How Aledo High became a Texas high school football powerhouse

Posted Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Playoff game Aledo (11-0) has been the top-rated 4A team in Texas for most of the season. The Bearcats face Boswell High School on Friday night in the second round of the playoffs. The game begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Birdville ISD Fine Arts/Athletics Complex, 9200 Mid-Cities Blvd. in North Richland Hills.

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During coach Tim Buchanan’s woeful first season in 1993, the team from Boyd High School scored four touchdowns against Aledo before the game was much more than a minute old.

“I look at the clock and there is 10:58 left in the first quarter and it’s 28-0,” Buchanan, Aledo’s head coach then and now, remembered recently. “I was trying to do the math. ‘Let’s see. A minute and two seconds. 28 points. There are 48 minutes in a game.’

“I looked at Boyd’s bench and they’ve only got 18 players,” he said. “It’s not like they’re going to put in the second team. They don’t have one.”

The final score ended up a somewhat merciful 49-3, only because Boyd’s players got tired running up and down the field, Buchanan said.

“I promise you, when I first got here, we were getting beat like that,” Buchanan said. “We would go a whole game without getting a first down.”

Hence the irony of the brief but intense national firestorm that enveloped Buchanan this fall. On a Friday night in October, Aledo beat Fort Worth Western Hills 91-0 even though Buchanan played his reserves for most of the game. That didn’t stop a Western Hills parent from filing a bullying complaint against the Aledo coach.

The complaint was quickly dismissed by school officials in this bucolic suburb west of Fort Worth. The community, other coaches and generations of former players rallied around the man called Buck, the guy who had risen to the top of his profession with his concern for kids, his passion for football and his engaging personality.

“It’s impossible not to like him right away,” said longtime Star-Telegram sports columnist Randy Galloway, one of Buchanan’s legion of friends. “Buck’s one of the most upfront guys you can possibly meet, not just as a coach or a teacher but as a human being.”

Still, there he was on ESPN and Good Morning America, defending his team against charges that it was a heartless gridiron behemoth devouring lesser foes with relish.

Lost was the fact that two decades ago Buchanan was on the other end of one-sided scores. Aledo has become an almost mythic football power since, winning four state championships. But in the beginning, Buchanan got the job because no one else wanted it. He built the program from virtually nothing by working so hard that he jeopardized his marriage.

During the recent firestorm, the national press wasn’t much interested in that part of the story, either.

‘I wanted to coach’

Buchanan, 53, grew up in Central Texas, the son of a self-employed refrigeration mechanic. None of the males in his family had graduated from high school. Buchanan wouldn’t have, either, without the game.

“The only reason I stayed in school was to play football,” he said. “The only reason I went to college was to play football. If it hadn’t been for football, I would have been just like my brothers. I would have quit school as soon as I turned 17.”

Injuries ended his playing career at Abilene Christian University. He later graduated from Southwest Texas State.

“I’ve known all my life that’s what I enjoy doing, and if I couldn’t play football anymore, I still wanted to be a part of it,” Buchanan said. “I wanted to coach.”

He took several high school assistant jobs, the last at A&M Consolidated High School in College Station. In spring 1993, he interviewed to be the head football coach and athletic director in Aledo.

To say that the once-proud football program in the Parker County town had fallen on hard times understated things. The team had gone through five head coaches in four years, one of whom lasted two days. Only 17 players went out for the varsity team. The locker rooms were rat-infested.

“I mean, I couldn’t have gotten the job if it had been a good job,” Buchanan said. “Who’s going to hire a 32-year-old who had never been a head coach? I mean, it was literally a crappy job. I’m serious. Nobody else wanted it.”

When Buchanan showed up, the varsity team didn’t have a full set of jerseys. He had to coach the junior high teams, the junior varsity and the varsity.

“I offered three or four coaches jobs, and none of them would come,” Buchanan said. “They said, ‘Coach, you’re not going to be there. They’re going to fire you.’”

They weren’t the only ones skeptical.

“The players had seen one coach come in and leave after two days,” Buchanan said. “So I had to build trust in the kids that I was going to be there, and I did that by showing up every day.”

Billy Mathis was a sophomore on that first team.

“He taught us how to work hard, taught us how to push each other as a team, not as individuals,” Mathis, now one of Buchanan’s assistants, remembered this week. “When you faced adversity, you had to put on your work boots and push through. You didn’t go gripe and complain, and if you did something wrong, you owned up to it, suffered the consequences and moved on.”

But something else most inspired the players’ loyalty, said Mathis, whose parents divorced when he was in high school.

“He was always checking on me, making sure that I didn’t need anything,” Mathis said. “I remember how good that made me feel. I try to remember that as a person and a coach today. You wanted to play hard and do everything you could to be your best because you knew he loved you and he wanted the best for you.”

Part of the community

On the orders of Superintendent Willard Stuard, Buchanan also showed up at the most popular Aledo coffee shop every morning, getting to know the old-timers.

“He said, ‘You don’t have to do what they say, but you better listen. They want to see you, and they want to talk to you,’” Buchanan said. “Very few of the other coaches had been here long enough to be part of the community.”

Buchanan is now one of the most recognizable faces in Aledo and small places like Willow Park that feed into the school district. Most agree that the football team’s success has played a role in making the district one of the most desirable places to live in North Texas.

This year, U.S. News & World Report rated Aledo High School 105th in Texas and 1,056th in the nation. The Aledo school district has tripled in size the last two decades.

“My biggest supporters are builders and developers,” Buchanan said. “People see the focus on the football team, and they look deeper and say, ‘Hey, it’s not just a good football team. It’s a good athletic program.’ They look even deeper and they say, ‘The schools are really good.’ They look deeper and they say, ‘Dang, it’s a beautiful place to live.’

“I’m proud of this community,” he said. “Heck, I raised two kids here.”

Finding balance

Aledo finished 2-8 in Buchanan’s first year but had winning seasons in the next two. Other athletic programs at the school also began to improve. But the toll on the football coach and athletic director was high. He worked 15-hour days throughout the school year.

“I’ll never forget. I guess Madeline and Caleb [his children] were 1 and 2,” Buchanan said. “I got up one morning and I’m getting ready. I looked up to shave and there was a note taped to the mirror. My wife told me I was going to spend more time at home or I wasn’t going to have a family. She was serious.”

His wife, Rebecca, a science teacher in the district, laughs about the ultimatum now.

“He was just so focused on what he needed to do at work he forgot there were other things,” she said. “He kind of lost sight of what a good balance would be. It wasn’t just him. I needed to change, too. I needed to learn how to support him better.”

Tim Buchanan’s kids began to accompany him everywhere except the sidelines during varsity games. Rebecca has never missed an Aledo varsity football game.

“It’s been fun to see the kids getting better and better,” she said.

Aledo went to the playoffs for the first time under Buchanan in 1997. It won state the next year. Beginning in 2009, the Bearcats won three consecutive championships featuring one of the nation’s most prized college recruits, running back Johnathan Gray, who now plays at the University of Texas.

This year’s team might be the best of the Buchanan era. His second and third teams have often been superior to the opposition. Lopsided score follows lopsided score.

“Even though the facts were on his side and he had done everything he could [to keep from running up the score], I kind of saw this coming,” said the Star-Telegram’s Galloway, who lives in the Aledo area. “Aledo is just that good. I’m watching these blowouts happen, and I’m thinking somebody is going to raise hell.”

But bullying?

“That just broke my heart. I couldn’t believe it,” said Tim Faulk, a former Aledo school board member and a close friend of Buchanan’s. “It turned out OK. I think people realized that Aledo is just the opposite of that. Buck does everything he can to not let that happen.”

Media craziness

On the Monday after the Western Hills game, when the firestorm raged, Buchanan talked to his team. Among the players was his son, Caleb, a senior starting center.

“I said, ‘Look, guys. Bullying is a serious issue. Everyone in this room, everyone on this coaching staff, has been bullied at some time in their lives and it doesn’t make you feel good,’” Buchanan said. “But to associate bullying with a football game, especially a game when you show good sportsmanship?

“It was a bad situation then trying to get through the craziness of the media,” he said. “These weren’t sports reporters calling at first. These were news guys, and they were looking for dirt. The toughest thing was just trying to explain that the ones I felt sorry for were the Western Hills kids.”

Galloway watched Buchanan on Good Morning America.

“They had six people on the show, five hosts and a national bullying expert,” he said. “They had Buck on film. I was interested to hear how six people in the middle of Manhattan are looking at this. They all agreed it was not bullying.

“I talked to him about this stuff,” Galloway said. “I told him, ‘You handled that real well.’ The facts were on his side.”

So Buchanan was exonerated, not only by the school district but also in the court of public opinion. Hundreds of emails, texts and telephone calls also helped, some from Buchanan’s players who remembered those difficult early years.

“They were men from 25 to 40 years old that I had coached that called me or emailed me or texted me,” Buchanan said, his Texas drawl growing thick with emotion. “They said, ‘Coach, you’re the reason I am what I am today. You’re the reason I’m the father I am. You’re the reason I’m the person I am today.’

“That right there is what helped me get through that week,” he said. “That’s the reason I do this. That’s the reason I coach.”

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan

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Tim Buchanan builds a powerhouse

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