By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
MANCHESTER – Ben Pack never stopped being a coach. He just didn’t have a team for the past 18 years.
Pack stepped away as a football coach at Jackson High School in 2002, and other than a brief interim job in 2012, has not been on the sidelines since. But tonight, Pack is Back.
“When I got into coaching in the 1970s it was about the kids,” Pack said. “That’s the same reason I’m coming back.”
Pack was named head coach at Manchester in March. His season begins tonight when the Flying Dutchmen host Addison in a Cascades Conference opener.
It’s been a strange journey over the past few months. After he was hired, he had hoped to get into the Manchester halls and start looking to build the numbers for the Manchester football program, which has been down to around 35-40 players the last couple of seasons.
“When the Manchester job opened up, I applied and was hired in March,” Pack said. “Covid hit a week later. It’s been somewhat of a tailspin since. It’s nothing liked I had planned for.”
Not even the best planners could have predicted what 2020 has been like for high school football. But, when the season was brought back a few weeks ago, Pack and his colleagues from across the state went right to work. It’s a tough time to build a program.
“One of the Achilles we’ve been facing is low participation,” he said. “Trying to get the numbers up when school is not in session is very difficult. The players didn’t know me, I didn’t know them. I didn’t have any of their phone numbers or e-mail addresses. It was a struggle.
“I think if I would have been in the building, we could have resurrected those numbers to 45-50.”
Instead, Manchester is 37 kids strong playing high school football.
“The kids have done a fabulous job,” Pack said. “We’ve had a few hiccups, but we are young. About 30 of our kids have never stepped onto a varsity field. There are some good kids, but they don’t have any experience. I still expect them to do well. We coach them to do well. We’ve gone all in, and they’ve responded.”
Manchester is no stranger to the postseason or success. The Flying Dutchmen made the playoffs every year but once from 2003 to 2015. Last year they went 4-5. Pack is working in a new offense and modified defense as he embarks on his first season leading the program.
“Trying to get everything put into the game plan in eight or nine days is brutal,” he said. “But I love teaching kids the game of football. I love that part.”
Manchester is in Washtenaw County, about 20 miles from Pack’s hometown of Jackson. Pack was a three-sport athlete for Jackson High School before going on to Jackson Community College and, later, Central Michigan University.
He was coaching as soon as he became an adult, first as a volunteer. He was the head coach at Parma Western from 1983-1986, then coached 16 years at Jackson, from 1987 to 2002, leading the school to its first playoff appearances. He came back briefly in 2012 on an interim basis to coach Jackson. He was hired at the last minute, and the team went 0-9.
“The assistant superintendent tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You have the experience. We need you to coach football,’” Pack said. “I did it, but everybody knew it was just for the year. We got through it.”
Pack has a career high school record of 75-119. He also was an assistant coach at Albion College for a short time. His most recent job as an assistant coach was at Parma Western after he retired from the classroom.
“I thought it was a good chance to get back into it,” he said. “I told my wife it was going to confirm if I really wanted to coach again. When you are a coach these days, it’s an all-in commitment. With the time commitment it takes, you really have to want to coach.”
Pack said he gave up coaching because of the opportunity to become an administrator, not because he didn’t have a passion for football.
"It was the right thing to do for my family,” he said. “I had to be a dad. I told my wife when I did it that as soon as I retired, I was going to get back into it.”
Pack said he missed it every day. His comeback begins tonight, but don’t expect a quick exit. He’s waited years to get back on the sidelines and is having a blast doing it.
“When I was out of coaching, I was still a coach,” he said. “I worked at it every single day in hopes that I would position myself to get back into it. I studied film. I was a habitual attender of college practices. I kept working on my playbook and schemes. I never stopped any of that. I worked on those things all of the time.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTO: Manchester coach Ben Pack watches over his players as they stretch during practice this fall. (Photo by Doug Donnelly.)