Every tradition has its starting point.
For Center Grove’s football program, it began one spring day in 1999 when Eric Moore, then 37, sat atop the hill near the southwest corner of the school’s football stadium pondering his future.
He was a divorced father of two coaching in Florida, his children having moved with their mother to Columbus a year earlier.
Moore yearned to be closer to them. He envisioned both this and installing his philosophies into a football program with one sectional championship to its credit.
Seven sectional and regional titles, two semistate crowns and one Class 5A state championship later, it’s safe to say what was and what is are drastically different.
Moore understood the Trojans’ program was a sleeping giant that, if awakened, could contend with the big boys on a consistent basis. With Center Grove part of the newly formed Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference that includes Carmel, Warren Central and Ben Davis, among others, it’s not like he had a choice.
“When I was coaching in Florida, Cam Cameron, who was the coach at Indiana (University) at the time and my teammate at IU, would always come by my school,” said Moore, then head coach at Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda, Fla., 100 miles south of Tampa.
Through Cameron, Moore would occasionally hear of job openings in and around central Indiana. Moore even interviewed at Lawrence North High School — “for about 12 seconds,” he said. That job eventually, and somewhat ironically, went to Kevin King, head football coach at Center Grove from 1991-98. King left Center Grove to accept the Lawrence North position.
When the Trojans’ position opened, 53 applications reached the desk of athletics director Jon Zwitt. Moore’s was among them.
“To be honest, Eric didn’t even make the first cut,” Zwitt recalled. “The first thing we had to do was go through a weeding-out process. We got down to the final eight, and he wasn’t in the final eight.”
Fate quickly intervened.
Former Center Grove principal Jim Mervilde liked the coach’s resume. And just like that, Moore, who had been voted the Florida Athletic Coaches Association coach of the year in 1996 and ‘97, was now a contender.
“Finally we said, ‘OK, we’ll throw him in the mix,’” Zwitt said. “Really, Eric was the dark horse.”
Zwitt interviewed the coach on the telephone and in person. He was, and continues to be, sold on Moore’s ability to teach, motivate and train young athletes both on the football field and on the 400-meter all-weather surface track that surrounds it.
Hired as head football coach and boys varsity track coach, Moore so far has posted a 128-48 record as football coach, including the Class 5A state title in 2008. The Trojans were runners-up in 2000. In track, he led Center Grove to the 2011 IHSAA state championship.
“The nice thing about Eric is he doesn’t just work with the football kids; he makes the other coaches here work harder,” Zwitt said. “It’s a great fraternity of coaches we have. Success breeds success.”
Moore’s first order of business would be to alter attitudes. Playing football in an unforgiving league such as the MIC, particularly against schools with double the enrollment as his, would also require a clean break from the past in terms of game-night appearance.
White helmets with the player’s number in red would become the norm. White pants and red jerseys at home, white-on-white during road games.
“That is what we are. That is what we stand for,” said Moore, who remains strongly opposed to changing the program’s look simply to appear cutting-edge. “Uniform guys come in now and say how other schools will want the Center Grove look.
“Being copied is a compliment.”
Other aspects of the program also are emulated by other programs, among them the wing-T offense, which tonight’s semistate opponent, No. 1 Lawrence Central (13-0), operates.
Think coaching doesn’t matter? Since 1999, the Trojans have recorded a total of 18 wins against the Bermuda Triangle of Ben Davis, Warren Central and Carmel. Twice they’ve knocked Ben Davis from postseason competition. Their thrilling 36-33 defeat of Carmel in the 2008 final remains a popular discussion topic this time of year.
“Every year is going to be a different set of standards. We control the things we can control, our attitude and our effort,” Moore said. “When I got here I remember just by talking to a few of the kids, I was like, ‘Hey, I think we can do this.’
“The second year we went to the state championship game, and it’s been going ever since.”