here to stay. This is where my loyalty is. We have a neat situation here.”

Besides, Ribecky said he never had much desire to become a head coach, even though they receive most of the credit when championships are secured.

He said he can happily live without all the distractions that come with leading the program. If that means not getting noticed as much as the head coach, so be it.

“Assistants want to come and they want to coach,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with parents or the media. The head coach can do that.”

‘You either prepare, or prepare to lose’

Some people who stay in a career for a long time tend to ease away from the heavier workload as the years go by.

At Ford Field, 2013: (from left) Justin Ego, Scott Fodrocy, Shane Fairfield, Steve Czerwon, Mike Ribecky, Brent White. Photo/Tim Reilly

That’s not the case for Ribecky. He still has a hand in every aspect of the MCC football program, 12 months a year.

There is an early-morning weightlifting program for players in the winter and spring. There is weightlifting and conditioning in the summer, three days per week. Then comes preseason practices in August, which pretty much take up entire days for several weeks.

“We’re one of the few high schools that still do two-a-day practices,” Ribecky said. “We go from 9 to 11 in the morning, then 3 to 5 in the afternoon. Most schools these days have one practice, in the morning or afternoon.”

Of course the most grueling work comes during the season, when there are practices four days a week, game night on Friday, and important strategic work for the coaches on the weekends.

“We watch film at home, then we meet on Sundays up here at the school at 9 a.m., and we probably don’t get out until around 2,” he said. “We look at film to see what the other teams do. If something works (on offense) and they can’t cover that, we may put it in. We’re always looking at things like that, trying to gain more of an edge.

“We’ve always worked like that. You either prepare, or you prepare to lose.”

After 39 seasons, one might expect all that work to wear on Ribecky a little bit. He admits there have been tiring aspects to the job, particularly in recent years, when the Crusaders have made so many long playoff runs, extending each season by about a month.

“It gets to be long in the playoffs,” he said. “In the last four years we’ve played 40-some games. We’ve probably played an extra season-plus in those four years.”

Despite all the work, Ribecky says he still feels his adrenaline flow when each new season draws near.

“Oh yeah, that’s the easy part,” he said. “Everybody likes the excitement of Friday night football games.”

Ribecky said he’s far from alone when it comes to work ethic and dedication. He said those attributes are common among high school football coaches in the Muskegon area, and he’s proud to be part of their fraternity.

Ribecky demonstrates technique during summer drills. Photo/Tim Reilly

“Shane Fairfield and the coaches at Muskegon, they do such a great job over there,” he said. “Shane’s a football junkie. He loves the sport and he loves the kids. Kyle Jewett (at Reeths-Puffer) is the same way, and Dave Smith and those guys at Ravenna. It’s a special group of coaches around here. They love football. I think that’s why teams from this area have always been so successful.”

Ribecky said coaches have made a lot of adjustments over the years, as the high school game has changed.

Offensive philosophies have definitely evolved, with more emphasis on speed and the passing game and spreading players around the field. That’s forced defensive coaches to adjust, to make sure opposing players are properly covered.

“Now you have to spread out and defend the whole field,” Ribecky said. “The game has changed, and you have to change with it.”

At MCC, there has also been the challenge of maintaining a winning tradition as enrollment has decreased. Muskegon Catholic was Class B when Ribecky was in high school, but now is among the smaller schools in the state to field a football team.

But the Crusaders have met that challenge by eliminating their junior varsity team and having players on varsity for four years, Ribecky said.

“We only have one football team,” he said. “Some people say that’s going to hurt you, but I don’t think so. We get them as freshmen and sophomores, and we’re teaching them right away. And the last few years the young kids have been getting a lot of varsity experience in the second half of games.”

Ribecky said he’s changed his coaching style a bit over the years. While he’s always intense, he said he’s toned it down a little.

“I’ve gotten a little bit mellower probably,” he said. “The kids understand when I’m serious, but I like to have fun with them, too, by making some jokes and having a good time. You can’t be a jerk the whole time, or they’re going to get calloused and stop listening.”

That doesn’t mean Ribecky, who also coaches the offensive line, is willing to ignore sloppiness on the field.

“You have to get people on the same page, particularly when it comes to executing blocking assignments correctly,” he said. “One thing that irks me are missed assignments. As an offensive lineman, you don’t know where the ball is going, so you just have to get up and stay on them. It’s doesn’t have to be a great block, but you have to get up and move your feet. The big thing is footwork.”

Ribecky is also no-nonsense when it comes to doling out playing time. He has no patience for the occasional parent or player who whines about that topic.

“Like I tell the kids, I don’t care, I will play a sophomore, I play the best kids,” he said.