Center Grove is definitely glad Eric Moore changed his mind.
For nearly a quarter of a century, the Edgewood High and Indiana University product has transformed the Trojans into a high school football powerhouse.
However, there was a point in the spring of 1999 when Moore had his doubts about coming back home to Indiana.
"I can remember standing on the hill adjacent across the parking lot from the building (football field) still with Jon Zwitt, the (Center Grove) athletic director," Moore recalled. "He asked me what I think, and we just talked about it before the interview. I said that I think you have a Taj Mahal basketball arena, but I think your football facilities are really terrible. I just don't think I could ever see myself coaching a place that didn't want football.
"He said, 'Well if you come here, we'll make this work. We'll make football good. So, I go, 'I believe you want to, I don't think it's happening.' So, I sort of pretty much left, and then I really didn't think I'd ever come back. And then it all happened."
The rest, they say, is history as Moore eventually chose to leave Charlotte High School in Florida to take over for Kevin King.
"I learned that the community really wanted football. Like more than I thought it did," Moore recalled. "So, I said, 'Oh, this is okay. And I thought of the kids since there were a lot of them. They had good size. They just didn't have any speed, and they had no idea what it took to win at a championship level. I think they thought they did, but they had been cheated in what really is a winning program."
This decision has blossomed into a 236-74 record with 17 sectional titles, 16 regional titles, eight semistate crowns, and five state championships (2008, 2015, 2020, 2021, and 2022).
Claiming his third consecutive Class 6A title with a 35-9 win over Carroll (Fort Wayne) on November 25 paved the way for Moore to be named as Indiana's representative for the Don Shula NFL (National Football League) High School Football Coach of the Year.
Going 5-5 in his first season gave Moore an opportunity to evaluate his competition.
"As the (first) season rolled, I got to see the schedule which was really difficult," Moore recalled. "My first year was the first year of the actual MIC (Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference) conference, so before that, they had only played two games or four games or whatever. This was a full seven games and I said in each game, I would report to the kids what I thought.
"Carmel was the big thing. Carmel was the first game. I knew Carmel was the standard. Carmel was always gonna be the team that you were gonna be compared to, and I said, 'I think they have a wonderful team. They are very well-coached. There were only eleven of us by the time we were playing, and I don't believe that they're ever gonna have that many more athletes than us if we work hard.'
"The families here (Center Grove), wanted their kids to go to college. They all had families that were pretty much where they didn't have to work a lot of crappy jobs, so I could have them full-time. Their job was gonna be to become better football players. So, I took that upon myself that I'm gonna put everything that I can into your kids to make them better football players and/or possibly college prospects, but you as parents have to help me by making sure they stay academically in tune at home, in no trouble, and you feed them well. I knew that these parents needed to do those things. We could lift hard because they wanted to lift hard. They had all the intangibles to a championship season right there. We just had to go ahead and start making steps."
A preview of things to come in the future happened the following fall when the Trojans finished 13-2 and were 2000 Class 5A state runner-up, falling 21-0 to Penn.
After having 130 players in the program his first go-around, the winning formula involved was getting them to make the necessary commitments.
"I turned the heat up. I'm a big run guy. I wanna run, I want speed, I wanna be in great condition. It takes no ability to be in great condition," explained Moore. "I can remember one day in the summer when we're doing one of our patented 800 (meter) repeats or mile repeats or something and this kid said, 'Listen coach, I don't wanna play, but if I'm on the team, then I get a truck.' And I said, 'Well, I hope you like your backup car because you ain't getting that truck because if you ain't gonna run these runs, you ain't gonna be on the team and you ain't gonna get that truck.'
"So, after a few episodes like that, the cream started rise to the top you know with Jonny Zwitt and Eric McClurg's of the world and the Jeremy Alystyne's started coming up, I could start seeing it and as I started back at the film, Jonny Zwitt was a halfback when he should've been a fullback, or a one back is what I call it. I told his dad I said, 'Every time the kid last year got eight yards, he would get a score because he was that good. And then he got 24 touchdowns the next year, so I was pretty much right."
Getting the opportunity to compete against several Indiana Hall of Fame coaches, including Penn's Chris Geesman, also proved to be a valuable learning experience for Moore.
"My staff was all really young at that point. I always talked to coach Dullaghan. I loved his appreciation for everybody's players. Dick was as good as anybody I've ever see. I only saw Geesman that one time at state. John Stafford, the head coach at Columbus East who won the first state championship there. I learned a lot from Bill Atkinson. I learned a lot from Bill Mallory at Indiana University and more.
"Think about it. It was Hoosiers," reminisced Moore. "It was a small Indiana town. We're Bargersville. We're not even Greenwood really. They had no idea. They wanted to break down state champs and I wouldn't let them do that. We broke down wins. You guys have gotta start winning first. The band had won championships, but not you. The band deserved the pride of being able to say champions, not you guys. So, we learned to respect each other and respect the game and respect what it took to go into it. And we're gonna break down after everything we do win. So, as we took off, we got to see great coaches.
"Coach (Dick) Dullaghan (Ben Davis) twice in week five and in semistate and Geesman in the finals My dear friend, (Martinsville) coach Bill Siderewicz, Al Harrants (North Central, Indianapolis), what a great man. The coach over at Terre Haute North (Wayne Stahley). Mo Moriarity at Bloomington South. So, hey it was tough, and you look at that schedule every year and people talk about you guys winning a lot of games. Look at the people we beat you know for 236 games. And then you fill in the 50 games I won in Florida. They were against great teams too, but that first year seeing all those legends on the schedule and competing with them and ultimately becoming good friends with all of them,"
One of his best coaching performances came in 2019 when Center Grove overcame a 4-5 regular season record to make it all the way to Lucas Oil Stadium before falling 20-17 to Carmel in the state title game.
"Our schedule has never had cupcakes on it," Moore said. "Now it's Cathedral twice, Warren Central twice, and then Ben Davis twice you know. Come and play it, you win eight games with our schedule, then you're good. We proved that in 2019 when we went to the state championship and we only won eight games, but we had to play Carmel twice and Ben Davis twice. Come and play those teams. That's why I take a lot of pride, probably more than anything is the schedule."
As it turned out, this began a stretch of four straight trips to the title affair.
"I think the second half of the (2019) season is where it started," explained Moore. "We knew what we were supposed to do, and we were focused and confident. After going undefeated in 2020, we had the swag to go back in there and say, 'Hey we're going to do this again (in 2021).'
"Even this year, nothing seemed to bother my guys. We really don't concentrate on them (opponents) outside of the X's and O's. It's all about us and what we do for Center Grove. This year, it was a totally different group of guys. The maturity of their mind. You should not have thought about being a state champion in January. You should have been thinking about what are you going to do to make yourself a better player? Then, what are you going to do to make the team better? Then, what are you going to do to help the team win? So legacy and opportunity are the victories to key on.
When the Trojans were trailing 10-0 to Indianapolis Cathedral in this year's semistate, many thought the magical post-season run might finally be over, but once again, they proved everyone wrong to battle back for a 33-10 triumph.
"Well, you hope that every team shows heart and toughness, and it's good to say that I feel very proud about that," Moore added. "The 2000 team is physically the toughest team I've ever coached, but it was also very talented. We had some talented kids go to Michigan, Cincinnati, etc. This season, we got by with toughness and being smart. Kids understanding the game and loving it first.
"When the guys went out onto the field for the title game, our kids were so jacked up and ready to go, I just felt that they were in tune right from the beginning of the game. I tried to describe it to them as this is where we belong. This is our game. We've been here four years and we own this show. We're like sharks when we see blood we play and our kids love the bigger the game, the better, just like the Cathedral game."
Instead of seizing the moment and savoring another state title, though, the 61-year-old Moore is dealing with more pressing issues in his life.
During a pre-surgery visit for his injured left knee last year, Moore found out one of his kidneys was not working.
However, when doctors went in to remove the kidney, they found four tumors in his bladder and decided to remove the tumors instead of the kidney.
Following nearly a year of good checkups, he went back to the doctor this past July, hoping to have the kidney removed and knee finally repaired.
Unfortunately, it was determined the cancer had returned, so Moore was forced to have another emergency surgery on his bladder.
Now, the waiting takes place once again.
"The support from the community has been overwhelming and the willingness to do anything I need to be done," explained Moore. "I've really not missed but a couple of days and anytime I need to miss, I know I can because people are ready to stand in for me Now that the season is over, I'm probably going to think about it a lot more because I don't have football as a distraction.
"However, the week of the state finals was tough on me because on Monday (November 21), I had to drive to Bloomington after the (state finals coaches') meeting to bury my nephew, who was taken by Leukemia. He got it last April and died in seven months.
"I still have the 'Owen Strong' sticker and I often think about that family (Carroll's senior quarterback Owen Scheele, who passed away from cancer in June) and how tough it must've been for them the whole season. I hope I taught my kids if anything if you love each other enough, play hard enough for each other, and love the game, you'll have great success. You may not win all the time, but you'll have great success.
"Cancer is scary, I'm a big baby and it's got me scared to death. I ain't gonna lie. I wish I knew how to handle that a little bit better. Plus. you just don't know when I go in (the hospital) and they go inside me and take a look. You can only handle so much so you just take it one day at a time.
"I can appreciate the Carroll team letting us put 'Owen Strong' sticker on our helmet and that helped me a lot. I've got so many people helping me out with that fight. As a country, government, or whatever we need to fight this better. It's scary and it consumes your life and just trying to do the best I can."
Although he is not sure what the future hold for him, Moore is content knowing God is looking after him.
"I think this experience made me think what's gonna happen down the road more than anything ever has," Moore said. "It makes me appreciate all the little moments. It also made me appreciate we serve a great God and I know that He has a great plan for me. I have peace knowing that when I leave here, I'm gonna be taken care of.
"There's a lot of evil in the world and it's not God doing that. It's us and we can control that if we wanted to. He's (God) there when we need him, and he's always been there when I've needed him, and he'll be there when anybody needs him. He gives us more than we can handle and there's a better place and I'm sure when we get there, we're gonna laugh about how much we worried about our situation here.
"I just worry about my kids and all other kids. Being sick has made me think about so many of my players. I have 24 plaques on my wall of all my teams and I gaze through there and look at the kids. I have kids that are doctors, lawyers, F1 fighter jet pilots, top gun pilots, kids in the military that are US Rangers, I've got firemen, I've got policemen, I've got teachers, I've got coaches, I've got fathers which is probably the thing I'm most proud of.
"So, my job is done, and I've done the best I could at trying to make kids better people. Now, we just have to learn football and we just have to win some championships."
No matter what happens, Eric Moore appears to have all of his priorities in good working order.
*Coach Moore was previously nominated for the Don Shula Award in 2020.
He previously was honored as the Colts Coach of the Week in week No.11 in 2020, week No.3 in 2007 and in week No.7 of 2004.