When Ron Johnson coached at Miami University, even when he was the coach at Middletown and Westlake, he knew about the Canton McKinley vs. Massillon Washington rivalry.
When Jason Hall ran the programs at Southeast, Brush and Nordonia, even when he was in college at Mount Union, he knew what this game meant to these communities.
This year, though, these coaches will experience this series first hand for the first time. Johnson took over at McKinley at the beginning of this year – after a 3-7 mark last season – and has begun the Bulldogs' rebuilding process. Well, rebuilding process might be the wrong phase; Johnson said it's more a remodeling job.
Hall, meanwhile, accepted the Massillon job after last season and began retooling a squad that started the 2007 season by losing four of its first six games and missed the playoffs. Although the season has been topsy-turvy for the Tigers (5-4), Hall said he knows what Saturday's game means.
He learned it from his college roommate, a former Massillon player.
"Obviously if you grew up in Ohio and have been involved in football, you knew about this rivalry for years," Hall said. "I was well aware of it, and once you get here and talk with the community and the boosters and the kids, you realize how passionate everybody is about the game. It's something that both communities look forward to. They'll take that whole week preparing for it. It's almost like being at a bowl game. There are parades, breakfasts, dinners, rallies."
And when, as Hall knows, you're hired to coach one of the schools, the first thing boosters and school officials talk about is this game.
Johnson knows Hall speaks the truth. On his end of town, Johnson has felt the weight of this game as well.
"I had always respected it and been aware of it, but the intensity is much greater than you can anticipate until you are in the eye of the hurricane," Johnson said. "Every age level, every demographic, every teacher, every professional, rotary clubs, chamber of commerce, bands, rest homes. Everyone is involved.
"To put it in perspective, we had homecoming (two weeks) ago and they marched some pretty girls out at halftime and crowned a queen. That was it. Every spirit day, every decoration, every costume, every party, it's for this week."
This year, though, the two squads have had more to think about than this rivalry game, which dates back to 1894 and is the only high school game that receives odds in Las Vegas.
Johnson has used various props throughout the season to teach his team what it needs to accomplish. This year, he's used mop strings, poker chips and stepladders to make his point, and it seems to have worked. Despite losing their first two contests, the Bulldogs (6-3) still have a chance to share the Federal League championship.
"We have a theme every week of what we need to accomplish," Johnson said. "We emphasize part of that theme each day. We try to tie it all together with something tangible that they can relate to in a time of need or when there's a crisis on the field. Visuals are good. They understand it. It's been a positive thing. It's something they can rally around."
Hall gave the Tigers something to rally around, as well. Namely, the stripes on their helmet. In the first game of the season, Massillon entered the stadium with plain white helmets. The Tigers had to earn the right to wear the helmets modeled after the 1970 squad – the last Massillon team to win a state title.
"It's something I believe in; you have to earn the hardware you have," Hall said. "What I wanted our kids and community to know, we don't take that lightly. We want our kids to earn the right to wear the Massillon stripe, to earn the right to have a Paul Brown sticker on it. There are things that have been established here. You never want the kids to feel in a position they want things to be handed to them."
Forgive the Tigers if they've felt that sense of entitlement – after all, they've won 22 state and nine mythical national titles (McKinley has won three state and two national championships). But nobody expects anybody to hand over the victory Saturday. This game – and this series – is too important to everybody involved.
"Both schools, we feel like the birthplace of football is right here, within seven miles of each other," Hall said. "You can tell by the people who have played in the game and the people who have come back. When you get hired, one of the first things they talk about is the McKinley game. And as soon as the game ends, they'll start talking about the game next year and those matchups. It's a year-round conversation."
Game of the Week: Canton McKinley Bulldogs vs Massillon Washington Tigers
KEY TO THE GAME: Massillon Washington Tigers
Establish the running game. Coach Jason Hall will count on senior running back J.T. Turner, who's rushed for at least 150 yards in four games and has recorded 1,125 yards and nine scores during the season. If Turner, who's committed to Michigan, can repeat his performance against Warren Harding two weeks ago (213 yards and two scores on 20 carries), that'll help the Tigers.
KEY TO THE GAME: Canton McKinley Bulldogs
Take what the defense gives. Three weeks ago against Perry, the Bulldogs threw for 250 yards and ran for another 225. That's the kind of balance coach Ron Johnson likes to see. Yet, McKinley can improvise as well. The Bulldogs have had games where, behind back Monterae Williams, they've run on virtually every snap. If McKinley can maintain that flexibility vs. the Tigers defense, it'll have a good chance to win.
Note: Controlling the emotions
Both teams' coaches are thinking about this. With a rivalry game, one of the most important factors in the minds of Johnson and Hall is for their teams to maintain their composure. While they know their teams will play with intensity, they don't want emotion to impact execution. It won't be easy. This, after all, is the best rivalry game in the country.