By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The great tenure came to an end today.
Dale Mueller stepped down as Head Football Coach of the vaunted Highlands Bluebirds today. He finished 309-67 in 29 years as a head coach and 250-36 in 20 seasons at Highlands.
Mueller, 59, goes down as the longest-tenured head coach in school history. He took over in 1994 after head coaching stints at Cincinnati Withrow and Cincinnati Sycamore. Mueller also served as an assistant coach at Cincinnati Western Hills and Newport High before becoming a head coach.
“It has been planned for a year,” Mueller said. “I told my family last December that I was going to coach this last football season and that was going to be it. Then I told the administration at Highlands – the principal (Brian Robinson) and superintendent (Gene Kirschner) that I was going to retire. But I didn’t tell the players or coaches until today because I didn’t want this year to be all about Dale Mueller. I wanted it to be about (the players), not me.”
Mueller said the decision came for three reasons – energy, family and the need for new leadership. Mueller’s daughters got married during the summer dead periods. His family even ate Thanksgiving Dinner in the middle of the day because he had football practice at night.
“I just don’t have the energy now to be the head football coach that is needed to do the job at Highlands correctly and be a husband, father and grandfather,” Mueller said. “I would like for my time to revolve around family time instead of their time revolving around my time. I feel great about the job I did. The next head coach will do a better job than I’ve done and will take the football program up another level. It will be even more fun to be on the Highlands football program.”
Some programs stumble after legendary head coaches retire. The winningest program in the country in Valdosta (Georgia) has 23 state championships, but none since 1998 when Nick Hyder was head coach. The Wildcats have had several head coaches since then playing in a tough region in south Georgia. The Bluebirds own a lifetime record of 855-227-26 entering their 100th season as a program good for second in the country.
The Bluebirds finished 13-2 this past season. They lost 37-34 to Collins in the Class 4A state championship on Saturday at Western Kentucky University. The Bluebirds graduate 31 seniors from that team.
“There have always been rumors about (his retirement),” said Drew Houliston, Highlands senior. “We feel pretty bad we couldn’t get a win in his last game. We’re going to miss him. He’s more than just a football coach. He’ll impact us the rest of our lives.”
Mueller, a 1973 Highlands alum, finishes ranked 18th in Kentucky in terms of all-time wins. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association only recognizes wins at Kentucky High Schools on that list. But his record of 11-3 in state championship games ranks higher than anyone else on it.
“The (teams) are all special,” Mueller said. “I never had a year where I said, ‘Wow. I didn’t enjoy that year. I’ve just been really lucky and blessed to be a football coach. I just absolutely loved it.”
The first state championship for the Bluebirds under Mueller came in 1996 over Hopkinsville. Current Campbell County Head Coach Stephen Lickert started for that team.
“When you’re a young kid, you really look up to your parents, but you also look up to your coaches,” Lickert said. “He had this train of thought that we could become invincible if we train and work hard enough. He was always so positive with us. I do a lot of the things in my program at Campbell County that he did when I was a sophomore trying to motivate the kids now.”
The Bluebirds ended up winning four state championships in five years after a tough loss to Covington Catholic in the 1997 playoffs known as the “Mud Bowl.” Jared Lorenzen quarterbacked the undefeated 1998 team and Gino Guidugli the 1999 and 2000 squads that lost just once each year.
“He’s not a football coach,” Lorenzen said. “He’s trying to get the young men (at Highlands) to be good kids, be the best fathers and husbands, and be the best friends. That was him.”
Jake Donelan also played on varsity between 1998 and 2000. He played several positions including longsnapper.
“The thing that was cool about playing for Dale Mueller is that no matter if you were Gino Guidugli or someone else on the team that were the 20-something seniors we had, he always had a way of making everyone feel like they were a superstar,” Donelan said. “Maybe even better than that, out of the 20 years he coached football at Highlands, there was never a single snap that was taken in a Highlands football game that mattered about him. It was always about the guys on the field.”
Highlands won the title again in 2004. But the Bluebirds pulled off a state record six consecutive state championships starting in 2007. Patrick Towles quarterbacked Highlands to the titles in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
“Those were the greatest four years of my life,” Towles said. “One thing that he always talked about was that high school should be the greatest four years of your life. He was a phenomenal man, a phenomenal leader and as much a father figure to all of us as he was a coach. One thing he always wrote in our playbooks before the year was our goals and they always said: to win the state championship, to beat Covington Catholic (High School), to win the national championship and the last was to be better men.”
Towles and fellow 2012 Highlands graduate Austin Sheehan currently play football at the University of Kentucky. Sheehan played wide receiver for the Bluebirds.
“This is a surprise,” Sheehan said. “My Dad told me an hour or two ago and I have been thinking about it since then. It was an honor to have him as a coach. I couldn’t believe that this day has come, but I understand his decision and respect him wanting to spend more time with his family.”
Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Brian Weinrich is the leading candidate to take over the job. The 1990 Highlands alum has been on Mueller’s staff the last 19 years and helped the Bluebirds to a state championship as a player in 1989. But Mueller said that would be up to Robinson and Kirschner.
“I will have input into that,” Mueller said. “I certainly have feelings, but I don’t want to mess up the process or put any words into their mouths because they’re the decision makers in that.”
Mueller said things could not have gone the way they did without the community. Highlands has a number of players show up for offseason workouts starting in January.
“It just all builds together – the players, the coaches, the players,” Mueller said. “There are so many people that value the education and high school sports. There is just such great support.”
Mueller will still continue in his roles as teacher and Director of Athletics through the 2014-15 academic year. The Cornell University alum teaches Chemistry at Highlands.