When Jon Kitna was hired as the coach at Lincoln High School in Tacoma three years ago, he said he wanted to make the team relevant within the state in five years and nationally within 10.
That was cut short Wednesday. He informed the team in a morning meeting that he has accepted a position at Waxahachie High School, a Class 5A school south of Dallas. His last day at Lincoln is Friday.
Officials at Waxahachie declined to comment because the position had not officially been filled, but the school is holding a board meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday with the only action item being its open head coach and athletic director positions.
“When I took this job (at Lincoln), it was a dream job for me,” said Kitna, a 1991 graduate of the school. “But as much as it was a dream for me, I will always have to live my life open-handedly and make room for God to do what God is going to do.
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“The dream would be to stay here, the comfortable thing would have been to stay here, the ideal thing would have been to stay here. But where God is leading me, I have to follow, and I’ve always said that.”
Kitna, who spent the first four years of his 16-year NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks and the final four with the Dallas Cowboys, said it came down to sustainable positions for his assistant coaches.
At least four assistants will go with him, including brother Matt Kitna. Junior quarterback Jordan Kitna, Jon’s son, is going, as is junior tight end Devan Brady, whose father is Lincoln assistant Evan Brady. The other assistants leaving are Casey Kjos, Damola Adeniji and possibly Corey McBride, who had not decided as of Wednesday.
Lincoln had five assistant coaches, with each making almost $5,000 this year. In the 2013-14 school year, Kitna was paid almost $40,000 to coach and teach part time at Lincoln. Kitna said the pay for his assistants made it difficult to keep them and that his staff payroll will increase at Waxahachie.
“It’s really hard to ask coaches to put in 25-30 hours a week after they work a 40-hour-a-week job,” Kitna said. “If you just want to show up for practice, OK, we’ll go through our two-hour practice and show up on Friday. That’s great. We would be mediocre, we would compete for our league title here every year and stuff.
“But at the end of the day, I can’t stand average. I want to be able to compete at the highest level. I just don’t think we could sustain it as is, as it is currently constructed.”
Lincoln principal Pat Erwin was supportive of Kitna’s decision.
But Erwin said he is disappointed the school was losing a coach of Kitna’s caliber. Kitna led the football program to back-to-back 3A Narrows League titles, becoming the first city school to accomplish that since Mount Tahoma in 1979-80; its second state tournament appearance in school history, losing in the quarterfinals to eventual state champion Eastside Catholic, 36-29, and helped improve players’ grade-point averages from about 1.4 when he entered the program to over 3.0.
“He called me (Sunday) and said, ‘This is the phone call I don’t want to make,’ ” Erwin said. “At that moment I was like, ‘Oh no.’ And he just said, ‘I have an opportunity.’
“I understand why you take the opportunity. But still, I’m disappointed on a professional and personal level. I’m disappointed he’s not going to be here. I’m not disappointed in his decision. … He’s become a real close friend of mine. I expect him to do great things. I expect Waxahachie to make national news pretty soon.”
Erwin said he emailed the staff and faculty of Kitna’s departure and opened the position Wednesday morning. Kitna is also a weight training and conditioning teacher at the school.
No candidates are lined up, but Erwin said he expects that to change quickly.
“It should be a very attractive position because we’ve benefited greatly from the Kitna family and their generosity,” Erwin said. “We have supplies, equipment, a fabulous weight room and a well-stocked team of capable young men. We want to hire in such a manner where we can continue with the philosophy that Jon brought there and focusing on character.”
But with Jon Kitna also goes son Jordan, who threw for 3,702 yards and 55 touchdown passes last season.
Jon Kitna requested that Jordan not be made available for comment.
“Jordan was very involved in this decision,” Jon Kitna said. “He had the most to give up. He’s brothers with these guys. … It’s a tough deal. I wish it was one year later. But, again, I have to separate my emotion from it all and follow where I see God lead.”
Jon Kitna said there were players who were saddened and others who appeared upset when he gave them the news of his departure.
“One of the questions asked was, ‘Did we do something wrong?’ And it’s unfortunate that that would be a question,” Kitna said. “I couldn’t have asked more from my players during the time that I was here. … They did everything that we asked them to do. It had nothing to do with the players.”
Lincoln senior Dehonta Hayes said at first he didn’t understand why Kitna would leave, but that changed after the meeting.
“He was telling us, clearing everything up, that what we had been hearing wasn’t true,” Hayes said. “He said, ‘I’m not leaving because of you guys, I’m leaving because it’s my time to go.’
“I just feel for the guys who are here and don’t get that same connection with him. It was already hard enough to get recruited even with Coach Kitna and the types of connections that he has.”
Kitna said he believed Lincoln’s success wasn’t sustainable under the current structure he had with his assistant coaches, though Waxahachie was the seventh school — which included one unnamed college — to contact him in the past two years about a coaching job.
“If it was sustainable, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Kitna said.
“I was contacted on the phone two weeks ago (by Waxahachie) for the first time. I said, ‘If you can make it right for my assistants, I know you have the support in place there that makes it sustainable. If you can make it right for my assistants, I feel like that’s the direction I need to head.’ And he didn’t blink, and it was all approved last night at 9 p.m.
“It was hard for me to require (assistants) to do things at a high level to do the things we’ve done the past three years. I was starting to lose assistants. I had assistants hanging on by a thread, I had assistants that had to stop coaching because they were going to get fired from their real jobs. I was going to lose all my assistants and that’s what I’m a product of, those guys.”
Kitna said his time at Lincoln “was an absolute blessing.”
“I wish I could stay here forever. But it’s not the reality. And God doesn’t call me to be comfortable. We invested a lot of time and energy and resources into these three years and it was wildly successful beyond anybody’s beliefs and dreams. … Whoever takes over this program is taking over a program that is light years ahead of where it was three years ago.”
Staff writer Todd Milles contributed to this report.