Every year, it seemed, Apache Junction football coach Rich Milligan spent his spring worrying about how to fill his freshman head coaching spot.
He would call retired coaches or try to find young guys with experience, and the process would sometimes draw into July.
He won’t have to concern himself with that for the foreseeable future.
In an unorthodox move, Milligan has decided to drop down from varsity to coach the Prospectors’ freshman team next season. He will be replaced at the top by former Gilbert offensive coordinator Justin MacDonald, who was also a former assistant at Apache Junction.
“(The freshman coach) is not a job that many people want,” Milligan said. “Most coaches want to be on the sideline on Friday nights with the varsity kids. We’re not a school where somebody is willing to put in two to three years and move up in the program.
“Over Spring Break I gave it a lot of thought, and when I came back I knew we had two options: I could hope we got lucky and find a quality person, or I could take this step and try to find a good solution. I wasn’t willing to sit around and hope we got lucky.”
Milligan first brought the idea to his superintendent, and after the idea had legs, he reached out to MacDonald, who was working as an assistant for Mesa Community College.
"My first reaction was ‘Wow, that’s really an innovative way of thinking,'" MacDonald said. "Once that reality started to make itself apparent, then I was on board. At that point it became an exciting prospect."
Milligan had reached out to MacDonald a couple times previously in an attempt to get him back to Apache Junction.
“He’s a great coach,” Milligan said. “Sooner or later he was going to get a head job. This guy’s going to be great somewhere in a few years. Why not give him the opportunity to be great here?”
Milligan took over the program in 2007 and compiled a 26-20 record in his four years at the helm. The Prospectors made the postseason all four years.
MacDonald was defensive coordinator at Apache Junction under Max Ragsdale and in the first year of Milligan’s tenure. He interviewed for the head job when Milligan was hired in 2007. MacDonald said his best coaching experiences have come with the Prospectors, and is excited to be with the program for the long haul.
"We're going to continue to build something unique there," MacDonald said. "There's nowhere else in the state I would rather coach."
Milligan believes the unusual move could pay huge dividends down the road.
“I don’t know that it’s ever been done before, but I know in my heart of hearts that it was the right call for us.,” Milligan said. “In five, six, seven years we might be grinning like Cheshire cats holding the golden football (after winning a state title), and we’re going to remember when we had the courage to do what we felt was the right thing for our program.”