FAMILIAR FACE RETURNS: Ex-Temple OC McGehee brings in 1-0 Magnolia West as Wildcats seek to rebound
Updated: Sep 5
LOOK WHO'S BACK IN TOWN: Then-Sweetwater head coach Ben McGehee speaks with Mustangs quarterback Leo Holsey during a practice in 2020. McGehee was Temple's offensive coordinator from 2014-16, helping the Wildcats advance to two Class 5A Division I state championship games before he became Sweetwater's head coach in 2017. McGehee is in his first season as head coach at Magnolia West, whose Mustangs beat Brenham 45-21 in his debut last week. He returns to Temple and Wildcat Stadium on Friday for a 7:30 p.m. clash with the Wildcats, who lost 54-13 to 6A No. 1-ranked Austin Westlake at home in last Friday's season opener. (File photo by Stephen Garcia, Abilene Reporter-News/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Ben McGehee makes it clear that he was not looking to leave Sweetwater.
In four seasons in his first job as a head football coach, McGehee guided the Mustangs to a 23-21 record and three playoff trips, highlighted by a 10-3 record in his debut campaign and the program’s first district championship since 2015 last year.
McGehee said Sweetwater, which in 2020 went 8-2 and reached the second round of the Class 4A Division II playoffs, had a lot of good players returning this season and was primed for another successful run.
But when the school district known to some as “Southeast Temple” came calling, McGehee – the former Temple assistant coach who as offensive coordinator helped direct the Wildcats to state championship games in 2014 and 2016 – realized that his coaching journey might soon go in another direction for himself and his family.
In late January, Magnolia West began searching to replace two-season head coach Blake Joseph, the former Temple assistant coach who moved on to the college ranks as a North Texas assistant after the Mustangs went 5-5 last year and didn’t reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Magnolia ISD has many strong links to Temple ISD. Its superintendent is Dr. Todd Stephens, a Temple High School graduate who played on the defensive line for the Wildcats' 4A state runner-up team in 1976 and then was an assistant coach for legendary head coach Bob McQueen on Temple's 1992 squad that captured the 5A Division II state championship. Magnolia's deputy superintendent is Dr. Jason Bullock, who was Temple High School’s principal and then a Temple ISD assistant superintendent.
Magnolia ISD’s athletic director is JD Berna, the former Temple assistant coach who was Magnolia West’s head football coach from 2016-18. Berna became the district’s AD in 2019 after former Temple head coach/AD Mike Spradlin decided to return to coaching – as Rockwall-Heath’s head coach – following his three years as Magnolia ISD’s athletic director.
And for good measure, Magnolia High School’s head football coach since 2019 has been Temple graduate Craig Martin, formerly the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator as well as Temple's head baseball coach.
So when Magnolia ISD’s top leaders reached out to McGehee to gauge his interest in the Magnolia West head coaching job, the new opportunity was too appealing for him to pass up, even though what he was in the process of building in his more familiar region of West Texas did make it a difficult decision.
“We had things rolling pretty well at Sweetwater. I wasn’t looking to leave,” McGehee said Wednesday by telephone. “There was no other job I considered but this one.”
Discussions with Stephens, Bullock, Berna and Spradlin led McGehee to conclude that pursuing the Magnolia West job was the right thing to do for his career.
“I knew them (from Temple), and they gave me all the information and what to expect. I was fortunate (to have those favorable Temple ties),” McGehee recalled before joking, “but I said, ‘I’ve still gotta send my stuff in.’”
MAKING MOVES: Former Temple offensive coordinator Ben McGehee became the head coach at Class 5A Division I Magnolia West in February after coaching 4A Division II Sweetwater to three playoff berths and a 23-21 record from 2017-20. As Temple's offensive coordinator from 2014-16 for head coaches Mike Spradlin and Scott Stewart, McGehee helped the high-scoring Wildcats compete in 16 playoff games and reach two 5A Division I state championship games. Said McGehee on Wednesday: "Temple, that was some of the most cherished times of my career. It was a special time and I loved that place. The fan support is second to none." His Mustangs (1-0) play Temple (0-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. (Magnolia ISD photo)
Magnolia West announced McGehee’s hiring on Feb. 9, and the Mustangs made the coach a winner in his debut by beating Brenham 45-21 last Friday in Magnolia.
Magnolia West seeks to make it a 2-0 start when McGehee visits his old stomping grounds to play Temple (0-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. The Wildcats began their season last Friday with a mistake-filled 54-13 home loss to 6A No. 1-ranked Austin Westlake.
It will be a reunion for McGehee and Temple sixth-year head coach Scott Stewart. McGehee was the offensive coordinator and play-caller in 2016, which was Stewart’s first season as a head coach and ended with the 12-4 Wildcats advancing to the 5A Division I state championship game, a 16-7 loss to Dallas Highland Park.
During the 2014 and ’15 seasons, they were Spradlin’s coordinators – Stewart on defense and McGehee on offense. Those two seasons included Temple’s breakthrough march to the 5A Division I state title game in 2014 (a 49-45 loss to top-ranked Aledo) and a fourth-round trek a year later, shortly before Spradlin departed to become Magnolia ISD’s athletic director.
McGehee, who previously worked with Spradlin at Abilene Cooper, said he has great memories of Temple and the successful run he enjoyed with the Wildcats.
“Temple, that was some of the most cherished times of my career. It was a special time and I loved that place,” McGehee said. “Going to state twice in a three-year span was incredible. The fan support is second to none. I have good relationships with people in Temple, so I’m looking forward to going back there and being in that atmosphere. And I think it’ll be neat for our players to see that.”
Having coached together for three seasons at Temple, the defensive-minded Stewart holds the offensive-oriented McGehee in high regard.
“His brain wraps around this game very easily. He understands concepts and is a very conceptual thinker,” Stewart said. “I have the utmost respect for him and I think he’s done a good job everywhere he’s been. He went out to West Texas and all but one year had very successful seasons. He’s a good ball coach. Heck, he was the offensive coordinator here and played 16 games.”
McGehee’s staff at Magnolia West includes safeties coach Ben Norman, a standout safety for Temple’s 2016 state runner-up squad who went on to play at Abilene Christian, and offensive coordinator Blake Spears, a former Wildcats assistant. Current Temple defensive coordinator Dexter Knox coached one season on McGehee’s staff in Sweetwater.
McGehee remembers the spirited, back-and-forth battles that his offense and Stewart’s defense waged during Temple practices.
“We had a good time competing against each other every single day," McGehee said. "Stewart would frustrate us, and we’d come back at them. We had a whole lot of fun.”
A team that didn’t have much fun during this season’s opening week was Temple, which struggled to execute in every aspect of the game in its 41-point loss to two-time reigning state champion Westlake as the Chaparrals’ juggernaut extended its winning streak to 25 games.
However, McGehee said he isn’t concerned about his team perhaps taking Temple lightly. Early last October the Wildcats traveled to Magnolia West and defeated the Mustangs 28-13, shutting them out in the second half. Then-junior Samari Howard rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns for Temple, and Humberto Arizmendi threw touchdown passes to Luke Allen and Mikal Harrison-Pilot.
“Our kids have been on the field with Temple, and they know what that game was like,” McGehee said. “Our kids are pretty savvy, so we’re not reading anything into that score against Westlake. Temple’s got a great team and I told Coach Stewart that on Saturday.”
From Stewart’s perspective, the Wildcats will need to perform much better in their second straifght home game than they did in the opener to defeat Magnolia West, which scored 28 consecutive points against Brenham in the second half to erase a four-point deficit and pull away for the 24-point victory in McGehee’s Mustangs debut.
“It’s rinse and repeat,” Stewart said, comparing Magnolia West’s overall attack to the challenge Temple faced against powerful Westlake. “They’re huge, they’ve got a quarterback (senior Brock Dalton) who can spin it and their running back (senior Hunter Bilbo) is legit.
“They’re big up front (on offense). I don’t know if they’re as athletic (as Westlake’s offensive linemen), but they’ve leaned on people. They scrimmaged (Bryan) Rudder and kind of had their way with them, and then Brenham, at least on film, looks very similar to us – pretty athletic and decent team speed. Bilbo took over and he was chunking it off. Their offense is designed to put stress on a defense.”
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Dalton last season passed for 2,727 yards and 31 touchdowns against nine interceptions under Joseph's tutelage. In last week’s opener against Brenham he was 13-for-21 passing for 132 yards and four touchdowns – two to senior receiver Trey Leggett – against one interception and also rushed for 40 yards. Dalton passed for 218 yards with one TD and one interception last season against Temple.
The 5-8, 180-pound Bilbo exploded for 170 rushing yards against the Cubs, highlighted by an 81-yard touchdown burst, on only 12 carries. Meanwhile, junior reserve running back Kai Aroca-Disdier added 119 yards with an 18-yard TD on seven carries as part of a 344-yard rushing outburst.
“Our kids played pretty well in the first half, but we kind of stalled. In the second half we got on the same page with our guys and came out and executed,” McGehee said. “I was really pleased with our offense and our defense.”
Both McGehee and Stewart have high marks for Bilbo, who rushed 18 times for 105 yards against Temple last year and finished his junior season with 905 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“Hunter’s just a worker and has that workman’s mentality,” McGehee said. “He has great strength, balance and vision.”
Said Stewart about Bilbo: “He’s on the shorter side, but he’s a put-together joker. He’s strong and has a burst.”
McGehee described Magnolia West’s offense as “the same stuff we ran at Temple, with some tweaks.” He said the biggest challenge during the offseason was having to replace every starter on the offensive line.
AIMING TO BOUNCE BACK: Temple senior running back Samari Howard rushed for 135 yards in last Friday's season opener at Wildcat Stadium, but the Wildcats were plagued by errors and struggled throughout a 54-13 loss to top-ranked Austin Westlake. Howard and Temple will try to even their record when they host Magnolia West (1-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
As for Magnolia West’s multiple-look defense, the Mustangs allowed a short touchdown run early in the third quarter as Brenham seized a 21-17 lead, but then they tightened things up and didn’t permit anything of consequence the rest of the night in what turned into a runaway win.
“We have a lot of returners back on defense and that’s where our experience lies,” McGehee said. “We base out of a four-man front, but we try to be very multiple.”
In his first varsity start, Temple sophomore quarterback Reese Rumfield was 8-of-22 passing for 90 yards against Westlake’s savvy, stingy defense. Stewart said Magnolia West’s defense presents a similar challenge for his young, inexperienced QB.
“They move everywhere on defense. They try to confuse quarterbacks and they’ve done a pretty good job of it,” Stewart said. “It’s a very similar M.O. to Westlake. There isn’t a zone (defense) known to man that doesn’t have a soft spot, but the pressure up front is going to try to thwart your 15-year-old quarterback from finding out where the soft spot is.”
The Mustangs’ leading defenders are senior end Hayden Jansky (6-3, 230), senior lineman Roger Clubb (three sacks vs. Brenham), senior nose guard Austin Hulska (five tackles, 1½ sacks), senior linebacker Kyle Dunlap (12 tackles), junior linebacker Tyler Harsch (nine tackles) and junior back Caylon Dygert (eight tackles). Aroca-Disdier also plays in the secondary.
“They do a good job. You turn on the film and can tell they’re well-coached,” said Stewart, whose 2017 Wildcats defeated Berna’s Magnolia West team 41-13 in a 5A Division I area-round playoff game at Baylor’s McLane Stadium in Waco en route to the Region III title game.
McGehee said getting his players into excellent physical condition has been a major point of emphasis since he arrived at Magnolia West. That commitment showed up as the Mustangs dominated Brenham in the second half of the opener.
“That’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on everywhere I’ve been,” McGehee said. “We have to make sure our bodies are taken care of to compete for four full quarters.”
Magnolia West begins its eight-game District 8-5A Division I schedule next Friday at Lufkin. Looming on the Mustangs' slate is the Oct. 15 matchup at crosstown rival and defending league champion Magnolia, coached by Martin, McGehee’s fellow former Temple offensive assistant.
“That’ll be fun. We’re two old guys who still like to hang out, and we get together for dinner with our families,” McGehee said. “It's fun to compete for that one week where you’re trying to beat him and he’s trying to beat you."