Millard West High School was born into football success. At least, that’s the way it may seem to the rest of Omaha. The school, which opened in 1995, has had only two seasons in which it finished below .500.
It’s surprising that a school with such a short history has cemented its position as an annual contender for the state title. Its head coach is no less surprising.
Kirk Peterson didn’t really want to be a head football coach. “I had dreams of being a head basketball coach,” he said. “I enjoyed it, but basketball was really what I wanted to do.” But opportunity knocked and Peterson answered. In the spring of 1998, Peterson was working in the office at Millard West when then head coach Dan McLaughlin entered and informed Peterson he would be the defensive coordinator for the next season.
The football program had seen growth through its first three seasons, but had yet to truly break through. With Peterson running the defense, that breakthrough would come. From 1998 through 2001, Millard West lost only six games, garnering two state runner-up trophies and a championship. The Wildcats, and Peterson, had arrived.
The quick advancement and the taste of success convinced Peterson that football was his future. When McLaughlin left for Wayne State College following the 2002 season, Peterson became the head Wildcat.
In his first three seasons at the helm, Peterson guided Millard West to eight or more wins each year, including a berth in the state semifinal in 2005.
But as smooth as the transition looked on paper, Peterson had his struggles. Teaching Special Education and serving as a head coach was proving to be challenging. Peterson says he told his principal that he was unsure if he could continue. “I was starting a family and I was like, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”
Peterson wanted out of special education. The workload and attention necessary were taxing. And there were opportunities arising that could see him leaving the only football team he’d ever coached. “Right around that time, I had an opportunity to maybe pursue something down in Kansas City at the high school level,” he said. “I was wanting to be a football coach probably a little more than a classroom teacher.”
And at home in Omaha, the head coaching position at Burke High School had opened. It was a position that looked enticing to Peterson. It could mean leaving behind Special Education while still heading up a football program. “I wanted in P.E. (physical education) I had some contacts at Omaha Public Schools.”
It was time to make a decision. To help him, Peterson relied on the first, best resource available: his parents.
“My dad coached everything you could coach. That’s how you survived in the ’70s and ’80s in education,” he said. “My mom was a teacher and a department head.”
Despite the allure of new opportunities, Peterson, advised by his parents, decided to stay at the place where he’d cut his coaching teeth. “My wife and I made the ultimate decision that it probably wasn’t a good idea for us to leave at that particular point in our life,” he said.
And what a good decision it turned out to be. Peterson has run his career record to 129-41 in 15 seasons as Millard West’s head coach. He turned in the school’s second state championship in 2008, going 13-0 along the way. Under his tenure, Millard West has produced two players that are currently in the NFL, Matt Longacre of the Los Angeles Rams and Harrison Phillips of the Buffalo Bills.
“I’m just really proud of them,” Peterson said of the pair. “They’re great kids.”
Peterson is hard to miss on Friday nights. He looms large on the sideline, hat on backwards, staring down at reporters and players. But his imposing figure and stern face on the sideline can belie the easy smile and jovial nature he shows with his players on campus.
Good luck to the Millard West football team this season. Some of the best times of my life on those Friday nights. #LetsPlayFootball pic.twitter.com/XFjHj0CoUy
— Harrison Phillips (@horribleharry99) August 23, 2018
If Millard West was truly born into football success, then Kirk Peterson may well be its father. But winning has been no accident of birth. It’s been hard work, discipline, and some timely decisions. Peterson knows that.
“I’m not disappointed I didn’t go anywhere,” he says with a laugh. “I think I made a pretty good decision.”
Watch Millard West vs. Millard North on Friday, August 24th at 7:00pm CDT.