New coach builds character on the field, in the classroom

GREENVILLE — Keith Kiser was somewhat apprehensive about showing his soon-to-be football coach the athletic facilities at St. Joseph’s Catholic School — and for good reason.
Kiser, the school’s headmaster, didn’t have much to show Joe Hyland last summer when the coach made his first visit to the school’s Greenville campus.
“I wanted to show him a locker room, weight room, the football field, but I didn’t have anything to show him,” Kiser said.
About all Kiser and the St. Joseph’s community had for Hyland was a dream; a vision of what they wanted their new football program to be and what they wanted it to accomplish.
And, as it turned out, that was all Hyland was looking for.
“There has been a lot of support for the program both in the community and in the schools,” he said a few days after parents packed the bleachers at the school’s new football field to watch the Knights scrimmage a recreation league team from Blue Ridge.
Kiser said he has received a number of e-mails and comments from parents about how thankful they are for the football program and how their sons get to work closely with Hyland and his coaches.
“The football program is at the heart of our mission as a school,” Kiser said. “(Hyland) has strongly encouraged excellence in all facets of the game and also in academics.”
Hyland is not only the head football coach, but also a full-time history teacher. One of his assistant coaches also teaches a religion class at the school.
St. Joseph’s learned about Hyland through one of its counselors who had become friends with the 32-year-old Illinois native several years earlier.
Hyland has taken a somewhat circuitous route to where he is today. He played football at three different high schools in Illinois, reaching all-state status as a tailback, followed by college ball at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., and then a year of professional ball in Europe.
After returning from overseas, Hyland took a job as an assistant football coach at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.
Hyland said he intended to make coaching a career, until he met Father John Hardin on a Jesuit retreat in Barrington, Ill., in the summer of 1999.
“It was four days of silence and the beginning of an incredible time in my life,” Hyland said.
He returned to work at Eastern Michigan, but was almost immediately drawn to Ave Maria College, a small Catholic school that shares a common border with Eastern Michigan. He met his first spiritual director there, Jesuit Father Cornelius Buckley.
“My faith journey just continued to solidify and grow. That was all I wanted to do,”  he said.
Hyland, who was raised a Catholic, remembers making time during those busy coaching days to attend mid-day Mass at the chapel of Ave Maria. Those moments also afforded him time to reflect on his career path.
“I was thinking, there’s more to my life than football,” he said.
Hyland says the opportunity to make a change came at the end of the 2000 football season at Eastern Michigan when the head coach was fired.
“All of the coaches were probably going to be gone, anyway, but this provided an easy way out because I wanted out anyway,” he said.
Hyland moved into Ave Maria, living in community with a priest and two other men who were discerning their vocation. He worked at the Ave Maria Foundation, first as a security guard and then as a secretary.
During this time, he devoted serious thought and prayer to entering seminary school and becoming a priest, but in the end decided he wasn’t ready to make that commitment.
Instead, in the summer of 2000, Hyland went home to Montini Catholic High School, where he coached football and track, taught history and served as campus minister.
After two years there, Hyland enrolled at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where he earned a masters degree in Christian counseling. It was there that he met his future wife, Andrea. They were married in 2005, and in June of that year the couple moved to Wyoming.
In August 2007 Hyland was working as a clinical director at a ranch for at-risk youths in southwestern Wyoming when he received a call from Kiser.
After “missing each other” for about three weeks, Hyland reached Kiser one Sunday afternoon.
“We got to talking and immediately I started listening to this possibility,” Hyland said. “This was what I wanted. A Catholic environment; it’s football and it’s being around kids again.”
That September, Hyland made the 2,000-mile trip from Wyoming to Greenville with his wife and two young children.
The Hylands met with Kiser and toured the campus. A month later he accepted Kiser’s offer.
During drills this past spring, more than half of the eligible seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders at St. Joseph’s turned out for the first session. Out of that group, around 80 percent had never played organized football.
“We had some converts from soccer and some former couch potatoes who decided to give football a try,” Hyland said.
Kiser said he likes what he has seen so far from Hyland and his program.
“He is building character through discipline and hard work on the football field and in the classroom,” Kiser said, adding that he has seen a lot of one-on-one conversations between the coaches and the players.
“What (the coaches) are most concerned about is that the boys learn what it means to become men,” Kiser said.
He said the football program has energized the fathers of many of the school’s football players.
“They’re e-mailing me and stopping me when they see me to express their gratitude. They tell me that what the football program is doing here is reinforcing what they’re doing at home,” Kiser said.
And Hyland seems to be feeding off the community support and energy.
“There are a lot of people who want this to happen,” he said. “They also want to see it happen in the right way. I believe it can happen in the right way.”
The Knights are competing this year and next in the S.C. Independent School Athletic Association at the junior varsity or C-team level, with plans to develop the program to the high school varsity level for the 2010 season.
As for the facilities, since Hyland first strolled the campus a year ago with Kiser, the school has remodeled a cinder block building that stored school maintenance equipment. Now it serves as a locker room, a weight room with used training equipment, and a combination coaches’ office and history classroom.