LIMA — For a long time, Lima Senior football coaches resigning was routine. But this was different.
While the others produced shrugs, Mike Fell’s resignation sent out shock waves when it was announced Thursday.
Other Lima Senior football coaches have won more games, but no one has ever organized a bigger turnaround than Fell did in his three seasons as the Spartans’ head coach.
Lima Senior won 22 games the last three seasons after winning only 20 in the 12 seasons before he was hired in 2013.
Lima Senior football had cratered before he took over. The Spartans did not win more than three games in a season in the 12 years before he arrived and were 0-10 in 2012.
But Lima Senior won five games, eight games and nine games the last three seasons, made two playoff appearances and got the school’s first playoff victory since 1996 this season.
Fell said he and his wife, Lisa, will move to Phoenix, where their daughter, Sam, lives at the end of the school year.
He expects to coach in some capacity in the future and has already applied for high school head coaching jobs in the Phoenix area.
“I’m too young to get out. I’m younger than Nick Saban, I’m younger than half the coaches in the NFL. I’d probably have to be a midget football coach, if nothing else,” Fell said.
The 54-year-old Fell, a 1979 Lima Senior graduate, has a career record of 191-94 in 26 seasons as a head coach at Columbus Grove, Celina, Ada and Lima Senior. All seven of his teams at Ada qualified for the playoffs and his Columbus Grove teams reached the postseason four times.
“I’m really happy with what we’ve done here. I think we started something great here,” Fell said. “It’s a great feeling to have young men buy into what you’re talking about and what you believe in.”
On the day he was introduced as Lima Senior’s new coach three years ago, Fell said, “It’s a big challenge and I’m not naïve enough to think it’s an easy thing to do. It’s a big challenge and I think it’s worth the time.”
Fell, a two-year starter at quarterback for the Spartans in 1977 and 1978, successfully sold his program to athletes who hadn’t had much success on the football field for a long time.
“When I got the job in Lima, they said guys won’t lift weights. They said you can’t keep them out, they want to play basketball. The bottom line is they wanted someone to invest the time and say, ‘This is what you have to do.’ The bottom line is you have to lift weights, you have to come to practice, you have to follow the rules, you have to go to class.
“Basically, you raise the expectations. If you raise their expectations, they will get it done. We had a great group of athletes but you will always have a great group of athletes at Lima Senior. And once you start winning, it’s contagious,” he said.
Wide receiver Ruben Flowers, who will sign with the University of Pittsburgh in February, said the changes went beyond the football field.
“I can see a lot of changes. We had a reason to go to class, we had a reason to get better grades and help out in the community. Now it’s not just our parents who are worried about us, it is other people outside of our parents, our coaches and our teachers. It made us work harder and made our attitudes more positive,” he said.
Lima Senior athletic director John Zell said the opening for a head football coach has been posted and that applications will be taken until Jan. 30, with interviews to follow.
Lima Senior has 12 returning starters but loses key players like Flowers, the Three Rivers Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, TRAC Defensive Player of the Year Jaylin Thomas, quarterback Darius Gordon, running back Demontay Liles and receiver Rico Stafford.
Lima schools superintendent Jill Ackerman said Fell’s leaving “is bittersweet and it’s sad.”
“But we look at it with excitement in that we can hopefully bring in a great coach, maybe someone with some longevity and integrate them into our school system. We will have teaching positions available,” she said. “It (winning) is not only good for our school system, it’s good for the community. If kids feel good about themselves and proud, they’re going to be successful in school.”
Fell is the third Three Rivers Athletic Conference football coach to resign this week. Whitmer and Fremont Ross also have openings.