Who said rebuilding a high school football program couldn't be fun?
New Maple Grove coach Matt Lombardi requested "fat guys of all varieties" to line up near the goalpost as he separated position groups on the first day of practice. Later he spoke of a linebacker who botched an assignment as "leaving a hole like Vesuvius" in the defense.
A football coach referencing the volcano that buried Pompeii in A.D. 79? "I'm scholarly," Lombardi said.
A more serious teaching opportunity occurred when a defensive back missed a play by hesitating to break on a ball. Lombardi's instruction came straight from his own philosophy on life.
"You were doing the Hokey Pokey back there," he said. "Just go with it."
Lombardi certainly has. Trusting his own instincts, Lombardi left behind Illinois and his father, Robert, a member of the state's high school football coach's hall of fame, 11 years ago to create his own path at Wayzata. In February, after seven seasons as Trojans defensive coordinator and three Class 5A state tournament championships, the 37-year-old Lombardi succeeded Craig Hansen as the second football coach in Maple Grove's 15-year history.
Lombardi's first head coaching position is an envious one. Maple Grove ranks 13th with an enrollment of 2,142 students and boasts a large weight room and two turf fields -- one that converts to a domed facility in the winter. Those are perfect ingredients to build a powerhouse program, even if that hasn't happened yet.
"If you look around Maple Grove, they've got great facilities and from what I've heard they really care from the top down," said Tommy Becker, who played for Lombardi at Wayzata and is a Maple Grove assistant coach. "Those are things every great program needs."
When he first moved to Minnesota in 2000 to take the Wayzata job, Lombardi lived in Maple Grove with his wife, Jamie, and thought, "This is a booming town. It's going to be a great place to be."
Moving to St. Michael with his wife and children, Joey, Maggie and Allie, did not change Lombardi's view. Nor have the Crimson's three consecutive losing seasons and nine-year state tournament drought.
"I would have never left what I had if I didn't have a perception that I could get it to be successful," he said. "I'm too competitive."
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"I didn't come here to be an average team," was Lombardi's pointed message to players in this season's first meeting on Aug. 15.
But he is expecting the Crimson to be a fast team. Demonstrating his high-tempo approach to practices, Lombardi buzzed around showing defensive backs the correct way to run, not shuffle, backward and ran alongside a gassed lineman to inspire hustle. Players have responded to their new coach's grit.
"There's a drive there that I didn't see last year," Maple Grove Principal Sara Vernig said. "I really see Matt as helping us, through the football program, set the tone for the year."
Believing "some of the greatest things that happen in life will come through inconvenience," Lombardi pushes his students and athletes to leave their comfort zones.
As a calculus teacher at Wayzata, Lombardi doubled the number of students in his "JV" calculus class by attracting students who might have otherwise shied away.
On the field, Lombardi transformed mundane practices into spirited competitions by encouraging a little trash talking and swagger among teammates.
"Lombo is an active, energetic young coach who brings an excitement his players pick up on," Wayzata head coach Brad Anderson said. "He got our defense playing at a high level."
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Lombardi scouted Maple Grove's section playoff game last October and made mental notes on the losing Crimson.
"Watching kids walk off the field, I sensed some of them were happy to be done for the year," Lombardi said. "They had lost the passion."
He noticed a change at Wayzata, too. Lombardi "almost sensed a little complacency" with the team's third state championship. "It was the idea that, 'This is what we do. This is what's expected.' "
Looking inward, Lombardi felt a growing disconnect from what he enjoyed about coaching.
"I thought, 'I love the kids, but I don't ever want to feel like the process is being undervalued,' " Lombardi said. "The process was the excitement of it."
Furthering his vision for Maple Grove required Lombardi to do some Wayzata myth-busting. He showed his new players the Trojans' 2010 defensive roster and players' unspectacular heights and weights. The size of their hearts was another matter.
"We had an outside linebacker at Wayzata last year that weighed 152 pounds, but he thought he was 190," Lombardi said. "That's the difference."
Through various methods, Lombardi has created greater interest in the team. Senior wide receiver Dan Butorac, a third-year varsity player for the Crimson, said expectations are high throughout "the whole community."
"Everyone is paying more attention to the team," he said. "I would say about 10, 20 more guys came out, so things are turning around for Crimson football. We should be a powerhouse pretty soon."
Butorac's outlook shows Lombardi has succeeded in generating the passion he could not see last season. Now the program and community expect to see better results on the scoreboard.
"High expectations aren't bad," Lombardi said. "If that's what they want, it's my job, in time, to deliver."