This afternoon, Oakmont Regional officially announced the hiring of Leominster's Charlie Raff as its new head football coach, replacing one of the state's all-time greats.
Raff, 30, is a 2001 graduate of West Springfield High School and 2006 graduate of Fitchburg State. He comes to Ashburnham after a six-year stint as an assistant at Leominster, the last three as defensive coordinator for head coach Dave Palazzi. The Blue Devils won back-to-back MIAA Division 1 Central Mass. Super Bowl titles in 2011-12, and reached the D2 Central Final this past season.
This past fall at Leominster, Raff oversaw one of the state's most feared secondaries, led by Division 1 signees Jarell Addo (UMass) and Neil O'Connor (UNH), the latter also being named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year. The two were also unanimous selections to ESPNBoston.com's annual All-State Team.
There are, of course, big shoes to fill in legendary Dave LaRoche, who won 199 games and four Super Bowl titles (1977-78, 1984, 2006) in two separate stints from 1977 to 2013 -- and never mind that Raff is a first-time head coach. But Raff was full of energy and enthusiasm as he met with the Spartans players for the first time inside the Wyman-Therrien Gymnasium, and embraced the challenge ahead.
"I expect these kids to go 100 miles an hour, wear their hearts on their sleeves, leave nothing on the field is what I expect from these kids every day," Raff said. "I want to see them push themselves. I want these kids to achieve more than they thought they were capable of, because when that happens it turns into something special."
Raff discussed a broad range of subjects with reporters following his meeting with the team:
What appealed most about the Oakmont job: "It kind of struck me, we saw some of these kids when they’d come to our camps in the summer, and they all looked like hard-working kids, hard-nosed kids. They kinda just wanted to be pushed, and I think they had that for a while. But blue-collar kids are my kind of kids, and I was just dying for an opportunity to work with them. We have it at Leominster, and I’m not going to say it’s on a smaller scale here, because you saw the size of some of these kids. It’s pretty impressive."
What direction he'll go with the offense and defense: "It’s gonna be a week to week thing. If we think we’re going to get an advantage, like you saw at Leominster –- defensively, multiple fronts, multiple coverages -– if we think we have an advantage we’re going to run with it. I’ve been a 3-4 guy forever, so if I can find a way to make it work I’m gonna try, but right now I want to see what I have in front of me and see what they’re capable of doing."
On his aggressive approach with the secondary at Leominster, and how much he'll implement at Oakmont: "I don’t like a quarterback to come to the line and know what he’s looking at. I do like constant movement. We call it ‘camo’, we like to be on the move, whether it’s Neil O’Connor or [Oakmont sophomore Shamus] Gorman, it doesn’t matter. You just want to coach them up, and if you’re going to be successful doing something you want to give them simple goals to achieve. All we were having them do is walk up and back, and we were making it look like the smartest coaching move ever, when really what we were doing was just giving people different looks. But yeah, we’ll be very aggressive in the secondary, and we’ll try to ‘camo’ a lot of different looks, take away whatever we can."
What type of coach he'll be: "I’m gonna be the type of coach that does whatever I can to make sure these kids succeed. That’s not just on the football field, it goes far beyond that. I’ve had kids that have coached before that have quit football, and I didn’t lose touch with them, I still helped them out. I’m hoping to make some lifetime relationships with these kids, and I just want to see them do big things. I’m gonna be very passionate, everything I do is with these kids."
On replacing Dave LaRoche: "Obviously it’s an honor, and it sounds cliché but I have huge shoes to fill. The guy has done it all. I’ve talked to him, he’s a really knowledgeable guy, he’s also a passionate guy. He’s coached some great players, and he’s definitely cared about the community, cared about the kids. It’s gonna be tough to replace him. I’m gonna do my best to fill his shoes. Any way I can stay in touch with him, that would be very beneficial."
How emotional it was to leave Leominster: "It’s tough. Yesterday was one of the toughest days of my life, it’s when I broke the news to the kids. I must have gotten 12-13 emails from parents wishing me well, but there were a lot of sad faces and stuff. It was hard for me, it’s tough to say to kids, ‘Seeya later, I’m going to Oakmont’, especially when they have a great junior class returning. I’m gonna miss them terrible. But I’ll be there when they play St. John’s [next season], I’ll tell you that much."
On waiting for what he felt was the right opportunity: "I’ve had some great opportunities I never really pursued, whether it was high school or collegiate level, the past few years. We were doing something really special at Leominster, and I feel the wheels were really rolling, obviously everyone –- Dave Palazzi, Kevin Murphy, the administration –- was a big part of that. It’s fun to be part of something special. But every year I see these kids coming up from eighth grade, and I still see their eighth-grade faces when they’re seniors leaving. It was in the best interest for me and my family. It’s gonna be great for the Blue Devils to get some fresh faces in there too."
Why now was the right time: "When you know it, you know. I felt great about it. I saw a great school like Oakmont open up, and I couldn’t wait to apply. Before I could even make the call, I had people calling me asking if I was going to do it, and I was like ‘We’ll see’, but on the inside I was dying to apply for it. The second I got called back for an interview, it was probably the most fun I’ve had going through the interview process. I was a nervous wreck, but I had so much fun answering the questions."
Where he thinks he can take the program: "Sky’s the limit. I hope we achieve great things. You’ve always got to shoot for the stars. I just want to get these kids going in the spring, in the weight room, everything else."
How he'll assemble his staff: "I want to sit down and talk to as many people from the old staff, friends I know, people I’ve played college football with, people I’ve stayed in contact with, and just see who’s going to fit best. Right now, I just want to get to know these kids first, because I want to bring in the best people to work with. I think it’ll be better when I know the culture, the climate, how they’re going to be pushed and pulled."
On the identity of Oakmont kids: "I’ll tell you, I feel like I could have grown up in this town. I’m from West Springfield, and I see some of these kids and I feel like, hey, you’re a 5-10, 200-pound lineman too, and you’re just mad at the world and want to hit someone, that’s great. I feel like I can really relate to these kids. It’s almost like looking in a mirror of when I was in high school. I think they work hard. It’s a small, close-knit community. It’s just awesome when you get something going like that. They’ve also had great coaches come through here with great support from the administration. I sat down with the principal and superintendent, and they seemed very passionate about what was going on –- not just football, but about what’s going on in the schools. I feel lucky to work for people like that."