It took six years, but Rich Sjoroos is once again coaching high school football in his hometown.
The Juneau School District tabbed the former Juneau-Douglas High School coach to lead the merged JDHS-Thunder Mountain High School program next season. JDHS athletic director Chad Bentz announced the hire via a text message on Friday morning.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words — it’s pretty exciting,” Sjoroos said by cellphone Friday morning. “It feels just good to have the support that I’ve had over the years from everybody in this community.”
Sjoroos replaces Randy Quinto, a TMHS teacher and head coach for the past four years, three with TMHS and one with Juneau’s consolidated team. The three-time Southeast Conference coach of the year resigned approximately one month after last season. JSD Director of Human Resources Darryl Smith said Quinto “looked at it as a time to maybe move on and do something else.”
Sjoroos, 49, coached the Crimson Bears from 2001-2013, and served as the head coach from 2009-2013. As the varsity offensive coordinator from 2003-2008, Sjoroos won state championships in 2005 and 2007. He looks back fondly on his entire experience in the high school ranks.
“I think our program is so unique because the kids and families and community are so invested,” Sjoroos said. “It’s not just football, it’s other sports, too. But football has a pretty hefty travel budget to keep itself alive … so I just feel the kids that you’re getting out for football are super invested.”
The school district began the coaching search in mid-November, and after receiving no applicants within the district (faculty receives first consideration coaching vacancies), it was opened to external applicants on Dec. 3.
Bentz and several others conducted interviews with six different applicants on Tuesday and Wednesday at TMHS. He said it wasn’t an easy decision to land on the right candidate, adding all of them “would’ve been great head coaches.” However, Sjoroos’ familiarity with the players at both high schools was a factor in his selection.
“They all know him through JYFL (Juneau Youth Football League), he’s not a teacher,” Bentz said. “We feel like he’s going to do a fantastic job and we’re really excited.”
The two high school programs merged last fall amid financial turmoil and growing concerns over player safety. The district’s new team, known first as the “Thunder Bears” and later “Juneau United,” went 0-8 in its inaugural season. The junior varsity program won three games. Sjoroos said he firmly believes brighter days are just around the corner.
“There’s a lot of talented athletes in Juneau, it’s just a matter of getting them out and getting them excited about football again,” he said. “I think that will be our biggest focus after the holidays.”
Sjoroos has been active with JYFL after stepping down from coaching JDHS in 2013.
“It’s been great, but it’s also been tough to coach against your neighbor’s kid or your friend’s kid, stuff like that,” Sjoroos said. “Now, we’re all one group and we’re going to be taking on Anchorage and Fairbanks and the Mat-Su Valley.”
The new coach said the biggest challenge of making one team out of two schools will be the logistics. Sjoroos made it a habit to lead lunchtime film sessions while at JDHS. Now, that might not be possible to do. At the end of the day, Sjoroos said, the schools are “just 10 miles apart, so I think we’ll figure out and find a way to make it work.”
Sjoroos said he’s not yet named his assistant coaches. He anticipates beginning fundraising and offseason workouts next month.
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.