MIAMI — Zach Gardner is ready to move on to a new challenge.
Gardner, who helped Afton roll to a Class A state football championship, now will try to turn the Miami program around.
“I feel we got to establish everything we could in Class A football and now I am ready to move on to a new challenge,” Gardner said during a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 14, shortly after he had received a unanimous vote of approval by members of the Miami Board of Education during a special meeting.
His hiring caps a hectic month that saw Northeastern A&M head coach Clay Patterson resign to accept a position at Minnesota, Zach Allen promoted to Golden Norse head coach and former Wardog coach Andrew Rice hired as Allen’s offensive coordinator.
“Things happened quickly,” Gardner said. “It’s been a very exciting time for me and my family. It’s a big adjustment, but things fell into place.”
Gardner wowed Miami Public Schools superintendent Jeremy Hogan during the interview process.
“I had never met Zach until he interviewed here and I walked out of there, I told Coach Davis ‘that’s the guy,’” Hogan said.
“It’s hard to say what it was specifically — it was a multitude of things, not only his success on the field but as a person,” Hogan said. “He’s a great person. A great Christian man and the kids relate to him. Today if kids don’t believe in you and don’t know you care, they won’t play for you. I knew the kids would want to come out and play for him.
“We made steps in the right direction.”
Gardner didn’t seek the Miami job a year ago when Rice was hired because of unfinished business with the Eagles.
The Eagles returned virtually every cog of a team that went 12-0 before losing 43-15 to Hominy in the 2016 Class A semifinals.
“We didn’t quite get it done,” Gardner said. “It was a bitter deal, but to be able to finish it off the next year made the transition easier.”
Afton routed Crescent 44-20 in the ’17 championship game at Owasso — the site of the semifinal loss a year earlier — to put the caps on a 14-0 season.
The Eagles were one of only four unbeaten teams in the state of Oklahoma in 2017.
The others? State champions Carl Albert in Class 5A, Heritage Hall in 4A and Millwood in 2A.
Gardner was 99-33 in his 11 seasons at Afton.
He had one losing season during his tenure at Afton — 5-6 in 2015 — but Eagles have won 26 of their last 27 games.
“The kids’ hard work paid off for them,” Gardner said. “We had a very talented group. The administration and everybody like that has been second to none all along the way, supporting the kids. This group of 16 seniors, what better way to go out than to win a state championship. It’s been a blessing.”
Gardner, who lives in Miami with his wife, Mindy, had been an assistant coach in football, wrestling and baseball and a physical education instructor at Wilson and Washington elementary schools from June 2004 to June 2006.
He also served a spring internship in the Miami school district in 2004.
Gardner was here during the second of Rich Jones’ two years here and the first two of the Chris Risenhoover era.
“Everything happens for a reason in life and I feel like this is a big thing that God has in front of me,” Gardner said.
Gardner broke the news to his Afton players Monday on a bus to Oklahoma City, where the Eagles were honored by the state legislature.
He wanted players to hear the news from him instead of learning about it on social media.
“They are a very mature group, even the younger ones,” Gardner said. “They understood that it’s a business as well. They took it very well.”
Afton superintendent Randy Gardner — father of the new Wardog coach — said a search for a replacement is under way.