By JIMMY WIGFIELD
New Theodore coach Steve Mask sought to reassure his players in their first meeting Thursday they are in capable hands as they seek to climb the last few stairs to a state football championship.
With the players assembled in desks before him, Mask left no doubt as to the Bobcats’ goal — winning a Blue Map, something he did four times at St. Paul’s in a hall of fame career.
“I’m super excited and super honored,” Mask said after the meeting. “I thought it went great. Some of them may think it didn’t but from reading their body language and their eyes, I thought it was a very, very good first team meeting.”
Mask, who was inducted into the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2020, brings the legitimacy of the four state football championships he won with the Saints to a school yearning for its first.
Star Bobcats linebacker Bobby Pruitt — who has received offers from nearly three-dozen schools, including Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida, Texas A&M, Colorado and Miami — said he respects his new coach’s reputation and sees similarities between Mask and former Theodore coach Eric Collier, who moved to the college ranks after leading the program to the best three-year span (33-5) in school history.
“Coach Mask has a good history and he reminds me of coach Collier,” Pruitt said. “They have the same mindset. I think he will push us and coach us hard like coach Collier did. He’s a good man and has a lot of energy and he knows what he’s doing. I respect him. I like him. I like our chances with him.”
Mask was introduced to his new players by Theodore principal Tim Hardegree, who once served as Mask’s defensive coordinator at St. Paul’s.
“He was in his element,” Hardegree said. “All he needs is that spark and to be put in front of those players. He isn’t done coaching football. He has the passion and desire to win a state championship and that is exactly what I was looking for.”
Mask, 66, won the job on Hardegree’s recommendation and the Mobile County School Board is expected to officially approve Mask on March 27.
“Coach Mask is a hall of fame coach who has been associated with eight state championships in his career,” Hardegree said. “His credentials are unmatched in a lot of territories. He knows what it takes to get to the state championship and win it. He knows how to get to November.”
Mask never had a losing season at St. Paul’s, going 110-25 in 10 years and winning the Class 5A state championship in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2020. The Saints finished 15-0 in 2014 and 2020.
Mask left St. Paul’s after the 2021 season for Pell City but after a 1-9 finish there in 2022 broke a streak of 15 straight winning seasons and 15 straight playoff appearances for Mask with the Saints and Colbert County, he resigned to succeed Collier, who left Theodore to become the director of football development at the University of South Alabama.
Under Collier, the Bobcats were so close, yet so far away, to winning their first Blue Map in 2022 when they reached their first semifinal before losing to eventual Class 6A state champion Saraland 21-6. But they also gave the Spartans their only loss a few weeks earlier, 27-26.
“They came within a game last year and once you get that close, you won’t be satisfied until you win it,” Mask said. “That has to be your goal and you have to have a system and a process to get there. It will take a lot of hard work to get there.”
Pruitt said he is on the same page with Mask.
“We’ve just got to get our chemistry and we’ll be on the road,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to come together. I feel like we can do it but we’ve got to put in the work.”
Tough team needed for a tough road
The work will be demanding as Theodore must compete in 6A Region 1 — arguably the most challenging in the state — with Saraland and four other schools which have won state championships in the last quarter-century.
“There are five teams in our region with a Blue Map in their house — St. Paul’s, Saraland, Spanish Fort, Blount, McGill-Toolen — and that says it all,” Mask said. “We haven’t won one and our goal is to get on that same level.”
Saraland will almost certainly be the preseason favorite to win a second straight state championship this fall but Mask said he is looking forward to being part of a growing rivalry with coach Jeff Kelly and his Spartans which will likely carry state championship implications.
“We have great respect for what Jeff has done there,” Mask said. “They haven’t just crept up. Right now, they are the top dog. It’s going to be intense.”
Kelly said he welcomes Mask’s return to a region that could be a proving ground for state champions.
“I think it’s an outstanding hire for Theodore,” Kelly said. “It’s a great program and we’ve had some great battles over the last three years. They’ve got tremendously talented players and I think they’ll continue to be who they are. They’ll be a great challenge for everyone in Region 1. They won the region last year and probably should be the favorites this year. They’re going to make it tough on everybody. I’ve got tremendous respect for everything coach Mask has accomplished over the years and we look forward to competing with him.”
While Mask will gradually put his own stamp on the Bobcats, he indicated their identity will not change.
“When you have a coaching change, it takes a little time to get to that point but it’s going to be great,” Mask said. “The biggest thing is we’re trying to acclimate ourselves to the kids and coaches and get involved in the community. I don’t even know who will be the starters and we’re going to need the spring to figure it out.”
Mask noted he had success at St. Paul’s the same way Collier did at Theodore — with a physical running game and strong run defense. Mask’s Saints allowed an average of 14.5 points per game in his 10 seasons there and his four state championship teams surrendered 12.6. Those numbers would have been in the top three in all of Class 6A last year, when the Bobcats were second statewide at 11.4 per game.
“If you look at what we did (at St. Paul’s), it was very similar as far as the philosophy,” Mask said. “I feel like our philosophies marry up with what’s going on here. When you showed up to play (Theodore), you better be ready because they were really tough. They were well-coached and you knew they were going to bring it — they were going to play a very physical game offensively and certainly on defense.”
Pruitt said he is ready to do his part as a senior leader and isn’t taking success or a starting position for granted.
“Coach told me, ‘I need you to be a leader and keep the young guys straight,’” Pruitt said. “At the end of the day, we’ve still got to play ball and do what we’re told. I know I’ve got to prove myself and show him he can trust me. He has heard I’ve got all these offers but I’ve got to show him I’m good.”
Had the right answers
Hardegree said he sifted through 72 applications and conducted six interviews but Mask, as he has done so often in his career, finished first.
“When the job came open, before we had even gotten into the process, he called me,” Hardegree said. “We advertised it for two weeks, of course, but when coach Mask came down to talk, he was organized and had a plan for everything. He has an answer for everything. Of everybody we interviewed, he was the most organized and well-spoken candidate. He showed a lot of passion and desire for the job and communicated with me on a daily basis.”
Mask, who said Hardegree offered him the job on Tuesday, was attracted to it for many reasons.
“The first thing is the community,” he said. “Do they love football? Theodore loves football. Is the administration going to be behind you? This administration is. Then there’s the kids. All those things are here.”
Added Hardegree: “I know the entire Theodore community will love him.”
Mask, a native of Muscle Shoals, is 211-107 overall in 27 years as a head coach in Alabama, including jobs at Bradshaw, Buckhorn and Colbert County.
Mask has had only seven losing seasons in 27 years and his teams have won seven region championships. His St. Paul’s teams were 29-6 in the playoffs and Mask is 42-16 overall in the postseason.
Mask inherits a Theodore program Collier built into one of the state’s best. He led the Bobcats to six straight playoff appearances, including the best season in school history when they finished 13-1 in 2022. Collier also developed 82 college signees and 33 all-state football players in his 10 years there.
“Eric Collier set the bar high, set the standard, and I had the major responsibility to go out and find the right fit for Theodore and somebody who could carry that standard,” Hardegree said.
www.thecallnews.com was the first media outlet to report Mask’s hiring Wednesday morning.