Vela’s Campbell is Coach of the Year in first season in RGV

EDINBURG — Edinburg Vela hired John Campbell on April 19, and from that day on, the coach has been in a whirlwind.

Just last week, Campbell finally got some meaningful time to relax after leading the SaberCats to the third round of the playoffs.

Still, anyone who knows Campbell knows he never really relaxes completely, and it is his dedication and obsession with football — combined with his ability to teach, guide and lead his players — that netted Campbell The Monitor’s 2017 All-Area Football Coach of the Year honors.

“I am humbled and I am honored,” Campbell said. “I really enjoyed the six months that I have been down here. Obviously, we feel very fortunate and blessed to have had the season that we did. To finish it off with that recognition, I am humbled and honored.”

In the days and weeks that followed Campbell’s hiring, Campbell scrambled to build a staff to fill his blind spots and weaknesses. The other major concern was getting his team into spring football.

The UIL allows teams to choose extra practice time during the spring or fall. Campbell knew he would be tweaking the offense and the defense, so spring ball was a must.

“I think there was a lot of disappointment surrounding the end of last year and the way they lost in the first round to a very good and well-coached Weslaco East team,” Campbell said. “And then, obviously, the late transition. We were late in getting going with spring ball and late in getting all the coaches down here. But the fact that that group was able to — for a lack of a better term — survive that late transition, I think that is a credit to the leadership and the resiliency and the quality of character of the talented players who were here.”

From the time he was hired, Campbell has always praised former Vela coach Michael Salinas for the condition the program was in when he took over.

“There are some kids that we may not remember their names in the annuls of South Texas football history, but they were kind of the meat and potatoes behind the whole thing,” Campbell said. “I think more importantly, there are some young men in that senior class that are strong guys that had a strong character and that had a belief (that) they wanted to be a part of this and kind of guide the ship a little bit.”

Campbell led the SaberCats to an undefeated regular season, that allowed them to go three rounds deep into the playoffs. The SaberCats’ season finally came to a close when Vela lost to Austin Westlake, 70-14, in a Class 6A regional quarterfinal game on Dec. 1.

Since then, Campbell has finally had some free time, which allowed him to take care of a couple of important things.

Before he was hired at Vela, Campbell spent much of his career coaching high school football in San Antonio. One exception was in 2015, when Campbell coached at Texas A&M-Commerce. So on Dec. 16, Campbell was in attendance to see Commerce beat West Florida to win the NCAA Division II national championship.

“To be able to finish off our season, and then I had a chance to go and see the kiddos that I had coached and helped recruit over there at Texas A&M Commerce, watch them win a national championship. Then to come back and watch my daughter graduate. Then head back here to wrap up the school year, and to find out that I’m being recognized this way, it’s been a pretty good week,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s daughter graduated from Texas A&M-San Antonio, and plans to join Campbell’s son in following in their father’s footsteps.

“She’s about to get started in education, as well,” Campbell said of his daughter. “I’ve got two kiddos that are going to be going into the same profession that I am in. That’s exciting.”

For all of the accolades and awards, nothing speaks more directly to Campbell’s ability as a coach than what his players say about him.

“(Campbell) winning (this award), that means that we had a pretty good squad under him,” senior quarterback Nathan Garica said. “We had everything working good. Everything came along smoothly, and we had a great season.”

Garcia said he believes Campbell was the perfect fit for Vela.

“He was very deserving of the recognition because of what he brought to the table: his brains, his mentality and the way he knows the game,” Garcia said. “I think if you look at what he did for our defensive scheme especially, you can see what a difference he made.”

Garcia and Campbell became close over the past six months. Part of the reason for that connection is the job Campbell does trying to connect with his players.

“It’s really the day to day interactions, and the relationships that you develop — not necessarily just on Friday nights, but sometimes it’s a Monday afternoon at practice and somebody says something silly,” Campbell said. “I think the head coach at Kennedale (Richard Barret, who led his team to a Class 4A state championship game this year) said it best: ‘As a coach, you get to see a look in a young man’s eye on the sideline, on a Friday night, that nobody else gets to see.’ It’s really hard to put that into words, but it’s those moments, it’s those interactions — whether it’s football practice, or it’s in the middle of the game when Austin (Garza, senior kicker) kicks a game-winning field goal — it’s the combination of all those that make each season special and unique. The specialness, so to speak, and the uniqueness is that it’s a different set of kids and they bring their own personality every year.”

The Monitor’s 2017 All-Area Football awards

Newcomer of the Year: Mikey Garcia, Mission Veterans

All-Purpose Player of the Year: Daniel Enriquez, Edinburg Vela