I’ve had to do this way too much in the past year: Say goodbye to an influential person in my life.
This time, it’s Ralph Pierce, who passed away Jan. 27 at age 78. “Ruf,” as we called him, was a longtime football assistant at Mogadore High School, coaching the Wildcats’ offensive line and defensive ends/cornerbacks.
I played guard for Ruf in 1984 and ’85, and I have met very few people in my life who paid as much attention to detail and could get the absolute most out of someone than he did.
Ruf was meticulous. Nothing escaped his attention. He turned offensive line play into a science: every step, every angle, every motion mattered. If we ran the same play five times in practice, and you looked like everybody’s All-American on the first four but slipped off your block on the fifth, you knew what was coming next: “Run it again!” Ruf would say as you sheepishly made your way back to the huddle.
Because Ruf believed you could do better, even if you didn’t believe it yourself.
For Ruf, line play wasn’t just about lining ’em up and knocking ’em down. It was cerebral. It was about gaining the element of surprise and doing it quickly — and the only way that would happen was if he had what amounted to five coaches playing on his offensive line. So, to that end, he demanded that his linemen understood defenses as well as he did, that they recognized formations, could spot disguised defenses, were able to change course on a blocking assignment in a millisecond.
To accomplish that, Ruf would devote plenty of practice time to skull sessions, incessantly quizzing his offensive linemen on their assignments based on defensive alignments and movement at the snap. Some of the toughest tests I took at Mogadore High School involved standing at the line of scrimmage in football practice as Ruf asked me who I block on, say, 26 Power if the defense lines up like this or that, and then this guy goes that way and that guy goes this way and the end crashes down and the outside backer steps out and the inside backer blitzes through the 2 hole. It seemed like there were a thousand possibilities on every play, and the odds of getting it right in a split-second on game night were somewhere between slim and none.
And Ruf understood that. He knew that the sheer number of possible circumstances could create confusion and uncertainty among his linemen. Therefore, he would pepper us with questions all week, preparing us for every eventuality until there was nothing the opponent’s defense could do on Friday night that would catch us off guard. He didn’t just want us to know our assignments inside and out, he wanted us to know the game itself — to see the field, not just play on it.
Because of that approach, I have no doubt Ruf could have coached offensive line in the NFL. The man understood the game on a deep level. Our chalk sessions on the blackboard in the fieldhouse felt like sitting in a classroom. “This is what it must be like in the NFL,” I thought. There were chalk lines going this way and that, arrows pointing in seemingly every direction, indicating who each lineman blocks if this, that or the other happens. And then more quiz questions. My head would be spinning. At times, I would even think, “I’m not smart enough to play here.” It was actually humbling.
But knowing your assignment and executing it are two different things. It doesn’t do much good if you know what you’re doing, but you’re not good enough to actually do it. And to that end, Ruf was a stickler with fundamentals: stay low, keep your feet moving, and keep your head up. Especially keep your head up — and in that regard, Ruf was ahead of his time. He didn’t preach for us to keep our heads up just for the obvious reason — “you can’t block someone if you can’t see him,” Ruf would say — but to keep our heads up so we didn’t risk serious injury on impact with a defender. “See what you hit,” he implored. “Don’t lower your head; you could jam your neck and be paralyzed.”
Decades later, “see what you hit” has become a mantra for player safety at all levels of football. This isn’t to suggest Ruf was the first coach to instill that into his players, but he emphasized it at a time when little mention was made of the dangers of using the crown of your helmet to initiate contact.
Ruf was also a master tactician when it came to line play. He knew exactly how to carve up a defense like a Thanksgiving turkey, his linemen slicing through an opponent’s front and opening gaps “big enough to drive a Mack truck through,” he would say (Ruf, incidentally, was a truck driver in his “day job”). And to achieve that level of precision, he would drill us every day in practice. Then, he would drill us. Then, he would drill us some more. Constant drilling until you could execute your assignment in your sleep.
And execute it decades later. If someone were to ask me my assignment at left guard on Power Sweep Left, Quick Pitch Left, 20 Quick Trap, Sprint Out Right, 47 Power Pass or just about any other play, I could tell you right now — 37 years later — what it was. Without having to think about it.
That’s because Ruf demanded a lot of his players. Above all else, he wanted consistency. In one of our junior varsity games my junior year, I put a pretty good hit on a Burton Berkshire running back along our home sideline at Wildcat Stadium. The next day before practice, Ruf said to me, “I heard you really put the wood to someone yesterday, Hardesty.” I immediately puffed up, feeling pretty good about myself. But Ruf wasn’t done, ending with: “Now if we could just get you to play like that all the time.”
My inflated teenage ego crashed back to Earth in an instant. Ruf looked me dead in the eye for several seconds, not saying another word, before walking away. His message was clear: I wasn’t playing well enough, often enough, to be a regular member of the varsity. But I had it in me to do so, and he recognized that.
I’ve never forgotten Ruf’s words that October afternoon; they changed my approach to just about everything I did from that point on: school, football, work, you name it. It felt like a punch to the gut when he said them, but deep down I knew he was right. They apply to anyone in just about any situation: If you give your best effort all the time, you will be a success. If you only give it your all sporadically, when you feel like it, you will watch as others achieve. It’s up to you. It was a heady lesson for a 16 year old.
But that was Ruf’s style: As good as you think you are, you can be better. But to be better, you have to work hard all the time. Not some of the time. Not most of the time. All the time. Every day, every play, even the most minute of details, mattered to Ruf. Things a lineman may have felt were irrelevant were a big deal to Ruf, because he knew the dangers of even the slightest bit of complacency seeping into a player’s execution. More than once, I heard Ruf shout, “You’re killing us, Hardesty!” after missing a block in practice and getting our running back (or worse, our quarterback — his son, Richard) hit in the backfield. Missed blocks are often the result of being just a step late or taking a slightly wrong angle and are, more often than not, born of complacency.
When I think back to Ruf’s “You’re killing us, Hardesty!” shouts that every player, coach and fan at practice could hear, I smile. Because, whereas instruments of football terror such as the seven-man sled, two-man sled and weighty tackling dummies never become objects of fondness over time, I since came to realize that Ruf was exercising football psy-ops to motivate his players. His message with those words: One person was preventing the success of the entire group, and at that moment, that person was me. My personal failure on that play had meant the other 10 players failed, too.
It was another life lesson from Ruf, that not giving your best effort all the time would not only adversely affect you, it would adversely affect others as well. It was about being accountable, because others are counting on you.
Ruf, like our other coaches, molded us into men. I didn’t realize it in the mid-1980s, but I wasn’t just learning how to be a good football player on that hot, hard, dusty practice field in Mogadore. I was learning how to be a good son, husband, friend and employee.
I was learning that consistent effort and accountability were characteristics I would need the rest of my life. I was learning that as good as I might think I am today, I can be even better tomorrow. I was learning that complacency is the death of achievement and success.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Ralph “Ruf” Pierce was preparing me for life.