Keeping stats for Roland Rangers has Richards on the run
PHOTOS BY CARROLL COPELAND
Richards chases the Roland Rangers
on Friday nights during football season
On fall’s crisp Friday nights, Fort Smith Fire Chief Mike Richards chases something other than firetrucks. He’s running up and down the sidelines of the Roland (Okla.) High School football field, chasing the action and watching every play with intense concentration. Between the ref’s play-ending whistle and the next snap, he is marking rapidly on an ever-present clipboard. Richards is the volunteer statistician for the Roland Rangers football team and over the past 20 years has missed only one game.
There are a lot of people depending on his accuracy. The numbers he carefully records in various spaces on his specifically gridded paper are the official record of the football game and will, cumulatively, help determine state records and honors for the team and individual athletes. Yards passed, yards gained on running plays, distances kicked – these and a roster of standard statistics are reported to the Oklahoma Secondary School Athletic Association.
The “stats guy” also is writing the first draft of sports news.
Newspapers and broadcast stations must rely on the reporting of team statisticians to prepare their coverage of the many, many area high school teams that play each week.
Richards keeps a second sheet besides the official grid stats, noting a play-by-play account he will be asked about by various sports reporters. He may report the game to local media by phone, serving as a good source of analysis about a game’s outstanding plays or turning points.
But most of all, Richards tracks the game’s statistics for the benefit of the Roland Rangers. After the game, the coaching staff and team study the game film and the numbers to adjust and improve the team’s performance. That’s how and why he began volunteering, Richards said – to help a friend who started as an assistant coach for Roland in 1993. He and the assistant coach had kids the same age and had coached Little League together. Richards first volunteered on the “chain gang” measuring yardage, and began to keep statistics.
He graduated from high school in nearby Gans, Okla., where he played basketball. Gans High School did not have a football team at that time so Richards, who loves football, watched friends play at Roland. He married a Roland girl. His wife, Debbie, is an administrative secretary at Roland Upper Elementary. His son Daniel teaches chemistry at Roland High School. Both Richards and his son David, who is with First National Bank, work in Fort Smith but are Ranger rooters.
“High school football coaches are under-credited,” Richards said. “The amount of work they do in a given weekend is incredible.”
His job is one contribution to the coaching staff’s post-game work. Richards transfers his paper notes taken on the field to official reports for the coaches, who will submit the stats to the state athletic association.
“You might read my code, but only I can read my handwriting,” he laughed.
In order to verify his work, Richards can now review the game film online during the weekend before submitting the final, official records.
Before school convenes on Monday, the coaches use the statistics and game films to plan for the next opponents.
“Coaches have offensive and defensive goals and need information that can only be found in the stats and the play-by-play,” Richards explained. “I give them an offensive and defensive report.”
Richards also may need some Gatorade when he gets home after a game. While it is typical for a statistician to sit in the press box, Richards prefers to work from the sidelines where he believes he has a better look at what’s happening on the field. To assure his information is accurate, he can compare notes immediately with the chain gang and officials.
“The coaches have to stay between the 25s,” he said. “I can move with the line of scrimmage.”
Twenty years as a volunteer on the support team is a long time. Hasn’t he wanted to coach?
“I want to be a part of it or I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” Richards said. He sticks to the stats and also has declined an offer of payment. “I don’t want it to be a job,” he said. “I like doing it because I want to do it. I know how hard they work – the coaches and the players.”
Richards doesn’t have to take the heat a coach may get for a decision, but he’s taken a few hits from getting so close to the action, he said, laughing at himself. “I’ve gotten caught up a time or two.”
After two decades, Richards now is writing down the yardage and scores for the children of men who were playing when he started with the Rangers, he said. He’s seen the coaching staff change, too.
“Since I’ve been doing this, Roland has had 10-0 seasons and 0-10 seasons,” he said. The winning seasons are more exciting, but, Richards said, he has admired the school’s athletic program for all those years.
“Character and ethics mean a lot at Roland,” he reflected. “It’s a good moral and ethical program. The year we went 0-10, only once in my 20 years, the coaches and players gave 100 percent and nobody quit.”
After those games, Richards said, he had to be creative to write something positive for the newspapers. “But they went in and played as hard as they could.”
So far this season, the Rangers are a strong team with promising potential. The stats keeper has been able to report more wins than losses – and has sustained no personally injuries. He is feeling the effects of running along with the players a little more, he admitted.
“At 55 or 56, it’s not as easy,” he said with a grin. “I don’t have a time in my mind that I’ll quit, but as long as I’m able to do it, I will.”
Richards said he could see himself moving up to the press box and taking a seat someday. “But if I can’t do a good job, I’ll stop,” he said.
With his impressive record of missing only one game in 20 years, what was the reason? Well, there’s that day job as the head of the Fort Smith Fire Department, but as it turns out the reason wasn’t a 911 call.
“Leadership Fort Smith had its opening retreat,” he recalled of his one absence, when he was 12 years into his volunteer football job. “I was at the retreat, which is mandatory, but I was on pins and needles.”
The game he missed was Roland vs. Stigler, at Stigler in 2004, Richards recalled with a statistician’s precision.
“I was really happy to find out they had won.”
This article contains a correction of Mike Richard's name. His name appears incorrectly in the print edition of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine of November 2012. The writer and managing editor Lynn Wasson regrets the error.