Mac Stephens got a full football scholarship at Minnesota back in the mid-1980s. He went undrafted but played two NFL seasons for three teams including the Vikings. Eventually, Stephens found his calling as a high school football coach.
“I’m operating in my God-given purpose to be able to affect these young people that are 14, 15, 16, 17-year-olds. It is a pretty awesome opportunity,” said Stephens in a recent phone interview.
Stephens played his college ball at Minnesota (1986-89), then went on to New England and the New York Jets (1990) as an undrafted rookie, and finally with the Vikings in 1991. He eventually went into public service in Ohio before Cleveland Heights (Ohio) High School hired him as their football coach in 2015.
Former Gophers position coach Dick Bedell first planted the idea of Stephen someday coaching, he recalled. “He helped shape me as a man, ([and I] just always admired him for the way he poured into me during those times at the University of Minnesota.”
Later, “I was an assistant coach here at a high school in the city in which I live,” continued Stephens. “The original head coach had resigned. I applied for the job and got passed over, and decided to apply for the Cleveland Heights job. I think I was one of 56 applicants at the time and was fortunate enough to be named the next head coach.”
Stephens has just completed his ninth season and is now in preparation for his tenth next year. “My first year we played with 38 kids on the roster. We have about 115 kids every summer, but it took some time to build that,” the head coach admitted.
Although his Cleveland Heights team fell short of a state championship this year, Stephens was named All-Ohio Division I Coach of the Year.
“We had a great season and we had a great group of kids who probably made me look better,” says Stephens. “We have a great assistant coaching staff, so it all came together and some good things happened.
“I coach in a very old-school way,” he explained. “We believe in playing very physical. But I think the biggest thing is our kids have a lot of fun and they play with a lot of class,” he pointed out.
Cleveland Heights, located about 20 minutes outside of Cleveland, plays in one of the state’s toughest high school conferences. “We weren’t there nine years ago when I first took over the program, but now we’re one of the top teams” in Ohio, Stephens said proudly.
Stephens also appreciates that the school administrators showed patience as he built the Cleveland Heights football program—it is not always about winning, he stressed. “A lot of the kids play because it’s a ticket to maybe changing their life or being able to go to college for free,” said Stephens.
“Even with kids that don’t go to college, we make sure we help them get a well-paying job or help them get into a vocational training program. We have a mentoring program tied into our high school football program as well as a tutoring program.”
Asked if he foresees himself pursuing a college coaching job someday, Stephens said, “My philosophy is to continue working hard at what I’m doing and never to be outworked at what I’m doing.”
He even suggested that he may find himself coming back to Minnesota. “I’ve always loved it up there. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll be coaching there.”