ALBRIGHT: Big Reds made the correct gridiron hire with Mike Byus

Mike Byus brought a winning pedigree with him two years ago to a Parkersburg High School football program stuck in a rut.

One of the winningest head coaches during his time at East Lincoln High School (including two state titles and a 28-game winning streak) in North Carolina, Byus was used to success. Winning ways weren’t the Big Reds’ normal in the few years before his arrival.

PHS struggled to qualify for the playoffs after back-to-back state titles in 2006 and ’07 and when they did they suffered quick exits in ’10, ’11 and ’14. Two of those three games were decided by 20 points or more. Cabell Midland’s three-point win over the Big Reds in the opening round of the ’14 postseason was the closest final outcome physically and on the scoreboard.

Huntington and South Charleston pushed around the Big Reds with their strength in ’10 and ’11. An occurrence becoming a theme during a 35-38 record for the school from 2009 until 2016.

High school football changed in the Mountain State, leaving the Big Reds lagging behind. The successful teams moved away from running the ball all the time and adopted elements of the spread offense in certain packages. The Wing T remained the main predictable plan of attack for PHS.

Dusk had temporarily fallen on one of the most storied high school programs in the nation.

Like it or not, support for the Big Reds reached a low. Athletes who could have been valuable additions at skill positions weren’t coming out for the team. Why would they when the main plan is running the football and certain players fell in and out of favor with the coaching staff with little explanation or reason?

Declining ticket sales and records hovering around an uncompetitive .500 were the new normal for a program with 11 state titles.

Players were eager to win, but they didn’t know how … Especially during the biggest games.

Shaking up the program was the resignation of head coach Don Reeves on May 9, 2017. The search for his replacement began soon after with a special committee identifying potential candidates. Byus was offered and ultimately accepted the job.

“I can promise you there are no shortcuts,” Byus told me in an interview on the day of his hiring. “There is one way to end up being successful – You have to work hard.

“If you are a Big Red and have always dreamed of playing Big Red football we would sure love to have you,” he added about players who stepped away from the program for one reason or another.

Hard work began immediately in the weight room. Numbers increased as well as 100 kids showed up for summer ball. Strength gains showed on the field especially against the bigger teams on the Big Reds’ schedule in Huntington, Capital and Cabell Midland.

Outside of a hiccup against the Knights, PHS gridders competed on an equal level with the Highlanders and Cougars for the first time in a number of years. Neither matchup resulted in wins, but neither contest transformed into out-of-hand affairs where comebacks were pipe dreams either. The boys were believing in what Byus was selling according to senior running back Tyler Moler.

“We all bought in to what he was telling us,” said Moler on Byus’ influence the past two seasons. “I’m truly blessed to have a guy like him coaching me.”

Moler, who recorded his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season, became a key cog in the Big Reds balanced attack.

A 7-3 record after season one netted the improvement the fan base hoped for when they first packed Stadium Field for Byus’ opening game (a win) against St. Albans. John Marshall ended the turn-around campaign in the first round of the playoffs, but not without fierce opposition to its mission.

The ultimate sign a different era had dawned came against top-ranked and four-time defending state champion Martinsburg this past Saturday at Cobourn Field. PHS’ offense and defense played evenly for three-and-a-half quarters against a group on a now 40-game winning streak. Dave Walker’s team led just 21-7 at halftime, but the lead could have been just seven with another completed pass.

Though the Big Reds fell 49-20, they managed to score the most points the Bulldogs allowed to an in-state team this year. Hedgesville’s field goal in a 69-3 loss being the previous highest scoring tally by a Mountain State team against a Walker-coached defense. PHS wouldn’t be intimidated by anyone just like its head coach.

Now comes the challenging part as multiple Division I and II talents graduate in the winter or spring. Division I tight end Brenton Strange, Moler, offensive lineman Ryan Creech, quarterback Jake Johnson, safety Kionte Peacock, all graduate.

Full back Shane Miller, quarterback Max Anderson, wide receiver Dylan Shaver, lineman Greyson Cooper, Parker Olson, and Jalen King called it a Big Red career as well — each valuable contributors to the mission.

Yet, Byus appears up for the challenge. He has shown the adaptability to work with what he is given and get anyone involved who can assist his football team.

Contact Joe Albright at jalbright@newsandsentinel.com.

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