For the first time in a decade, the East Kentwood High School football program ignited fans and made the community stand up and take notice. The Falcon squad went 8-1 in the regular season, losing only to West Ottawa. After grabbing a share of the OK Red Conference title, EK then sailed through 3 playoff games only to be stopped short of a trip to Ford Field by Clarkston in the state semifinals.
What was the key factor in the Falcon winning season? Although he would wave it off, new head coach Tony Kimbrough was the right man, at the right time, for Kentwood.
Growing up in Detroit, Kimbrough was an outstanding athlete in football, basketball, and baseball. He first attended Winston-Salem State University before making the decision to join the Marines. Once back in Michigan, Kimbrough returned to the gridiron at Grand Rapids Junior College. After a quick stint with GRJC, Kimbrough went to Western Michigan University where he led the Broncos to the 1988 MAC Championship while being named the Mid-American Conference Most Valuable Player.
His professional playing career included time in the Canadian Football League as well as the Arena Football league. Kimbrough worked as the offensive coordinator for the Utah Blaze in 2008. He has also had stops as the offensive line/quarterbacks coach at both Western Michigan and Grand Rapids Community College. Even with his accomplishments, Kimbrough remains humble and seems to brag about everyone else’s accomplishments by his own.
Kimbrough, who works as a behavioral specialist for East Kentwood High School, has a long association with the Falcons as an assistant coach. He actually interviewed to be the head coach of East Kentwood in 2007. John Keenoy, East Kentwood principal and a huge supporter of Kimbrough, convinced him he was ready. “When I didn’t get it I was really, truly disappointed,” said Kimbrough.
Still, Kimbrough remained tight with the Falcons. Although skilled as an offensive line and quarterbacks coach, Kimbrough wanted a challenge and served as the defensive coordinator for EK in 2013.
The call to lead the East Kentwood football team came in May 2014 as the Falcons had gone through 3 head coaches in as many seasons. What the Falcons needed more than anything was stability in its coaching staff and commitment from its players. Tony Kimbrough was their man. “All these kids wanted was someone who cared,” said Kimbrough. Although the coaching staff was a revolving door, many of the players had been playing together for years; first in Rocket football, then through the 56er and 78er programs.
Kimbrough knew the players, had experience coaching both sides of the ball, and brought the confidence the team required.
From the start, Kimbrough challenged the seniors on the team. “This is not my team,” he told them, “This is your team. I am just the conductor.” Senior player such as Kyle Friberg, Adam Racette, Michael Ivy, and John Keenoy, Jr. eagerly responded to the call.
“The summer was key.” emphasized Kimbrough. Not only did the players have to agree to 100% commitment to the program, they would be responsible for an attitude adjustment that would be the basis for their confidence later in the season. They had to commit to pooling their individual talents and learn the concept of family.
“FAMILY is an acronym,” explained Kimbrough, “It stands for Forget About Me I Love You.” This discipline came naturally to Kimbrough, both through military and gridiron training, who had learned that you need to depend on and love the man on your left and the man on your right.
In addition to the grueling summertime on-field practices, the two-a-days, and the weight room regimen, Kimbrough had a marine run several boot camp-type conditioning programs with the team. The concepts of brotherhood, interdependence, and trust became core values for the team, bonding the young men together. Their physical and mental toughness would serve them well during the season.
Although the East Kentwood Falcons were a game short of reaching their Ford Field appearance, the future remains bright for the team. Tony Kimbrough seems to have brought all the right ingredients for a long-term successful career in Kentwood. He brings his life experience, discipline, and excellent coaching skills on both sides of the ball. Kimbrough wants a stable program, from the Rocket players through the Seniors. He is proud that his players are already talking about next year. He laughs as he explains, “Jamari Booker (Junior) is so excited, he is already pulling guys in to the weight room.”
Perhaps the greatest values Kimbrough brings are confidence and humility, “It’s about the kids. It’s not about me.”
When asked about being named the MLive Grand Rapids Press Coach of the Year Kimbrough shakes his head, stating, “I only wish it was engraved ‘Coaches of the Year’,” giving credit to the many assistant coaches who work alongside him.
The future looks bright indeed for the East Kentwood Falcons. When asked if it going to be hard losing more than 25 seniors, Kimbrough thinks a moment, then smiles broadly, using the old cliché, “We don’t need to rebuild…we just need to reload!”
Look out OK Red, this coach is here to stay.