FORSYTH – Andy McFarland knows the task he has ahead of him isn’t an easy one.
McFarland was hired in the spring to be the second varsity head coach in Forsyth High School football history, succeeding Tommie Anderson after a forgettable 2018 season.
The numbers tell the story for the Panthers in 2018. They finished 0-10 and were outscored 548-58 in the process.
But those numbers don’t tell the complete story.
Forsyth was ravaged by injuries from the season’s start, forcing young, inexperienced and untested players to play big roles.
And in the first season as a member of the Mid-Lakes Conference, Forsyth ran the gauntlet, against deep and seasoned opponents like Strafford, Fair Grove, Pierce City and Skyline.
All that doesn’t matter much for McFarland, though, who is beginning his career as a head coach with the Panthers after working for the last 14 seasons as an assistant coach at two Springfield high schools.
“I think being able to have your fingerprints on every part of the program from the beginning is one of the things I was most excited about coming to Forsyth,” McFarland said during a recent visit to his office at the high school.
“While a big challenge, starting at Step One in a lot of areas, for me as the head coach at Forsyth, I think it is something I am going to be very happy to be a part of.”
McFarland grew up in Springfield as the son of a preacher, graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2002 after quarterbacking the Hornets to conference and district championships while playing for coach Gary Turner.
That ended his playing career, and after attending Oklahoma Christian in Edmond for one season, he transferred back home, graduated from Missouri State and earning his master’s degree from Drury University.
“I can’t complain about where I am in life right now,” he said. “I am much more talented as a coach than I ever was playing. I always understood the game and loved the game.”
He was still in school when the call came from Turner to help out on a volunteer basis at Hillcrest.
That volunteer start led to a long stint as an assistant with the Hornets, and a teaching position at the school.
McFarland coached on the freshman level, helped out on JV, then became the offensive coordinator for the varsity when John Beckham was hired as head coach in 2008.
That 2008 season happened to be the freshman season for Dorial Green-Beckham, who went on to be the nation’s top-ranked recruit as a senior, who went on to the University of Missouri, then Oklahoma and a short stint in the NFL.
In addition to Green-Beckham, McFarland also helped work with and develop players like Jonah Hill, who was a quarterback at Hillcrest and went on to play tight end at Arkansas State; Matt Rush, who played in the secondary and returned kicks at Missouri State; and Juwan Johnson, who will be a senior this fall at Division II Midwestern State in Texas.
“We had a lot of success in that time,” McFarland said. “We had a lot of very talented offensive players, and it was fun to get to design and call the plays for those guys.”
After 10 years at Hillcrest, he saw an opportunity to join the staff as the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Parkview, and teach weightlifting classes at the school.
The Vikings were 1-9 in the season before the arrival of head coach Ben Dougherty and McFarland as his top assistant, but went 6-5 in 2018, winning the unofficial Springfield Public Schools championship and defeating Nixa in a thrilling overtime district game before falling to Carthage in the district finals.
“I think moving from Hillcrest to Parkview for that one year really taught me things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise and will really help me as a head coach for the first time,” McFarland said.
During his time at Hillcrest and Parkview, McFarland developed a relationship with Anthony Hays, who was the head coach at Parkview from 2011 to 2016 before taking over at Branson High School before the 2017 season.
McFarland said he and Hays are in regular contact during the season, bouncing ideas off each other and sharing ideas and philosophies.
Knowing McFarland was hungry to get the chance to lead his own program, Hays gave his friend a head’s up about the Forsyth opening.
“He said he thought it is a place where someone could go and have some success, with great facilities and some athletes talking around,” McFarland said.
“It ended up working out.”
It’s safe to say McFarland didn’t have much knowledge about Forsyth going into this whole process.
He said with a laugh that he’d driven through Forsyth on the way to the lake, and his father worked for the Corps of Engineers while growing up in northwest Arkansas and mowed the grass in the city park back in the day.
“I didn’t have much knowledge of Forsyth,” McFarland said. “I knew the program was new, and I had a lot of coaching friends who knew I was hungry for the opportunity to be a head coach.”
After being hired and getting more exposure to the Forsyth community, McFarland knew he made the right decision and had a new home.
Last year’s struggles haven’t done much to dampen the community’s support for football.
“The support has been good, I feel like the community is hungry to have a winning program,” McFarland said. “But in their hunger, they are also realistic, knowing we’re not going to come in and be a dominant force. We have to earn it every single day.
“I think our team is going to take on that personality of a team that is an underdog that has to earn it. And they have been willing to put that work in every day. As their coach, it has been a comfort to the process.”
McFarland said being hired in the summer has led to something of a slow start for the offseason summer work with the Panthers.
When he arrived and worked to put together a summer schedule, he was having to work around camps with other sports, families’ summer vacations and other extracurricular activities.
The Panthers will participate at the Evangel University team camp next week, with former Forsyth multi-sport star Anthony Stanford – a redshirt freshman defensive back for the Panthers who graduated in 2018 – surely there to provide support.
What McFarland saw upon his arrival, though, was encouraging.
“The kids were ready to be excited about something,” he said. “The energy and the numbers were good, and hopefully both of those things will continue to improve as we continue to improve as a program.”
He also has gotten a boost from his staff of assistant coaches. Truman Jones will move up as the defensive coordinator, Josh Kolb – who played on the offensive line at Kansas State – will be leading the offensive and defensive lines, and Eric Rogers, the boys’ basketball varsity coach at Forsyth, also is on the football staff.
“I have been very pleased with my coaching staff at Forsyth so far,” McFarland said. “It has been awesome to walk into a situation with guys who love the game, love the community, and treat the boys like family.”
That family atmosphere is something he has taken from playing for and working under several different head coaches throughout his career.
It started with Turner, and included through Beckham and Dougharty.
He worked the longest with Beckham, and said he admired Beckham’s attention to detail and the way he led the program with a “CEO style.”
“Every single day, I try to approach things the way he approached things – can we do this better, can we do it more efficiently, is what we’re doing make sense?” McFarland said.
“Schematically, I always tell the players I coach, I want you to be able to ask me why to everything, and I better have an answer why. If I don’t have an answer why, then that’s a clear sign we shouldn’t be doing it.”
McFarland realizes the process will take time. He isn’t comfortable saying he is “resigned” to that fact, but is realistic going in, taking over a program about to play its third varsity season and in a conference with tough, battle-tested teams.
“You do have to be realistic, and understand there is going to be a stair-step process,” he said. “There’s going to be a skill progression with every aspect of the game. You have to start at the bottom of the ladder and work your way up the ladder, work your way up the staircase.
“You can’t expect to come in and have everybody know everything on Day One.”
The numbers in the program aren’t where McFarland would like them to be, which is understandable given the late start. The coaching staff and players have been working on “recruiting” players to come out for football.
McFarland said there have been about 40 out for most days of summer work, getting up to about 50 on some sessions. He would like to get that figure up to about 60.
With his position teaching weights at the high school, McFarland figures to have a close-up look at some non-football players he would like to see on the field for future years.
“The numbers right now aren’t where I want them to be, but from what I’ve been told, they are better than they were at this point last year,” McFarland said.
“Hopefully that trend of improvement will continue.”
Spend a few minutes visiting with McFarland, and you get the impression he is ready to teach his student-athletes about far more than Xs and Os and what it takes to be successful on the football field.
He’s just as interested in imparting life lessons.
“We’re going to talk a lot about the values involved and what it takes to be successful as a football program,” he said. “What I want people to see and players to remember, is to be happy in life, to be successful as a football program, to be successful in your job, to be successful in your relationships, takes a whole lot of work. You can’t just show up and make it happen.”