“Our school and our kids have come to expect to win.” Before Mike Huffman took over the football program, it wasn’t always the case at Bellevue West.
From 1995 — West’s first appearance in the playoffs — until 2012, the Thunderbirds qualified for the postseason 14 times. Not bad. But they rarely advanced past the first round. The school had only won three playoff games ever. The regular season success wasn’t paying off in the postseason. It was clear that something wasn’t working.
Huffman assumed the role of head coach in 2013. He was young, energetic, and visionary. He’d just taken Fort Calhoun, a program with very little prior success, to the third round of the playoffs for the first time ever. From the outside it was exciting.
Inside, things still needed to change.
“I figured out quickly that the strength levels weren’t very good,” Huffman said. Players didn’t do much in the way of offseason workouts. They were small. They were slow. They weren’t being trained.
But Huffman’s wild ideas about offense, constant energy and very few punts worked almost immediately. The Thunderbirds went 6-3 and made the playoffs again. It seemed they’d crossed a threshold. But on the other side stood Grand Island. The team from central Nebraska, often overlooked.
Just as they had the previous four years, Bellevue West lost in the first round of the playoffs. “I threw that video on,” Huffman said. “Holy smokes. I thought I was watching slow motion. Our linemen weren’t physical. Our guys were jogging.” The Islanders crushed all of the new-kid-in-town excitement, winning 35-27 over Huffman’s Thunderbirds.
Papillion-LaVista South did it again in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, 42-21. But 2015 was different.
Huffman and company blazed through the regular season, scoring more than 40 points in 8 of 9 games. Current Nebraska Cornhusker Jaylin Bradley took the metro by storm, racking up 1700 yards on the ground. Quarterback Jadyn Kowalski continued his career assault on the record books with more than 3,100 yards through the air. They were 9-0 and flying high. Everything was working. Two more wins in the playoffs came in decisive fashion. And there it was.
Bellevue West had reached its first ever state semifinal in football in only the third year under Huffman. But how had he done it so quickly?
It started with offseason training and mandatory weight lifting. But eliminating two-way players was probably the next biggest factor. “I just feel that an average kid fresh is better than a good kid tired,” Huffman said. Sure, he’s had athletes that could have been dominant on both sides of the ball. But his own experience as a player, and assistant coach, led him to his unique way of managing his roster.
His practices are short and intense. None of the three-hour marathons he endured as an assistant at Burke, where every player played both sides of the ball. Each player focuses intently on his craft at a very specific position. That has bred precision in his offense and confidence in the defense.
“I think that’s one of the reasons we’re so successful in the second half of games,” Huffman said. “We’ll be playing good games and then, lo and behold, the second half we kind of pull away.”
Back to that 2015 semifinal. Bellevue West wasn’t able to pull away from Millard North. The game was tied at the end of regulation. Millard North’s gamble to go for two after scoring in the first overtime paid off. The undefeated and seemingly unbeatable Thunderbirds fell, 35-34.
The next season, Huffman went to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln and came back with a trophy. In just his fourth year at the helm, he’d take the team who “couldn’t win in November,” to the summit of high school football in Nebraska.
Two years on, Bellevue West is again in the semifinals — their third in four years. As all good stories do, this one circles back to the beginning.
“It’s funny because we we’re playing Grand Island. We haven’t played them since the first time we were in the playoffs,” Huffman said.
It remains to be seen what happens when the Islanders visit Faiman Field. Regardless of the outcome, it’s pretty clear that the Thunderbirds have ascended. And Huffman isn’t going anywhere.
“I’ve got the best job in America