MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Shane Fairfield blew his whistle and waived his hands in the air after stopping a play before it even began for the third consecutive time.
“What is this you guys!” he shouted.
He began to explain to his offense what spot they were supposed to be in before the ball was snapped. It was another coaching moment, but one he’d like to do less repetitively in the final week of practice leading up to the 2021 season.
It’s moments like these that Fairfield has dealt with for 11 years as the head coach at Muskegon High School. By the end of the season, though, there are not many mistakes. There is usually more execution and excellence.
That’s because Fairfield has created a culture around Big Red football that reflects what every high school football team in the state strives for: winning.
Year in and year out, Muskegon is a powerhouse from the west side. Since 2004, championships and awards have come annually. They have accumulated three districts, 11 regionals and four state titles, plus several more in conference play. In the same time span, the Big Reds have 11 semifinal appearances and 10 trips to Ford Field.
Since Fairfield took over before the 2009-10 season, he has totaled a record of 122-22. Add in nine consecutive district championships, five straight regional titles and seven state finals berths with a Division 3 state crown in 2017.
All of these achievements didn’t build themselves overnight. It took a solid foundation at the start and it’s still one Fairfield preaches about to this day.
“It helps to have a really good tradition,” Fairfield said. “I’ve coached a lot of these guys’ brothers, coaches and uncles. Family is thick and that creates an expectation, you will be a Big Red, you’re going to play at Hackley Stadium and you’re going to win a lot of football games. The tradition does it for us and we set the bar high.
“The success could be pointed towards the coaches but at the end of the day it’s about what the young men do here and the standards they live up too.”
While those standards of winning have been met year in and year out with deep runs in the playoffs, last season was a tough ending for a team that felt poised to win a state championship.
In the state semifinals against Dewitt, the Big Reds were shutout 14-0 and fell short of a trip to Ford Field.
Muskegon went 9-2 — its only other loss in week two was to Mona Shores — in a season that was difficult for everyone in the state with all of the starts and stops due to COVID-19.
Fairfield is the kind of coach who does a lot of his coaching based off of personal relationships and hands-on material so he can get to know his personal as well as possible. Last season, that was difficult with masks and social distancing.
Zooms and virtual playbooks and everything else was not the way he would prefer to run a football team.
So while the veteran coach admits last season did not go as planned, he is ready to turn the page to another chapter of Big Red football.
“We are pretty successful year in and year out so we don’t stay too far away from that blueprint for success,” Fairfield said. “There is bad taste that we lost our last game, we want to put ourselves in a position to win our last game. Some of these kids remember and were there. It’s going to take a lot of work but it starts with East Kentwood Friday night.”
One of the kids Fairfield is referring to is starting senior linebacker Meshaune Crowley, who helped the Big Red defense hold opponents to just over 13 points per game.
He said his team is ready to hit the field and show what they can do with a fresh start.
“We have to keep getting better day by day like coach (Fairfield) preaches,” Crowley said. “We just have to come in here and do what we have to do. This time, we want to finish.”
That everyday grind was something Crowley said he tries to lead his teammates through on a daily basis. His coach set a good example for that a season ago.
After the second pause due to coronavirus in December, Fairfield elected to have necessary shoulder surgery. Even through the pain and with his arm in a sling, he kept putting the headset on week in and week out.
That is the kind of toughness — mentally and physically — that Fairfield has instilled in players that come through those gates to play at Hackley Stadium, a stadium that Fairfield is excited to have Big Red fans returning to in 2021.
“It’s just a brotherhood mentality that we have here and it goes a long way,” Fairfield said. “From the players, to the coaches, to the fans that support us week in and week out. They opened it up a little bit last year, but to be back here at Hackley in two weeks is going to be fun. We had a scrimmage here that was full of fans and kind of got that taste back.
“But you can’t play as many years of football as we have with fans like we have and forget about it, we definitely felt it and are looking forward to having them back.”
The Big Reds start the season on the road against East Kentwood, who stumbled to 2-4 last season, but Fairfield still expects to be a physical opponent. They then return home to a challenge from the east side against Detroit Cass Tech. Later in the season, the Big Reds have back-to-back treacherous road tests against Mona Shores (winner of back-to-back Division 2 State titles) and Reeths-Puffer.
Before either of those road games or any sight of the playoffs comes into view for Muskegon, it wants to focus on what is in front of them: winning the next one.
“We just want to control the game with what we can control,” Fairfield said. “This being penalties, turnovers, misalignments and mistackles. Those are the things that are the controllables we need to control and hopefully manage the uncontrollables as they come our way.
“We try to make practice as chaotic as possible to deal with those situations, once they can do that, we can worry about what happens in the game.”
While mistakes are inevitably going to happen on a football field, minimizing them is how Fairfield has built a winning culture at Muskegon as a coach.
Winning doesn’t just happen when the lights are on: it takes a lot of whistles and repetition when they aren’t. Just ask the Big Reds.