The college football coaching life hit John Blackstock like a blindside tackle.
Just four months into his 1997 tenure as an Eastern Michigan graduate assistant, he came into work and the defensive coordinator was gone, fired in the middle of the season.
A few weeks remained, but the Eagles’ struggles ended that coach’s season early.
Blackstock’s eyes opened to a college coach’s life and thought he’d like more stability.
Fortunately, the timing was perfect – for him and Lake Orion.
As Blackstock prepares for his first game as the Dragons’ head coach, Thursday at 7 p.m. at Chippewa Valley, he and the football program appreciate the fortunate meeting nearly two decades ago.
“I was just calling colleges, saying we may have some teaching jobs available, I’m looking for guys you recommend and would be good coaches,” recalled Chris Bell, who was Lake Orion's new head coach in 1998, looking to energize his program. “At Central Michigan, the guys up there raved about John.”
Bell made Blackstock one of his first hires and spent the next 19 years with Blackstock by his side, watching the secondary and the special teams grow under the steady, measured approach.
While Bell thought he would coach for the rest of his life, his new job as the high school’s athletic director last fall made that too much to handle.
So he quietly told Blackstock the transition was a possibility and cracked open the window into the head coaching world.
The 2016 season concluded and, in January, the transition became official and public.
When Bell hinted last season he may be departing, Blackstock watched every move much closer as the secondary coach and special teams coordinator.
“I never envisioned him stepping down or stepping back,” Blackstock said. “Yet at the same time I’m very excited.” Soon after he took the job, Blackstock began implementing his own tweaks.
The team will have four tenets: together (as a team and for the team), toughness (event + response = outcome), relentless effort (football, schoolwork, home life, community) and others-centered leadership (taking care of other people.) “Those core values are really important in football and in life,” he said. “Ultimately that’s what we’re doing. Yeah, we want to win football games, but I want to develop young men.”
Proud of his “buzzwords,” he has spent most of his life preparing for the opportunity.
Blackstock’s coaching role models all had a common theme of patience and focus, one he brings to the top job.
The head coaching mentors – his father at Bad Axe High School, Herb Deromedi and Dick Flynn at Central Michigan, and Bell at Lake Orion – were teachers, not screamers.
The demeaning aspects of coaching work for some, but that was never Blackstock’s approach.
He knows championships, lining up primarily as a special teams player on the Chippewas’ 1994 Mid-American Conference title team – the ring he still wears on his right hand -- and working as an assistant on Lake Orion’s 2010 state title team.
“I think back to ‘98, my first year here, going to the semifinal and having a really great team that I don’t think anybody expected to do that well,” Blackstock recalled. “There’s been so many other (memorable) games, leading up to the state final games.”
His father became the Bad Axe coach when John on the team. Deromedi, who took him in as a walk-on, became a College Football Hall of Famer.
And Bell coached 19 years, finishing with a 149-59 record, winning nearly 72% of his games. So Blackstock knows there’s pressure.
“Absolutely,” he said. But there was always a feeling that he could serve kids in the best way possible, on and off the field.
“What was impressive about John was he was committed to being the best he could be,” Deromedi said. “As I watched him during the course of his athletic experience, I was always impressed with that. I had no doubt he would go on some point in time and be a coach. I think he initially got involved with the college scene but I’m extremely pleased he’s involved with Lake Orion High School. He’s the exact type of coach a parent and a player can be excited about being a part of.”
All along, Blackstock was taking notes.
When he was younger they were mental, watching how a coach treated his players, what he did in uncomfortable situations.
As he got older, those notes began filling a binder with thoughts about practice, weightlifting, even team travel.
Over the years, he pored through coaching and leadership books, locking in on the lessons of great coaches, admiring a few head coaches in particular, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald.
“Relationships have been the big key, having that respect between player and coach,” Blackstock said. “You’re trying to push them academically and socially and athletically. To do that you’ve got to have a relationship. Because when you’re being pushed it’s not always easy and it’s not always fun, but also being able to walk off the field and put your arm around them or have their arm put around you as a player. And reassure it’s going to be okay.”
The biggest question: What will Blackstock do on the field?
The program is looking for a second straight playoff appearance, but is a few years removed from being a regular contender, its last seven-win season coming in 2013.
“I don’t know from the outside it will look that different,” he said. “I use the analogy it’s like buying a house. Some houses you go in and rip ’em down and start over. This one, the foundation has been solid with the community support and support of the administration. Our coaching staff has been really solid and for the most part are coming back. “We might paint some rooms a little bit different or take some wallpaper down in this room to give it an identity, but that happens every year with a new group of seniors and juniors.”
There may be a few plays that look like something from years ago at Lake Orion or a package that was borrowed from another program.
But the overall construct of the program won’t change much.
“We really want to stick with the Lake Orion tradition,” Blackstock said. “How we coach and treat kids won’t change.”
Bell built that modern tradition, so for him to trust another coach with it was a major step. But Blackstock was his ideal choice.
“He’s always worked very closely with me,” Bell said. “John’s specialty has always been very organized. We’ve really tried to study how we coach kids. “How do we most effectively handle and coach kids in the most effective way possible? That’s John. John has a huge moral compass in terms of how he does things.”