NEW PALESTINE — As Kyle Ralph answered the phone, sounds of his 5-year-old son, Kaeden, and 2-year-old daughter, Madison, playing in the background could be heard.
For the first day in months, the New Palestine head football coach was relishing some down time. Family time. Less than a week after the conclusion of the high school football season, Ralph wasn’t on a muddy practice field with whistle in hand at 3:15 p.m. on a weekday.
Instead, he was with his home team, being a dad, a job he wouldn’t give up for anything.
So why the phone call with no more games on the schedule or game plans to be fashioned for at least another nine months?
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Do you intend to leave New Palestine for another job? Do you want to move up to the college level like some are saying and writing about you?
“No. I don’t,” Ralph said.
The silence following his response said more than the three words uttered beforehand. A metaphor serving as a means to quiet the unnecessary concern surrounding his future, Ralph chuckled as the topic was brought to light. Making the jump from Class 5A high school football to say the Big Ten Conference isn’t an immediate goal nor is it something to take seriously.
It’s what people do, the coach said. It’s the offseason. Without a game to look forward to, “there isn’t much else to do but talk and speculate.”
Not to say the conversation isn’t warranted. In three short seasons, Ralph has coached the Dragons to a 41-2 record, two semistate titles, three semistate appearances, the program’s first-ever state title at 4A and nearly a second at 5A after bumping up a classification.
His team, led by Mr. Football candidate and senior quarterback Alex Neligh, came within eight seconds from the largest comeback in state finals history last Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium against eventual champion Fort Wayne Snider. The 64-61 defeat brought with it heartache but also prominence for a program hardly regarded as a state powerhouse.
The instant classic earned a re-broadcast on FOX Sports Indiana and gained a mention in the national media days after for the Dragons’ unfathomable 757 yards gained.
Along with it came the gibber.
“It’s kind of flattering in a way,” Ralph remarked on the conjecture following his team’s memorable state runner-up finish this season. “It shows that someone has paid attention to the amount of hard work that’s been put in at our program, the hard work me, the kids and my staff have put in the last couple of years that someone would think that highly of me. I appreciate that. You always like when people say nice stuff about you.”
While wildly unrealistic, taking a bee line from preps to Division-I, Ralph admits the opportunities have surfaced in the past and even today to coach elsewhere, but he’s not buying.
“We talk to our kids about leaving a legacy behind, but that’s kind of my ultimate goal, too, as a coach and someone who likes to work with kids,” Ralph said. “You want your legacy to outlast your coaching career. You want your legacy to outlast your lifetime.
“I enjoy making an impact on people, and that’s why I got into coaching and teaching. I think currently, I’m accomplishing that. There are things I need to get better at, but this is something I really enjoy doing. And I absolutely love our kids. I’m really happy here.”
His contentment is shown through his commitment, said New Palestine Athletics Director Al Cooper.
A former baseball state championship coach, Cooper jokes that when the school hired Ralph as a physical education teacher and coach, he knew it was “on rental,” meaning the administration hit the lottery. He saw it from the moment Ralph addressed the team and parents the winter before his inaugural season in 2013.
The example his new head coach set from the beginning confirmed what he believed.
“When we hired him in late January and early February, he drove from where he was teaching in Ohio after he left school and was in our weight room by 4:15 (p.m.). He was driving from Cincinnati to come here,” Cooper recalled. “He worked the kids out on Monday night, and told them he’d see them at 6 (a.m.). He would spend the night with his in-laws here in the community, go to the weight room, get back in his truck at 7:15 (a.m.) and make it back to school in Ohio by 9 (a.m.). He did the same thing on Wednesday nights.”
“What coach Ralph has done here pretty much speaks for itself,” Cooper added. “I got him as a person from the first time I met him. None of this is a surprise to me in what he’s been able to accomplish.”
According to Ralph, he’s not even close to being done at New Palestine.
The coaching landscape in the Hoosier Heritage Conference has been turned upside down in recent weeks, but Ralph doesn’t propose to add to the trend.
Two weeks ago news broke that 40-year coaching mainstay John Broughton retired from Pendleton Heights. Roger Dodson resigned from his post at Greenfield-Central and on Tuesday, Grant Zgunda, who coached for 18 seasons at Delta and 23 years overall, also retired.
The trio combined for 531 wins, 905 games in total and nearly 90 years of coaching.
Ralph is eyeing his fourth year as a head coach and 10th overall, including stints as an assistant at his alma mater in St. Xavier (Cincinnati), Oak Hills (Cincinnati) and Withrow High School (Ohio).
“Winning has become one of the nice things around here in a very short period of time. And they’ve won a lot of football games before I was even here, so this isn’t like it’s something new,” Ralph emphasized earlier this season. “There’s a lot of credit that goes to coach (Marvin) Shepler and the foundation he laid back before I was even born. It’s a matter of continuing that tradition.”
The legacy is already in place with the team shattering the state’s total yardage record with 7,701 in 14 games and scoring record 854 points.
While Ralph confesses, the future is unknown, it could be some time before he follows the path of a Brady Hoke or a Art Briles, as a columnist recently penned. He’d much rather be home with his wife, Ashley and their children than on the road or stuck in a hotel on the college recruiting trail.
He knows the calls won’t stop anytime soon. He’s already fielded interests from college teams and other high school programs. And turned them away, graciously.
“I love this community. I think what our football team has done to transform this community on Friday nights and throughout the rest of the year has been tremendous. That was one of the things when I came here, I really wanted to have an impact on a community,” Ralph said. “I’ve cherished the bonds I’ve made with our players and that’s something I wouldn’t give up for the world.”