When Steve Dembowski was hired as head football coach at Swampscott High in February 1999, he felt like there were some big shoes to fill in following the legendary Stan Bondelevitch and the man who'd coached him, Bill Bush.
"I'll have to go out and buy some size 18s," the then 28-year-old Dembowski told The News.
After 11 seasons, Dembowski hasn't just filled those shoes. The Big Blue's head coach has literally broken the mold for high school football in the 21st century on the North Shore.
Best known for essentially reinventing the way local teams view their offense after installing the vaunted spread passing attack at Swampscott High in 2001, Dembowski's teams have gone a combined 84-42, won four NEC titles and took home a Super Bowl title in 2007, the program's first in 35 years. The Big Blue have averaged 25.3 points per game under Dembowski and have been shut out just twice.
In the nine years since Dembowski took a chance on a brand new offensive system, his Big Blue have evolved into the envy of the area in terms of yardage and touchdowns.
"It took a lot of guts to do what he did, changing the whole system around," said Kyle Beatrice, the Massachusetts record holder in touchdown passes who played for the Big Blue from 2000-02. "He never had any doubts that it would work; we definitely wouldn't have gone as far as we did without it."
Indeed, the signature coaching move of Dembowski's career didn't come on the sidelines or during a timeout. It was during the offseason in 2000. After a 4-7 showing, he decided to go for broke and throw the ball 30 times per game. It was unheard of at the time, and even after some early success folks wondered what the Big Blue would do in bad weather.
"We were at a crossroads. The 2000 season was an extreme disappointment for me personally; I was questioning if I had the skills to lead," Dembowski said. "I saw the spread and from that point on, I was willing to do whatever it took. The key was the players, assistants and parents all buying in.
"That was a very special group. They took a chance on me and believed in everything I asked them to do."
Led by Beatrice and a pack of athletic receivers that included Pat Canty, Tim Kiely, John Dunnigan, Chris Smith and Jeff Pratt, the Big Blue set records in their first year in the spread, scoring 392 points in a 7-4 turnaround season in 2001.
"When I first told people we were going to do this, many of them said I was crazy," Dembowski said in the midst of that first spread season in 2001. "Now they all tell me, 'I'm a believer, coach. I always was.'"
One offense, many flavors
The following season, the Big Blue took their offense to the extreme in a laser show of offensive production that may never be matched. Swampscott scored 456 points, topped 40 points in a game five times and set school records for passing (Beatrice) and receiving (Kiely, Pratt, Jason Blydell) on the way to a heartbreaking 44-40 loss to North Attleboro in the Super Bowl — a contest that was named one of the Salem News' Greatest High School Games last summer.
Beatrice was the headliner, throwing for a state record 39 TDs while amassing 3,333 yards passing. But the key to the season was the entire team buying into the offensive concept.
"The most important thing was the way Kyle handled himself. He was everybody's golden boy, but he never cared about his stats," Dembowski said. "The class he displayed — that's the level we aspire all our quarterbacks to be in terms of composure and class.
"Kyle understood that the line had to do their job and so did the receivers and the backs. The spread doesn't work unless it's everybody on the same page — and he knew that."
Part of the genius of the spread offense is that it gets the football in the hands of athletes in open space — and it keeps everybody involved. That's become a trademark of Dembowski's program, from the starters to the junior varsity.
"The thing I'm most proud of is that our kids expect to win — and they don't care how," Dembowski said. "We don't post receptions or tackles or other stats; nobody asks how many yards they caught or threw for."
It's also a big part of the reason the Big Blue have won seven or more games in seven of nine seasons with the spread.
"(Dembowski) keeps everybody involved. Everybody's motivated and wants to be a part of the team," said Beatrice. "In my day and age not everyone wanted to play football, but since we changed to the spread so many more kids are interested."
Even with some of the school's best athletes playing receiver, don't underestimate how difficult it is to transition seamlessly between quarterbacks. Swampscott has done just that, moving from Beatrice to Shane Corcoran and Jason Losano to John Cassidy to Peter Kinchley to Chris Cameron to Matt Barbuzzi without skipping a beat.
"I give the kids a lot of credit for that," said Dembowski. "In this age of instant gratification, it's hard for kids to wait their turn. As many accolades and honors as they get that one year, it's to their credit that they worked three years to make that happen."
It's a common misconception that all spread offenses are created equal. Rather, the spread is simply, a formation and there are 100 variations and philosophies.
The Big Blue has never stopped evolving — Swampscott is a member of a national spread offense organization in which high school and college coaches can share ideas. Dembowski is always looking for new wrinkles to add.
"When we set all the records in the early years, that was basically chocolate and vanilla. Now we have a million different flavors," Dembowski reasoned.
Big Blue in his blood
Dembowski knows he wouldn't have had the opportunity to take a chance on a revolutionary offense if Swampscott High didn't take a chance on a brash, passionate coach who was two years shy of his 30th birthday in 1999. For that, he'll be forever grateful to then-athletic director Fran York (a long-time head coach at Manchester High) and principal Peter Sack.
"To say that I was extremely passionate is an understatement. Fran was a mentor to me in terms of how to manage a program, and I'll never forget him being there in 2002 when word came across on the cell phones that Danvers had upset Gloucester on Thanksgiving and we were going to the playoffs," Dembowski said. "And after we won the Super Bowl in 2007, getting off the bus there was Peter Sack, who had long since left. Moments like that stay with you."
Swampscott born and Swampscott bred, Dembowski was an All-State player for the Big Blue. He graduated in 1989 and still holds the school record for longest rush on a 99-yard TD against Gloucester in '88. Dembowski played tight end at UMass and joined Bush's coaching staff after he graduated while landing a job in the financial sector.
"I wanted to coach and was fortunate that as a player at Swampscott I sometimes called the plays on defense. I was really intrigued by that," said Dembowski. "Bill gave me the opportunity to coach and eventually take over the defense — and we had success."
Assistant coaches are always a big piece of the puzzle, and Dembowski has had no shortage of great ones. Bill Ryan was his defensive guru for 11 years and Greg Beatrice has been a fixture on the sidelines. Peter Beatrice and Eric Sampson coached in the early part of his tenure, and Bob Serino and Bob Dobias have been key on the lines. Steve Simmons has also been an assistant head coach for years. Equipment manager Dick DesRosiers has been a Big Blue staple since the late 80s.
"I don't think anyone really knows what it is to be head coach until you are," said Dembowski. "When you're an assistant it's all X's and O's or motivation. When you take over a program it's administration, budget, boosters, parents ... there's definitely a learning curve, and you're never prepared for that. I've had a lot of help."
A traditionalist at heart, Dembowski always finds a way to make sure his players are aware of the program's storied history and names like Bondelevitch, Jauron and Lynch, to name a few. He manages the extensive Web site Swamspcottfootball.com.
"He remembers everything and always told us about the old-timers," said Brian Palangi, captain of the 2007 team and an currently offensive lineman at Northern Iowa. "Every year we watched film of games from the '60s, '70s and '80s."
A 2006 Swampscott Hall of Fame inductee, Dembowski now lives in Milton with his wife, Kristin, whom he met through a Big Blue player's mother in 2000. They have two daughters, Anna and Kate.
"I don't know how he does it," said Beatrice. "His dedication to the team, to Swampscott, is second to none."
Make no mistake; the 40-year-old Dembowski is a family man. Few moments seem as precious to him as when Anna and Kate run into his arms after a win at Blocksidge Field on a Saturday afternoon.
"I leave the football at (the field) and don't bring it home," said Dembowski. "I probably only see my players four or five times in the offseason because I'm trying to spend as little of that time as I can away from my family. I communicate with the players through texts and e-mails and I'm able to lean on Bob Dobias and Bob Serino for our weight room stuff and the parents for the fundraising.
"It's a balance and it's hard sometimes, but Kristin's been great and we've never regretted it."
A well-deserved Super Bowl
Offense may be Dembowski's specialty, but he doesn't discount defense or special teams. The coach is one of the most aggressive in the area, and it was a couple of gimmick kicking plays that helped the Big Blue beat a heavily favored Gloucester team in 2008.
Ryan Mahoney — one of the area's best linebackers of the last decade — Chris Kane and Nick Camerlengo were underrated defensive players on the 2002 and '03 teams. Meanwhile, the 2007 Super Bowl champions were anchored by the Big Blue's best offensive line: monsters Palangi and Dorsey Dobias along with Chris Giossa, John Rosenthal and Frank Berril. The offense also never failed to feature running back Alex Stone, who is second only to legendary Dick Jauron in major Big Blue rushing stats.
The '07 Super Bowl win, a 22-6 triumph over Medfield, was punctuated by tough running by Kyle Shonio and Ilya Levin.
"That championship was a credit to our captains: Brian Palangi, Peter Kinchley and Dorsey Dobias. Those guys corralled that team in and knew we weren't going to lose. We played so well down the stretch behind our line that season," said Dembowski, who had one of his most emotional moments as a coach when he was presented with the trophy at Gillette Stadium.
"It was a relief in a lot of ways. We got close twice when I coached with Bill Bush and lost in 2002 and '03. You wonder if it's ever going to happen," he said. "It was an awesome thing for the kids and the whole town to be able to go to Foxboro and win a Super Bowl."
Among Swampscott's signature victories the last 11 years are come-from-behind wins over Revere (2005), Winthrop (2008), Danvers (2005) and Beverly (2007). The Big Blue are typically even tougher after the half because of Dembowski's ability to adjust on the fly.
"Playing in college now, it's pretty close to what he does. He could definitely be a college coach," said Palangi. "I remember the Beverly game my senior year. (Beverly's) Greg Pierce was running all over us in the first half. We made one change in our front at halftime — and we owned the second half."
Dembowski is also a master motivator. His teams are up for every game and more often than not, appear ready to run through a wall for him before the opening kickoff.
"He's not loud, but every game he digs deep for something personal. He spills his heart out," said Palangi. "It's calm and collected, but very inspirational."
"A great motivator," Beatrice agreed. "He got us up for every game no matter if it was the championship or if it didn't mean anything."
Reflecting on his 11 years as coach, Dembowski is proud that he's carried on the Big Blue tradition. But he said he's also learned to appreciate the off-the-field lessons, too.
"I think when I took over, I wanted us to win. As I've grown older and hopefully a little wiser, I've become more proud of the kids that have used football as a stepping stone to better colleges. We've had kids play at Bates, Bowdoin, Trinity and Middlebury," said Dembowski. "If they play four years or don't play at all, football has helped them get in and that's important."
Looking forward, Dembowski is already neck-deep into the 2010 season and trying to get the Big Blue back on top of the Northeastern Conference Small division.
"Personally, I'm never satisfied. Every setback makes us work harder. It was that way in 2000 and after a tough year in 2006 we won the Super Bowl," said Dembowski. "Losing to Marblehead last year has inspired our guys. Hopefully, we'll continue to get stronger."
STEVE DEMBOWSKI — BY THE NUMBERS
Overall record: 84-42 (.667)
NEC titles: 4 (2002, 2003, 2007, 2008)
Super Bowl titles: 1 (2007)
Total offense: 3,194 points (25.3 per game)
Total defense: 2,312 points allowed (18.3 per game)
Thanksgiving record: 8-3 (.727)