By CRAIG SLATER
There aren't too many towns that love their local sports more than Raymond. And with that intense passion comes an expectation of winning, which is why Lloyd Fairbanks is a perfect fit.
In only his second year as head coach for the Comets high school football team, Fairbanks delivered a Tier I provincial championship over the weekend, a feat that hasn't been celebrated in Raymond for seven long years. Last season Fairbanks guided the Comets to within a game of the Alberta crown, falling to then two-time defending provincial champion Calgary's St. Francis Browns in the semifinal game.
While it's the players who are usually remembered in such dramatic moments, it's difficult to ignore the job Fairbanks has done in preparing his team for their championship season and elite status within the province.
"He deserves a lot of credit for all of this," said former Comet tailback Tyler Orr, who watched his old team defeat Edmonton's Bev Facey Falcons 25-0 in Saturday's provincial title game.
"He gets a lot out of his kids and puts them in the right positions for them to make plays. He's by far one of the best coaches I've ever played for. It's crazy just how much you learn from a guy like him."
Tossing pass rushers aside like he did for 16 seasons in the Canadian Football League, Fairbanks did the same with praise he's received as a coach.
"You always want qualification with what you're doing," said Fairbanks, a seven-time outstanding lineman with the Calgary Stampeders in the 1980s-90s. "You want to know what you're doing is right, but I was more happy to see the kids win it than anything else."
The Comets' offence has rarely been stagnant since his takeover, but that hasn't stopped Fairbanks from tinkering with the team's playbook on a weekly basis.
"His mind never stops working," said Comets assistant coach Bernie Orr. "He's constantly working on new things. He's probably the only guy I know who can watch game film and see all 24 guys on the field and know what they're all going to do."
Dalin Tollestrup was the focal point of the Comet offence this season, taking over the reins from the graduated Tyler Orr, the 2004 Southern Alberta High School League MVP. Both are electrifying athletes, but each forced Fairbanks to make considerable alterations to the offensive schemes from one year to the next.
Tollestrup is an athletic quarterback with a rifle arm, able to complete passes 40 yards or greater. Orr, meanwhile, was a speedy and shifty tailback who posed the threat of scoring from anywhere on the field. Both developed under Fairbanks' tutelage into two of the most feared weapons in the league, with Tollestrup being named the SAHSFL top quarterback and narrowly missing an MVP nod this season.
"There isn't a No. 1 system or one that's better than the other," Fairbanks said. "It's about what works for your personnel that makes it a right fit."
Either way, the Comet offence was, at times, nearly impossible to stop. Credit also goes to the versatile offensive line, a group that flourished under Fairbanks and his professional experience.
"You have to go to your strengths," Fairbanks said. "I always told the kids the offence is an evolution -- it's something that continually grows."
"We probably changed the playbook every week," he added. "We had 50 plays to run and we probably made revisions to at least half of them. If you tweak this or run a counter off that you might get better results. Not every play is designed to score a touchdown, you know."
But that didn't prevent Fairbanks from dreaming up the perfect play, albeit in unconventional manners.
"I remember last year he would come to practice with sheets and sheets of paper with plays he had drawn up or scribbled with at work that day," Tyler Orr said with a chuckle. "He would photocopy them and show them to us and then we'd learn them.
"He's so smart. He needs to watch film once and he knows what everyone is doing on the field. He knows what works and what won't work."
An example would be a third down gamble versus the Falcons on Saturday. One play after Tollestrup injured his shoulder and was taken off the field, the Comets lined up for a short field goal attempt. With their star player on the bench, everyone in attendance figured the Comets would kick the field goal and take the points -- everyone except Fairbanks.
"Dalin was hurt so we knew our offence and our scoring chances would be limited," Fairbanks explained. "That was as good a time as any to try something."
That "something" being backup quarterback Kenny Dahl hitting Dale Stevenson on a fake field goal and pass for a touchdown.
"That play broke their backs," Tyler Orr said. "No one was expecting it except for us. Lloyd's the kind of guy who would think of calling that play at that time."
So, is it the coach that make the athletes, or the athletes that make the coach?
"You have to have the athletes to win," Fairbanks said. "But it's my job to find ways for them to score. It's not one without the other. It's something that works in unison.
"Look at the Southern California (NCAA Trojans) situation. They have some pretty good athletes down there, but Pete Carroll is a pretty good coach too. It's a bit of both."
Speaking of coaching at the college, or even professional level ...
"I'm happy with what I'm doing now, but you never want to close the door on the future."