- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

PURCELLVILLE, Va. — Look at the numbers. They are the best indicator of whether Danny McGrath will succeed. It’s a roll of the dice, a lottery pick, this business of predicting whether a bright-eyed young man can handle a job for which the archetype is a hardened old-timer.

Pick a number, any number, say 25 - that’s how old McGrath is. That didn’t stop the administrators from naming him the football coach at Loudoun Valley High School less than two weeks ago. But the questions linger.

Can McGrath, eight years removed from his days as the jolly king of Herndon High School, carry a Virginia Group AAA high school program? How will McGrath, the guy Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon remembers as “‘Dan-O,’ one of the funniest guys around” withstand the sobering task of taking on the hopes of Purcellville - one of the last true small towns left in Northern Virginia? Pick a number…

Zero. Zip. None. That’s about as much patience as the people of Purcellville have with unsuccessful football coaches. Purcellville is the type of place where a man’s conscience - not the threat of possible criminal sanction - keeps him from speeding, the kind of town that still has a water tower painted in team colors and a main street with a diner, where men sit around and speak football in slow drawl. Football coaches that win, as longtime Vikings coach Mike Barton did in the 1970s and 1980s, can be more popular than the mayor. Those that lose, well…

“I hear a lot of grumbling,” says Darrell “Block” Furr, the owner of Darrell’s Barber Shop and LVHS class of ‘81. “Everyone thinks their kid is going to get a scholarship, and that’s not realistic. They want the team to win to get exposure, and then when that doesn’t happen they want to go out and lynch the coach.”

Ten. That’s how many days McGrath has before two-a-days start Aug. 1. It’s a shade after 9 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, and the way McGrath is standing in the Vikings’ spacious weight room, dressed in a blue T-shirt, white shorts and dirty Nike running shoes, craning his neck to watch 46-year-old assistant coach John Cowne demonstrate proper lifting technique, McGrath easily could be mistaken for the Vikings’ largest lineman.

“I wish I had some Loudoun Valley stuff to wear,” he says, watching two string-bean freshmen struggle with a pair of dumbbells. McGrath hasn’t had time to rustle up any green Vikings duds in the five days since he was named coach. He has been too busy meeting with the school administrators… and trying to piece together some semblance of a coaching staff… and counting mouthpieces… and introducing himself to players and parents who he knows are probably all wondering why this round-faced child-man with one year of coaching experience has been trusted to take care of their boys.

Fifty-four. That’s how many days elapsed between former coach Bruce Sheppard’s resignation May 20 and McGrath’s hiring July 13. Athletic director Janeen Schutte thought she had found a replacement in June, only to see him resign after a week. A pair of potential stars, one of them the likely starting quarterback, jumped ship for other area schools. The unrest - in the locker room, among the PTA, at McGrath’s - grew by the day.

“No one was particularly pleased with how the hiring process went,” says Chris Music, a 17-year-old senior wide receiver.

“It’s been depressing,” 16-year-old junior linebacker Ricky Simmons adds.

Four hundred and seventy. That’s how many miles the Vikings will travel round trip over the course of the upcoming season. There’s the 50-mile foray to Forest Park on Sept. 5, followed by a 58-mile trek to Woodbridge the next week. The 62-mile march to Culpeper County comes on the heels of an 40-mile trip to Stonewall Jackson High the second weekend in October. The shortest? A 25-mile trip to Haymarket, Va. All in a yellow-dog school bus piled high with putrid, sweat-stained football pads and no air conditioning.

“That’ll be interesting,” McGrath says with a queasy half-smile. “I am going to see a lot of stadiums in my first two years as a high school coach, and we are going to get some good bus routines going.”

Sixty-two. That’s how many wins Loudoun Valley’s 10 opponents in 2008 combined for last season, sixty more than the Vikings won in 2007. Two of the Vikings’ first three opponents, Stone Bridge and Woodbridge, reached the state finals.

“Wow,” McGrath says, previously unaware of the fact. “Yeah. Well, that’s exciting. … I guess we’ll see how we measure up.”

Twelve. That’s the number of returning starters on the Vikings’ depth chart. According to Cowne, a heartbreakingly optimistic former NFL center and the lone holdover from Sheppard’s staff, the team has holes to fill at quarterback, running back and on the offensive and defensive lines. According to listings on the weight room wall, the Vikings have only one player strong enough to bench 300 pounds and only one fast enough to clock a 4.4-second 40-yard dash.

Thirty. That’s how many pounds Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring estimates Danny McGrath gave up on average to opposing defenders early in his career as Hokies’ center.

“Everyone was always asking, ‘Is he big enough? Is he tall enough to play Division I football?’” Stinespring says.

McGrath went into the weight room and added 30 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-2 frame. But the former all-region guard also was having trouble mastering the complex presnap reads required of his new position. So he redshirted his second season and waited. Over his last two years, he started 20 games and captained the 2006 squad that went 10-3.

“He was a smart player who worked hard and was patient - he waited his time to get on the field,” says Glennon, the Hokies’ quarterback McGrath’s senior season.

“He was never lacking in heart,” Stinespring adds.

Three. That’s how many years it took McGrath to graduate with a degree in physical education, earn All-ACC Academic honors and win a team leadership award. He added a master’s degree after a fourth year in Blacksburg, all part of the plan McGrath hatched shortly after arriving at Virginia Tech.

“I kind of set a course to be a head coach and a teacher at a high school,” McGrath says. “If I went to the NFL for 10 years, I knew I would go into teaching. If I never went to the NFL, I knew I would go into teaching.”

McGrath ignored the voices telling him he could catch on as a free agent and earn a living riding pine on Sundays. He got a job teaching at Rolling Ridge Elementary in Sterling, Va., and coaching the offensive line at Park View High School across town.

Ten. That’s how many games the Park View Patriots won in 2007, en route to a berth in the Region II Division 4 championship game. At start of the season, Patriots coach Andy Hill was uncertain about his squad. How would his offense fare after losing leading rusher Deric Dudinski to graduation? How would the linemen respond to the energetic young coach who asked so many questions of his new charges during preseason drills that it made their heads spin?

By the end of the year, Hill says, the Patriots’ spread attack “was better than ever.”

“Danny’s group - the O-line - they were never questioned,” Hill says. “That’s why we were successful last year. He really taught the kids how to learn the game.”

In the spring, he volunteered to coach lacrosse. It didn’t matter that he had never picked up a stick in his life.

“When he came in and spoke about being part of the community and how he wanted to have the boys learn character and doing public service, we felt he was a good find for Loudoun County,” Schutte says.

Thirty. That’s how many days in the future McGrath has planned out in his mind. From this moment in his office until Aug. 16, McGrath has everything planned - every practice, every meeting, down to what his coaches will cover in each meeting and what his players will wear to each practice. He hasn’t slept much in a week because he never stops thinking - of a way to tweak the efficient practice system he learned at Virginia Tech, of additions to his playbook, of a new way to explain a cut block to a kid nine years his junior.

“I woke up at six this morning and tossed and turned,” McGrath says. “I was thinking about all these ideas I wanted to share with my assistants.”

He likes how he has to lock the weight room at the end of the day because the kids sneak in to lift after hours. He noticed how, when he came into Purcellville to go grocery shopping earlier in the summer, the boys from Loudoun Valley were out in the heat, running and pushing themselves to get better, even without a coach’s direction.

Zero. Zip. Nothing. That’s all Danny McGrath and the Loudoun Valley Vikings have to lose this season. From the barber shop to the family restaurant, conversation centers around the “new blood” pulsing through Purcellville.

“I can tell it’s just going to be a different atmosphere with Coach McGrath,” says Declan Holmes, a senior defensive back.

Nothing. That’s what they - Stinespring, Glennon and Tom Meier, the former Herndon coach - say McGrath can’t accomplish.

“No 25-year-old is truly ready to be a high school head coach,” Meier says. “But if there is one guy who can do it, it’s Danny McGrath.”

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