Glacier’s winning culture: Built one week at a time

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Glacier seniors Jaxen Hashley (right) and Patrick O'Connell (16) celebrate after the Wolfpack's 29-14 victory over Helena High in the semifinal game at Legends Stadium last Friday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

It’s commonplace for football coaches to talk about a team feeling and acting like a family.

Typically, that’s built through the long and arduous grind of a football season. When you spend two or three hours each day with a group of people for the better part of four months, you tend to build a bond, if not a fondness for one another.

What’s not typical is for those coaches to sit down with players for a half hour at the beginning of every week of practice and work on those relationships.

That bond, and the success that it has bred, is one of the many things that has helped Glacier turn from a half-filled high school into the state’s archetype program in the span of just 10 years.

The wins have piled up over the last decade. In 10 years, the Wolfpack has been to the Class AA playoffs seven times and made it to the semifinals each of the last six years. In three of the last four seasons the team has made it all the way to the championship game, missing out last season by the narrowest of margins to the eventual state champion.

Success now is almost expected, something that was far from the case as the school’s winning culture was being built in its formative years.

“The selling points were that we were going to go build something and that we were going to be the foundation of it, that it might not be pretty early but there would be payoff,” said Kramer Wilson, a junior on the 2007 Wolfpack team and an assistant coach with the varsity program for the last four years.

“The payoff for us was more moral victories.”

“Reality hit pretty quick,” said Conner Fuller, a first-year coach with the Wolfpack who was a sophomore in 2007.

“But these coaches really gave us a plan for the future. We knew great things were going to happen quick and fast.”

The first thing cited by many current and former players is the Pack Strength program instituted by head coach Grady Bennett in the first year.

The idea stemmed from his days coaching at Flathead before the high school split. Bennett started giving the talks, wanting to find out more about his players as people, and to hopefully build their lives outside of football. He began giving his teams talks about character, but they came at the end of the day’s work, when the message typically fell on deaf ears as a group of tired players looked for the earliest moment to get out of practice.

“Finally, one of the coaches said, ‘This is crazy,’” Bennett said. “When we came over here we started designating a piece of the week. I told coaches you’re going to have to give up something. We’re losing some meeting time, losing some film time. (Eventually) they started seeing the value in it.

“It’s fun for me, because that’s where my heart is a teacher and an educator,” Bennett added.

After some initial push back, the program has embraced the time, which helped build the team bond after a tough first two seasons. Glacier went 0-10 its first year and 2-8 its second year. But, by the time its second senior class took over, so had the culture Bennett was trying to build.

“It was year three or four that one of the coaches really affirmed it as the key, what’s really starting to get our program turned around,” he said.

“I knew it was good stuff, but when you get that real affirmation from a staff member like that, that says, ‘No matter what, keep going with it,’ that makes you really feel good. It’s really the most important thing we do of all of it.”

“That’s where we developed the culture with the brotherhood,” Fuller said.

“That third year we felt confident enough to buy in and really win some games.”

The Wolfpack went 7-3 in the regular season in 2009, making the playoffs for the first time. That year the team lost in the first round.

Glacier has been to the playoffs every year since and hasn’t lost before the semifinals in any of the six seasons.

“Coming from 0-10, now seeing six straight semifinals, it’s jarring to see how quick things can progress if you get a group of guys to commit,” Fuller said. “(The seniors) get those kids to buy in.

“The kids love being out here at practice, that makes Friday nights easier.”

Coaches and players credit the weekly sessions with helping the team to trust each other, along with building a trust that extends into the smallest parts of coaching and development throughout a football season.

“Kids really buy into it because it’s more fun to be around an encouraging, positive atmosphere,” Bennett said.

Given a theme each week, the overriding theme the team is working on this season is culture, one of seven points in a book given to the team’s leadership.

The team’s culture has built a long string of winners in its first decade, and will likely build more in the coming years.

Chris Turner, an assistant coach for Glacier High School, reacts to a touchdown during the Wolfpack's win over Missoula Sentinel in the opening round of the playoffs. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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