After a film session and coaches meeting Saturday afternoon, Zac Harrell had an opportunity to sit down in a team room under the bleachers at Stuart B. Lumpkins Stadium and talk proudly of Ennis Lions football.
And rightfully so. The Harrell name has long been synonymous with the Lions program, rivaled only by the curse words attached by Waxahachie supporters between his father’s name, Sam Harrell, and those Ennis Lions.
Hold that tongue though, Waxahachie, you now have one of those exact Lions with the same last name leading your offensive unit. Friday’s 97th meeting between Waxahachie and Ennis will also be a homecoming for Zac, the new Indian offensive coordinator and eldest son of the hall-of-fame head coach.
THE 2000 SEASON
Before the Lions took the field in 1999 for Zac's junior season, Sam Harrell made a career-altering change in coaching philosophy. He threw out his I-formation playbook and adopted the spread offense.
Zac explained the change in offensive scheme came at precisely the right time, as the Lions did not have the lineman on the roster to out-man teams in the trenches. They did, however, have skill players and plenty of them.
“If we would have stayed in the I (formation), we wouldn’t have won a state championship. There is no doubt about it because we didn’t have the kids and that is why dad changed,” Zac said. “[...] It was a pretty unique experience not only to win the state championship but for us to go to the spread and then two years later win a state championship.”
The transition not only paid off with the three-eventual state titles — the first in 2000 alongside Zac — but also instant success against the Tribe.
The Lions bested the Indians just twice from 1994 — Sam’s first year in Ennis — to the turn of the century. They then won nine times from 2000-09, which was when he left the game to battle off the field against multiple sclerosis. He won that one too, by the way, and has a career 146-46 record with the Lions.
“To win a state championship was unbelievable,” Zac said. “And I still think of every game that year and those memories. It was a pretty awesome experience to not only win it but win it with your dad coaching.”
Zac finished that season with 25 catches for 304 yards and one touchdown, according to records maintained by Ennis Football on Facebook. Of those numbers, it was a completion late in a blowout against Red Oak — not from starting quarterback Tate Wallace — that still stands out just a little more vividly than the rest.
It was the first varsity completion by little brother, Graham, who went on to complete 788 more passes for 12,527 yards and 167 touchdowns over his high school career.
THE MISSING GENE
After Zac helped win the 2000 state title as a wide receiver, Graham quarterbacked the Lions to a championship one year later.
Clark, the youngest of the three Harrell boys, then helped dad win a third state championship when he was a junior in 2004.
Unfortunately, Clark did not play after breaking several bones in his foot during the second game of the season. That game just so happened to be the 83rd Battle of 287, which Ennis won 23-6.
The Lions then double-dipped the Indians with an 84th rendition of the storied rivalry in the area round of the playoffs later that season, winning 36-10.
Zac has no problem admitting that it was Clark, not he or Graham, who was the best athlete of the bunch.
He also has a theory behind why he didn’t pan out as a signal caller.
“I guess I wasn't blessed with the same quarterback gene as those two were,” Zac laughed. “I played quarterback in junior high, I was actually the white team quarterback in 7th and 8th grade, but it became evident to me as a freshman that I wasn't ever going to be able to play quarterback.”
In hindsight, Zac said he was just happy to be able to contribute to the Lions successes on the field.
ALWAYS AN INDIAN?
Though he claims to have missed the “quarterback gene,” it is quite clear that all three Harrell boys have coaching infused within their DNA. Zac is at Waxahachie, while Graham is the offensive coordinator at the University of North Texas and Clark is in the same role at Sealy High.
Zac isn’t surprised by the career choice, either.
“I never really thought about anything else. My dad was a coach. My granddad was a coach. That is all I knew was coaching in sports,” he explained. “Really, until however old I was when I thought about what I wanted to do, coaching was all I ever thought about. Dad used to always say, ‘ I can't believe they pay me to do this job.’ It is not really a job. It is something we have a passion for and that is very enjoyable.”
He added, “I love coaching because number one you get to have an impact on kids, and you can change kids lives, and football or sports gives you that avenue to change kids lives. I saw that living with Dad because we had numerous kids who would live with us for periods of time because they had nowhere else to go. That impacted me.”
He even explained the draw to Waxahachie began long before head coach Todd Alexander reached out in April. It also never wavered even after Sam accepted the head-coaching job in Ennis — which made a few Indians nervous as Zac was temporarily living there while in the transition from Van.
“I have always thought Waxahachie would be a great place to coach and I was excited about coming to Waxahachie. I had already taken this job and, number one, I wasn't going to back out of it. Number two, I don't think that they could have offered me an anything that would have been better than what I have here in Waxahachie. I am happy to be here and I never really entertained the thought.
“Now everyone is wearing maroon and I'm wearing green,” he laughed. “I have said this a few times, but now that I've taken this job, I am all Indian. The only reason that I was a Lion was Dad happened to coach there, but it's not like I was born and grew up there. I do still have a lot of friends there and it is a good place, but so is Waxahachie. Right now, I'm glad to be an Indian.”
He added that Gunner, his seven-year-old son, is often asked if he is a Lion or an Indian. Gunner’s reply?
“I’m all Indian.”
Zac explained the playbook and play calling itself is rather simple. That is not to say there are not multiple plays that can be called from the same formation or several layers on the passing tree. Instead, he said the most crucial part of the Indian offense is for players to play with confidence.
He noted the playbook is a combination of schemes he learned from his father, as well as legendary Denton Ryan head coach Joey Florence. The majority of the terminology does come from coach Flo's Ryan Raiders, though.
“We want our kids to be confident and what they are doing. And that is not to say that one way is right and one way is wrong but that is the only way I know. We want to be confident in what we're doing and we want to coach kids on how to achieve what we want them to achieve,” Zac said. “We don't want them confused and we don't want them thinking. We want them to do their job and do it well.”
Zac has spent time on coaching staffs at Van, Prosper, Denton Ryan, Sweetwater and Alvarado, with the majority of those years served as the offensive coordinator.
BATTLE OF 287
It is not a tough task for Zac to recall his two games against Waxahachie as a varsity football player. Those two games, as well as every game from the 2000-campaign, remain lucid memories, he explained of the 7-3 win his junior year and 56-0 shellacking the year after.
“I can vividly remember every game from my senior year. Our senior year it was the last game, week 10, at the old Lion Stadium. Waxahachie was down those years, and we actually beat them 56-0, but I just remembered the emotion and the hype before the game,” he said. “As a coach, it will be just another game, but as a kid, as a kid….it is really not. As a kid, there's a little extra built up excitement because you know all of those guys.”
Ahead of Friday, Zac also noted he is excited to have the opportunity to watch his father's return to the Ennis sideline that seemed like a story too good to be told not too long ago.
“It is going to be neat, and it is pretty crazy how it all worked out. It has gone full circle with him being back there after it looked like, for a while, that he would never walk again,” Zac explained. “It is pretty amazing that I get to coach in the game that he is coming back in. For me, it is just another game, but it is going to be fun to see my dad and my family be there.”
Zac added that he looks forward to seeing the crowd’s reception of Sam before the game Friday. And, regardless of the scoreboard at the end of the game (kind of), he is ready to once again talk football with his old ball coach, mentor and dad.
“I know he is excited, but to be honest with you we haven’t talked much about football since he has gotten back. We will probably after this game but up until this game we haven’t talked a lot about it. After this game, we will certainly be rooting for each other.”