SCOTTSDALE – Desert Mountain High School football experienced a revival since former NFL cornerback and Chaparral defensive coordinator Conrad Hamilton was hired to bring stability four years ago after a 3–7 record during the 2018 season. Fast forward to the 2021 season, the team finished 12-2 before following that mark with a 10-3 record this year after losing in the postseason to Higley on Dec. 2.
Despite the defeat, Desert Mountain’s evolution into a state championship contender for the past two seasons is directly tied to Hamilton, his players attest.
“He has brought a better atmosphere to the program, bringing 100% each and every day, and we are really grateful for that,” junior wide receiver Jack Freeburg said.
Before Hamilton’s arrival, Desert Mountain struggled to find consistency on the field. Since, while competing in the Northeast Valley 5A region, the Wolves have become a force and mainstays in the conversation of Arizona’s up-and-coming high school football programs.
But Hamilton isn’t the only one to bring his NFL experience to the high school level. At the start of 2021, 169 former NFL players held head coaching positions at the high school varsity level, according to a study by ESPN. The study noted that another 175 former players had jobs as high school assistants.
Jon Kitna, Ty Detmer and Kurt Warner, who teamed up with his son at Brophy Prep, have held coaching jobs and had a major influence on high school football in the Valley.
In the past two years, former NFL pro bowlers Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle were hired as high school coaches, with Rivers coming off his second season at St. Michael Catholic (Fairhope, Ala.) and Weddle in his inaugural season at Rancho Bernardo High School (San Diego, Calif.).
Marv Cook, a former two-time NFL Pro Bowl tight end with the New England Patriots, spent 15 seasons as the Regina High School football coach in Iowa, where he won seven straight state championships and held an all-time record of 159-16.
The trend of former NFL players transitioning into coaching roles also extends beyond high schools across the country. Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer is the head coach at the University of Alabama Birmingham, Hall of Famer Deion Sanders recently left Jackson State University to coach at the University of Colorado, and Doug Pederson spent four seasons as the head coach at Calvary Baptist Academy in Louisiana before leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl in 2018.
Perhaps the most surprising coaching hire in recent memory (or ever), former Colts center Jeff Saturday was named head coach of Indianapolis in November. The former ESPN analyst became the first coach hired only having coaching experience at the high school level after three seasons at Hebron Christian Academy (Dacula, Georgia).
Like his peers, Hamilton has made his mark in turning around a high school football program. Before becoming head coach at Desert Mountain, Hamilton was a seventh-round pick out of Eastern New Mexico University, where he spent parts of five seasons with the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons. He finished his career with three interceptions and 144 tackles.
From there, Hamilton served as defensive coordinator of the Chaparral state championship teams in 2009 and 2010. He also had stints at Mountain Pointe, North Canyon and a season as a defensive analyst with the Sun Devils.
Now Hamilton has solidified himself and his program as one of Arizona’s best with help along the way. A stronger commitment to investing in football by school administrators and a larger effort on recruiting has helped reshape the culture and redefine Desert Mountain football.
“Mostly it’s just the players who are hungry for success. We treat them the same as we did when we were 3-7. We are nobody’s doormat, and this is the attitude we are going to approach trying to turn this thing around,” Hamilton said. “But it has been everybody – the community has been great, the administration has upgraded our field and our facilities.
They have tried to make football important here, so I think that is really one of the reasons we have had a turnaround.”
In previous years, Desert Mountain has failed to keep pace with other top programs in the Valley. With NFL talents like Kyle Allen, Tyeler Davison and Mark Andrews walking the hallways previously, the Wolves have had plenty of individual success. However, as coach Hamilton noted, the program has fallen short of sustaining a winning culture, never reaching the point of, “OK, this is a spot that will make athletes want to stay home.”
In recent years, the school board has approved and completed upgrades for a new team room and an improved weight room and locker room. In addition to better facilities, the Wolves have prospered in this new age of recruiting to bring and keep talent at a much higher rate than before.
The icing on top is a coach who has brought a fresh perspective and NFL knowledge.
“He has completely changed my game. I wasn’t much of a defensive back before joining this program,” said junior Dylan Tapley, who has scored 16 touchdowns and recorded seven interceptions this season as a two-way player. “I was always a receiver so him playing that defensive back position at the highest level in the NFL has prepared me so well, helped me execute, and helped me be in the right spot to make every single play on both sides of the ball.”
Senior defensive end Nolan Clement shared a similar sentiment.
“Coach keeps us disciplined, mentally strong, and tells us what we need to hear, keeping us prepared week in and out,” said Clement, who was a nightmare on the edge this season with 18 total sacks. “He knows how the people at the top of this profession work, and he coaches us just like that. He gives us advice that those people get, and it helps us out greatly.”
Desert Mountain’s season ended with a 35-33 defeat on a heartbreaking last-second field goal, officially ending any shot at a regular-season rematch against Notre Dame Prep. Still, Hamilton’s impact on the program can’t be overstated.
He has ushered in a newfound sense of professionalism and experience from mentors that include Mike Nolan, John Fox, Greg Brown and Todd Graham, along with his own time spent as a player and coach.
Behind a strong foundation in place, Hamilton expects only continued success and growth from Desert Mountain football.
“Our ultimate long-term goal is to win a state championship here,” Hamilton said. “The core group of our team, we only have 12 seniors, so 85% of our nucleus will be back next year as well. But I think improving every year, every day, every offseason, in the classroom, off the field – all that stuff I think gives you motivation to come back and continue to grow the program.”