While the time-honored mantra “Defense wins championships” may not always be true, what is true is if you don’t score, you can’t win.
In the case of Cleveland High football, that’s been the case in four of their past 14 games, with opponents scoring 14 or fewer points four other times.
It’s no secret that the Storm play phenomenal defense, and the architect of that success, defensive coordinator Eddie Kilmer, has been doing that for a long time.
Although Kilmer’s earliest athletic success was playing and then coaching golf, he’s the Storm’s version of legendary NFL defensive guru Buddy Ryan for the past 10 seasons, which have included making the state semifinals in six of the past seven seasons, with state championships in 2015 and 2019, and a championship-game loss in 2018.
“I enjoy being here. I enjoy the coaches and I enjoy the kids,” Kilmer said. “The kind of kid that has the courage to do what we’re doing, I enjoy being around.”
Kilmer grew up in Clovis, admitting, “I wasn’t a good football player. I got hurt twice: I broke my leg, my femur,. on a trampoline when I was a sophomore. About the time I recovered from that, I got my foot in the spokes of a motorcycle, sliced my heel off.”
Fortunately for Kilmer, “I was a pretty good golfer. I had a coach tell me, ‘Why don’t you go to the golf course? You can’t run.’ I had played (football) up until then; I wasn’t any good.”
Sure, he’s always loved the game; Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas were his early heroes, and he remembers the guys who played for his favorite team back then, the New York Giants, and Kilmer’s father had been a football coach.
“I was indoctrinated in football real early,” he said. “I was actually a Cowboys’ fan, because that’s who I saw (on TV). But I enjoyed the Giants because I knew who they were.”
After graduating from Clovis High in 1970, Kilmer parlayed his prep golfing talent into a golf scholarship at West Texas A&M University, where he met up with legend-to-be Eric Roanhaus.
“At that time, West Texas was Division 1, a big deal,” Kilmer said. “Competition’s all related — the mind (in golf) defends you all the time. … I coached golf in Clovis for 25 years, won a couple state championships; I actually won one in Texas.
“I coached it a lot like I coached football: I was hard on them … we punished them for wasting strokes,” he recalled. “When you played in a tournament, you got punished for wasting strokes.”
Other than improvements in golf equipment, that game hasn’t changed.
Football has changed
“We have to defend the whole field. When I started coaching, it was two tight ends; whoever had the best people won,” he said. “Now it’s not like that.
“Yes, we’ve had fantastic people here at Cleveland. We’re really blessed with athletes, and smart athletes,” he said. “But having to defend the whole field has made it difficult — for dinosaurs like me.”
Those Jurassic coaching days began with former Clovis head coach Dewey Goode, for whom Kilmer would scout future opponents.
“He offered us five dollars apiece, each one of us, to go watch a game a week before his scouts would go watch them,” he said. “We’d go get all the numbers, write ’em all down, and he’d give us five bucks apiece. In 1971, five dollars was a lot of money. … I would’ve done it for free, because I really wanted to go, but five dollars was really neat. You could do a lot of things for $5 in 1971.”
(Kilmer’s memory could be foggy: According to a story following Goode’s death in 2004, his son Bear said that in 1973, Goode was coaching at Marshall Junior High in Clovis and it was then that he was asked to apply for the head football job at Clovis High.)
Roanhaus succeeded Goode at Clovis in 1978 when Goode took the head-coaching job at Eastern New Mexico University; when Goode had taken the Clovis job, he’d hired former WTSU player Roanhaus as an assistant.
Kilmer was among the “herd” that migrated to Rio Rancho from the southeast portion of the state — Kirk Potter, Ridenour, Randy Adrian, Shaun Gill, Shane Shallenberger were among them — before and after Cleveland High opened in 2009.
“Eddie is one of the finest football coaches I have known. He is truly a student of the game,” said Adrian, Cleveland’s first athletic director.
“His biggest asset is the relationship he develops with the athletes,” Adrian added. “As a result of this relationship, the kids play hard for Eddie because they don’t want to disappoint him.”
A good run for Kilmer and Storm
“I watch football all the time, and I go back to the more we can play a base defense, the better off we’re gonna be,” he said. “Don’t take chances, don’t get out of position by taking a chance, we’ll be better off. “
As for his players, he still tells them, “Either you get better or you get worse, ’cuz you never stay the same.”
“This is year 47,” Kilmer said, when asked if retirement is in the immediate future. “As long as I like it and I have good health, I’m going to continue — as long as they’ll have me. I like what I’m doing.”
As for the 2021 squad, “We’ve got a long ways to go but we’re gonna be good,” he said. “We lost our defensive line; we lost two All-State tackles (Phattboy Loveless and Jason Gray). We’re just glad to be here, not sitting home, doing nuthin’.”
Kilmer’s a contract coach, but he’s no stranger to the classroom: “I taught 40 years. That was enough,” he said. “I taught everything from elementary PE to English. I taught history, I taught earth science, elementary PE — I taught all kinds of stuff.”
“Coach has been doing it for hundreds of years,” Ridenour said. “He brings a perspective to football that a lot of us don’t have … He’s seen it all.”
The game itself hasn’t passed Kilmer by, but, according to Ridenour, “The ability to type on a computer has passed him by.
“He still loves the game, he loves the kids, he loves the game-planning, he loves getting out there and getting after those guys,” he added. “He’s very sound in what he does, not stuck in his ways, ‘Old School.’ He’s very confident in ‘Our plan will work; we’ve got to stick with it.’
“I’ll say this,” Ridenour added. “Our kids understand the game of football. They understand the technique, they understand their position. It’s not just ‘Light your hair on fire and run around and chase the football.’ That’s not at all what we do; we fit in very specific places and that’s kinda what coach Kilmer teaches.”
Old school football? “Before, it was four yards and a cloud of dust — toughest man wins,” Ridenour said. “Now it’s a big horizontal, a big vertical stretch, meaning you defend all parts of the field. … If you can’t win one-on-ones to put pressure on the quarterback — and then you throw in the idea of an athletic quarterback who might escape the pocket. … So you’ve got to evolve and figure out more guys who are involved in past, but first involvement, run.”
Looking back, Ridenour said, “I came here in May of ’10 to serve as offensive coordinator. We brought coach Kilmer here in the summer of 2011. He was coaching Reece White; he was coaching our tight ends and outside linebackers.”
“I was a pretty good coach when I coached (former Lobo standout) Reece White,” Kilmer added, laughing at the memory. “We’ve had a lot of good players.”
Yup, and a lot of good players playing tough D will win you some championships.
(See previews of the Cleveland and Rio Rancho High schools’ football teams, plus their schedules,
in the Sunday, Aug. 15, edition of the Observer!)