Excitement builds for Linn football’s return

By Neal A. Johnson, UD Editor
Posted 8/24/22

LINN  — Hut. Hut. Hike!

On Friday night, fans will hear those words or something similar as the Wildcats take the field at home against Thayer for the first football game since the …

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Excitement builds for Linn football’s return

Posted

LINN  — Hut. Hut. Hike!

On Friday night, fans will hear those words or something similar as the Wildcats take the field at home against Thayer for the first football game since the 1975-76 season.

It’s been a long time coming as interest began in earnest in 2015, when Legends Bank Board Chairman John A. Klebba and others started looking into it.

“We looked at was whether there was a desire on the part of the kids to play,” said Klebba, noting that a 1974 yearbook showed photos of the football team, which included about 40 players. “They had some really good kids, and had a great start to a program. And, you know, we can tell now from talking to a lot of these guys who we hope to be at the first game that there was a lot of enthusiasm for football. Many of them thought it was a real shame that it didn’t continue and that their kids didn’t get to play because some of their kids or grandkids now are of the age they were when they played.

“We’re in that second generation now from when kids played here,” Klebba continued. “But we didn’t know if the finances were in place at the school because finances were tight. If you don’t have everything aligning, then you’re not going to have a program that works.”

A football committee was formed and began gathering information from schools that had started a program from scratch. At that time, Harrisburg had been playing since 2013, and Klebba reached out for cost estimates.

Committee members were encouraged by the information and began seeking interest from businesses and individuals in the community.

Linn R-2 board members were approached the first time about football in December 2018 when Tracy Winslow said there was interest in starting a club for grades 5-8, with the first two years likely seeing a combination of grades 5-6 and grades 7-8.

That set the foundation for future discussions about a high school program, with a presentation to the board in August 2019.

Committee members explained that Russellville began junior high football in 2018 with 24 players, and ended the season with 27. 

Former superintendent Perry Gorrell explained to Klebba how the community raised $30,000 to start football at Cole County R-1. That wouldn’t be enough, Klebba reasoned, and set a goal of at least $50,000 to launch a junior high program at Linn.

Klebba’s proposal indicated the first games would be played in September 2020, with a junior high team for students in grades 7-9 taking the field. This mirrored the path Russellville took, and Klebba said other teams allowed ninth-graders to play because it was a first-year program.

The plan at the time was to have both junior high and JV games (for students up to 11th grade) in 2021, and in the fall of 2022, a varsity team, giving Linn three competitive squads.

Klebba said that he began to feel optimistic about football when he looked at the property taxes that were coming into the R-2 school district. 

“Property taxes going to Linn R-2 were increasing by about $100,000 a year and it was all pretty much because of all the building that was going on in connection with the expansion of State Tech, and its need for student housing,” said Klebba. “Good things happen when something like State Tech is in your backyard, and it’s doing well. And so when I looked at that, and I said, hey, you know, we are now not only experiencing a $100,000 per year increase, but that’s not a one-time increase. So, once that building is in place, that’s additional revenue to this school district every year. And then you have more buildings coming in, and that’s more revenue. I thought the stars had aligned and we knew that we had interest in the program.”

In his review of the school’s budget — a publicly available document — Klebba said he was encouraged by the potential.

That led to a thorough presentation by Klebba, but board members by a 4-2 vote declined to pursue it.

Much of the concern was whether football would generate enough revenue to be worthwhile.

“Anyone who believes football is a moneymaker is fooling themselves, but if you draw students and families into your district, there are ancillary revenues coming into the district that will pay for football,” Klebba told board members then. “I have known families who have left this district to go to Blair Oaks because they wanted their kids to play football. I know there’s going to be a benefit, but I can’t define it. It’s subjective, but football will not pay for itself, just like baseball and basketball, and virtually any extracurricular activity will not pay for itself. You have to quantify a cost-benefit analysis and determine if the experience I’m providing students is worth the cost.”

Former superintendent Dena Smith and board members indicated they had reservations about whether growth at the college would be sustained and the impact a football program would have on the budget.

Klebba reiterated then that the committee requested that the program be approved contingent upon the group raising the startup figure of $50,000, adding that should cover costs all the way through taking the program to the varsity level.

Board members chose not to gamble, rejecting the plan.

After the meeting, committee members regrouped. 

“So okay, where do we go from here? Do we just let this drop, or do we bring this back? We were committed, but football in and of itself doesn’t do anything for you. It’s got to fulfill a need.”

Klebba believed there was something missing at the school.

“I remember in years past, when I first started, I was running the track, and then I was jogging the track, and now I’m walking the track,” said Klebba with a laugh. “I would go out there in the fall, and there was very little activity.”

In addition to softball and volleyball, Klebba noted that cross country was the only fall sport that included boys.

“We tried soccer here, and that didn’t last, and so I thought, man, we are missing something,” he said. “We’ve got a great facility here but we are missing the opportunity to to get kids involved in another extracurricular activity. That’s what always struck me because I remember playing high school football and how big a deal that was in the fall. I remember when you started school how it was exciting because you had all this stuff going on. You had all these sports going on, pep rallies, and Friday night football.”

Despite the setback, committee members continued to seek support from community members as well those serving on the school board.

With support from State Tech, which offered $60,000 toward the program, and an additional $60,000 raised, the football committee returned to the board in May of this year.

Linn R-2 board member Dr. Shawn Strong, who is also president of State Technical College, explained at that meeting that since this is the 60th anniversary of the college’s founding, it was appropriate that the school make a sponsorship-level gift of $60,000 to the school to start a football program.

Since then, the group reset its goal to raising $120,000 and has more than doubled that. “We have had very few people that we have approached that have said no,” said Klebba. “Support has been almost universal in terms of the people that we’ve asked to put money in.”

He added that football would attract new families to the district and allow families who would otherwise leave for a football program to stay in the district.

Board members agreed and approved the program by a 6-1 vote.

Klebba said when funding began to increase, the committee changed the plan to field a JV team instead of starting with just a junior high program. 

“Originally, we were going to just start at a junior high program but we went through a number of different machinations,” said Klebba.

Students in grades 5-8 have the option to play club football, with the idea they will gain valuable experience before heading into JV-level football at the high school.

At last count, Klebba said there were 40-50 kids in uniform for club football.

Between club and high school, there are between 60 and 70 kids in uniform. “That’s just unbelievable for a first year,” Klebba said, adding that the high school program will be legitimate if there are 10 players per grade level. “That’s going to allow this thing to accelerate development tremendously, because in three years, you’ll have kids that have been playing for three years at the high school level, as opposed to bringing in kids one year at a time. This has really taken off more than I expected.”

On Friday, a tailgate party sponsored by State Tech will begin at 4 p.m. at the Linn Lions Fairgrounds, with the game to begin at 7. A post-game party at the Linn Lions Park will feature local band Point 08.

This is the only time this year a game will be played on a Friday as JV games are played on Mondays at 5 p.m.

“I realize we won’t have near the crowd on a Monday night as we hope to have on Friday,” said Klebba, noting that Russellville’s first game drew about 1,500 people. “That was because of the excitement of starting football. I think people here will want to come out and just watch, you know, just experience it for themselves one time at least once, because this has not been a football community. I think it’ll be big and I think people will support it. The hope is this will be great of the kids, the school, and the community.”

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