BARTLESVILLE — For senior safety Taton Hopkins, the atmosphere around the Bartlesville football program is reminiscent of four years ago when the Bruins went 10-2 and reached the Class 6AII semifinals.
“It’s the same feeling as 2015,” Hopkins said. “We have the school behind us, and everybody is real excited about this season.”
Over the past three years, the Bruins have gone 8-22, but Hopkins and his teammates are carrying momentum into spring practice after improving to 4-6 last year.
It appeared that last year’s progress might be threatened when Lee Blankenship left in December for Mustang after one year as Bartlesville’s head coach. That meant Bartlesville was going to have its fourth head coach in less than three years. But the Bruins were reassured when Jason Sport was promoted from defensive coordinator to become Blankenship’s successor.
“At first I was kind of upset (when Blankenship resigned), like everyone else would be, it was like, ‘here we go again,’ ” Hopkins said. “But as soon as they announced it was going to be coach Sport, we knew it was going to be OK.
“We’ve got some stability coming, and as he always says, ‘Play the next play,’ so that’s what we’re going to do. He has brought stability that we needed. It’s great knowing he’s a guy we can go to talk to — we don’t have to build another relationship. He’s pure intensity every day, he’ll bring it no matter what. This spring is more perfection than installing.”
Senior quarterback Ben Winters, who passed for 1,540 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, is glad he won’t have to learn a new offense again and believes the program has come a long way in the past year.
“Two years ago, practices were slow and there was no energy,” Winters said. “Last spring we were a lot more excited, coach Blank came here and brought a lot more energy, especially to the community. He left and I was very sad, but coach Sport has brought way more excitement. Last spring we had new concepts of offense and defense, just building off that will make us much better.”
This is the first head coaching job for Sport, 39, who was an assistant for winning programs at Sapulpa, Greenwood (Arkansas), Lincoln Christian and Jenks. Sport, an Alabama native, is a Muldrow High School and Northeastern State graduate.
“I’ve worked with and been around some really great coaches — Allan Trimble, Keith Riggs, Dub Maddox, Darren Melton, Brad Ballard, Trandy Birch, Rick Jones,” Sport said. “I’ve borrowed lots of great ideas from a lot of great people — we are trying to implement a lot of that stuff and trying to be the best we can be at Bartlesville. We’re trying not to compare ourselves to everybody else, just to be our best and focus on that.
“When I left Jenks, at no point did I think I was going to be the head coach here. I was coming to impact lives, I just wanted to build something special. Lee had a lot of great ideas and got a lot of momentum going. We’re in a better situation than we were a year ago when we didn’t really know the kids, most of the coaches are still in place.”
Sport first applied for a head coaching job after the 2009 season at Sapulpa.
“I’ve always wanted to be a head coach — but it was a blessing in 2009 that I didn’t get the Sapulpa job because I was not ready to be a head coach at that point,” Sport said. “There was a lot of growing that I needed to do.”
Sport is confident he is better prepared to be a head coach now than he was a decade ago. During the past 10 years, he has been an assistant for state championship coaches such as Trimble, Jones and Melton.
“Coach Jones gave me really good advice on taking a head job at the right time,” Sport said. “It really has been a great ride and landing here at this time, couldn’t be better. I’ve been a part of state championship teams, at this point in my career I want to pour into young men, I want to help them make the best decisions moment-by-moment all day. My desire is to pour everything I have into this.
“This (Bartlesville football) is a hidden jewel. We want to get the football program rolling in the right direction and give it stability. Bartlesville is a special place. The kids have bought in. It’s super exciting.”