If you see any high school or young college football quarterbacks with Tom Brady’s intelligence, Patrick Mahomes’ arm and the speed of Lamar Jackson, please contact Heath Ridenour, the new quarterbacks coach at the University of New Mexico.
That’s the kind of QB he’d love to have throwing the ball around at University Stadium this fall.
Fortunately, Ridenour’s successor at Cleveland High, Robert Garza, doesn’t have to worry about finding a QB. He’s got two real good ones, last year’s starter Evan Wysong, who’ll be a senior and has already said he’ll be happy to play for the Lobos in 2023, and southpaw Elijah Brody, who’ll be his capable backup, headed into his junior year.
Garza, 38, was happy to be handed the keys to a Mercedes — the Cleveland High football team – after Ridenour took another step on his career path after 10 seasons on the Storm sideline.
“I never envisioned coach Ridenour leaving. We always kind of joked in our offices — I’m three years younger than he is — I was thinking, ‘By the time you’re getting ready to leave, I’ll probably be right behind you. We’ll just get out of here and hand the keys over to (Michael) LiRosi.’”
Garza’s confident he’s up to the challenge of head coach, and he won’t be making any wholesale changes to the way things have been run during the school’s previous 13 seasons of existence, which includes four state championships.
“I did lose a little sleep that night when they told me about the job, offered me the job,” Garza said. “I’m like, ‘It’s a little scary going into it. Am I the right guy?’
“I sat back and thought about it. We can’t worry too much about the winning streak, we just gotta keep doing what we’re doing.”
Garza’s been along for the ride the entire trip, serving in various assistant roles, and last season he was special teams coordinator and in charge of the linebackers, and teamed with former Storm player and assistant coach LiRosi to take on the duties of defensive coordinator when longtime DC Eddie Kilmer was sidelined for a couple games.
Football’s in Garza’s blood and he’s wise enough to know, especially in this case with the Storm taking a 22-game winning streak into the 2022 opener, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
From a story that appeared in the Observer about eight years ago, you could consider this foreshadowing for Garza:
Someday, Garza said, he’d like to be a head coach.
“I’d like to have my own program,” he said. “I want to take all the knowledge I’ve been around: Heath is one of the best offensive minds I’ve been around; I’ve had an opportunity to take from coach (Bruce) Mitchell, coach (Eddie) Kilmer, coach (Angel) Castillo — three guys that were all head coaches and have a tremendous amount of defensive knowledge. So, you know, I’d like to take all of that and make it my own.”
And now he’s got that opportunity.
Garza’s love for the game has its roots in Idalou, Texas, a short ride from Lubbock and a town of about 2,400 that was a typical Friday Night Lights town. Being so close to Lubbock, it was natural for him to become a Texas Tech fan, although he also loves Notre Dame football; the San Francisco 49ers are his NFL team. (He easily rattles off names of his old heroes: John Taylor, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Charles Haley, Deion Sanders.)
Playing for Idalou High, he recalled, “We did get to play at Ratliff Stadium (in Odessa), where ‘Friday Night Lights’ was filmed. I saw the movie, I read the book — it was big-time.”
Idalou didn’t have a youth league, so Garza didn’t start playing until he was in seventh grade.
“I loved it,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to play for the Wildcats.”
Garza also played baseball, basketball and soccer.
Times have changed in Idalou, Garza said: There’s a Sonic Drive-In there now.
He played football well enough to be offered a scholarship to play football at Eastern New Mexico University, where he was a four-year starter at fullback for the Greyhounds. That’s where he got to know Ridenour, who stuck around ENMU to be a graduate assistant coach for the football team.
“I was the little redshirt freshman; he was the big-dog senior quarterback,” Garza joked.
Garza said he started thinking about being a coach in his early years at ENMU.
“I just loved the game so much. Baseball was big time, too … Baseball and football were my loves,” he said.
That’s worked out well; he’d also been on CHS baseball coach Shane Shallenberger’s staff as the junior varsity coach.
Following graduation from ENMU (in 2006), Garza got a coaching job in Snyder, Texas. “I coached in Snyder for a year. I moved up here — coach (Kirk) Potter gave me a chance.”
Garza was the Storm’s junior varsity coach from 2009-11.
“As soon as I was hired as the head coach, one of the first things that I wanted to do was give him more responsibility,” Ridenour said. “I immediately moved him to our special teams coordinator, running backs coach and inside linebackers coach.”
RRPS Executive Director of Athletics Bruce Carver said the Storm, who opted for the second time not to go on a national search to fill the vacancy and promote from within, almost didn’t get Garza, a finalist for the recent Los Lunas High School head coach vacancy.
“I wanted it, but at the same time I was like, ‘Is this the right move for me?’” Garza recalled. “My wife’s (Ashley) family’s from Los Lunas and it’s not that far from here. I thought, ‘This might be a good opportunity.’”
But even though Los Lunas High School won the 5A football title the same day the Storm won the 6A crown, it’s no Mercedes.
“I owe a lot of (getting the CHS job) to coach Ridenour,” Garza said. “He advocated for me, he went behind the scenes and he told them I was the right guy. … I was grateful for that, the opportunity — the keys to a Mercedes, like you said. One of those deals where not a lot needs to be changed.”
He’ll want to put his own stamp on the program, because he’s now in the driver’s seat and not riding in back or even shotgun.
He’ll heed the best advice he said he received: “Be myself, not try to be Ridenour, not worry about things he’s done, just be me … (and) continue doing what we’ve been doing, but don’t be a different person.”
He’s here to stay
“The fact that I got the opportunity now, there’s not another job in the state that’s even worth looking at,” Garza said. “For high school football, you can’t beat what we’ve got going on here. Being from Texas, I know what a good program is. … This is top-notch right here.”
He’s not a fiery type, he said.
“You will hear me out there,” he said. “In the past years, I’ve had my moments where I get to the edge, but I do a pretty good job of keeping my composure.”
With the departure of Ridenour, he said, “We’re just gonna shuffle some (assistants) around.”.
Jason Hoffman will take over the role as offensive coordinator, which Ridenour had been doing; Hoffman had been the run game coordinator.
“I’m still gonna coach linebackers and stay on the defensive side of the ball, continue coaching special teams. My focus is going to be defense.”
Storm underclassmen Nic Trujillo and Brody are happy to see Garza as their new head coach.
“We were shocked but happy for (Ridenour),” Trujillo said. “He’s gone on to bigger and better things, but I’m not worried about that right now.”
As for Garza, Trujillo said, “I don’t think there’ll be much of a change. He’s been there since the school opened, so I think it’ll be pretty much how it’s always been. I don’t think things will change.”
Brody, like Trujillo a starter on the Storm basketball team, said, “I’d say, with coach Ridenour leaving, it was a shocker for everyone.
“He’s going to do bigger, better things for himself and his family, so we’re happy for him in the Storm program. He’s definitely helped my game from changing my game, with how I threw the ball throughout the summer, so he’s been helpful for my whole career at Cleveland, just always fixing things so I can throw the ball better.”
As for the new coach, Brody said, “He’s been in the program the whole time, so the tradition’s still gonna stay the same — we’re still gonna have that same work ethic. We’re still in the same house.”
Something else hasn’t changed, and the bar remains high for this Mercedes. “Ultimately, the expectation is a state championship,” Garza said. “We should be competing for one every year.”