Published on June 24th, 2013 | by Kevin Modelski, Sports Editor
Conyers takes on new head coach role at Battle
Justin Conyers is a denizen of Columbia high school football.
Conyers took the field as a Hickman High School Kewpie until he graduated in 1999. He ran the defense with the Rock Bridge High School Bruins from 2004-2012.
But after nine seasons as Rock Bridge’s defensive coordinator, Conyers is completing the Columbia football trifecta. This fall, he will take on the head coaching job for the Muriel Williams Battle High School Spartans in the team’s inaugural season. For Conyers, a 32-year-old physical education teacher, the new job is a perfect fit given the extent of his football experience in his hometown.
However, being head coach will carry an even heavier load of responsibilities than anything he has done in the game of football–especially in a high school’s first season in a strong football town. Despite that pressure, Conyers’ excitement for the game of football goes unmatched as he leads the Spartans into “Battle.”
Setting out on the road to Battle
The start of Conyers’ football career in Mid-Missouri begins at Hickman, where Conyers played wide receiver and defensive back under former head coach Gregg Nesbitt, a 2010 inductee of the Missouri Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the current head coach at Truman State University in Kirksville.
The University of Central Missouri recruited Conyers as a wide receiver, but Conyers transferred to Westminster College in Fulton after one year. He then made the switch to defensive back, becoming an SLIAC All-Conference player for two seasons. His team also won the conference championship in 2003. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education.
While working as a student teacher, Conyers was out observing a Rock Bridge football practice during the offseason. It just so happened to be the day when he decided that coaching was his calling.
“I was just out there with the kids on the field, and right then and there was when I decided what I was going to do,” Conyers said.
Conyers was then hired as the defensive coordinator in 2004 under A.J. Ofodile, who has been Rock Bridge’s head coach since 2003.
“I did a lot of the administrative stuff for [Ofodile],” Conyers said.
Some of that “administrative stuff” involved staying in contact with students, parents and the community. “All of that takes a lot of pressure off of the head coach,” Conyers added.
Over the years, Conyers and Ofodile developed a schematic dynamic to create a winning product on the football field.
“The way we always operated at Rock Bridge was that I ran the offense and he ran the defense,” Ofodile said.
With the extensive experience he compiled at Rock Bridge, Conyers was officially named head coach of the Battle Spartans in January 2012. The school officially opens in the fall of 2013.
Due to scheduling limitations, Battle’s football program cannot participate in the postseason until next year. The team will start as a Class 4 program and move its way up to Class 5 by 2014.
“We had to fight to find varsity games,” Conyers said.
Battle’s football team will also not have a senior class until next year, since the students of the Class of 2014 will finish the upcoming school year at their current high schools (Battle primarily draws students from Hickman because of the upcoming boundary changes that will take place in Columbia).
However, these limitations aren’t going to stop Conyers from accomplishing his goal of putting a winning product on the field.
The responsibilities of a new head coach
The absent senior class isn’t going to put a damper on Battle’s numbers–it won’t even come close. Conyers says the team will have around 78 players to start summer camps. That’s about double what he was expecting.
Aside from lifting and conditioning three times a week during the summer, Conyers said one way to ensure success with 78 kids–most of whom he hasn’t coached before–is by maintaining close ties with his players.
“It’s all about building relationships,” Conyers said. “As a coach, you’re a counselor or mentor. I have an open door policy with my players. I can be the first person they come to if they have a problem.”
An even greater challenge for a new football coach is attempting to bring together those 78 athletes who may not have even played side by side as teammates before.
According to Conyers, success will come down to two things.
“First and foremost, you need to get a great coaching staff,” Conyers said. “Next, you need to get [the athletes] around each other and competing to build unity. It’s leading by example so that other kids start buying in.”
To ensure that this competitive edge starts during the summer offseason, Conyers ends practices with competitions where players can pick teams and learn how to cooperate and challenge each other in game-like situations.
For Conyers, the hardest part about taking on the new role will be similar to the minor details and administrative work he had to tend for at Rock Bridge.
“[The responsibilities] are a little elevated for me since I’m starting from scratch,” Conyers said. “I’m coming from a base where there was nothing. It’s your program now. It’s run the way you want it to be ran.”
While starting with a clean slate isn’t the most convenient way to kick off a head-coaching career, Ofodile said Conyers shouldn’t be concerned.
“Over the last eight to nine years or whatever it’s been, he’s had just as much head coaching experience as I had with regard to what his responsibility and what his role has been,” Ofodile said. “He’ll have to do a little more ordering and a little more paperwork, but in terms of putting a good football product on the field, I think he’s got plenty of experience.”
From the more technical side of the game, Conyers’ defensive background will be his greatest asset. However, the offensive side of the ball will be the biggest question mark, especially since there is no existing playbook to adopt at a first-year high school such as Battle. Conyers is once again going to have to start from scratch.
“It’s all new lingo,” he said.
Ofodile said although Conyers will have to shift from one side of the game to the other, Conyers’ attitude and experience will help him acclimate to the offensive side of the ball.
Spartan pride in full effect
With football season just months away, there is already an aura of excitement surrounding the Battle campus on St. Charles Road. Part of that can be credited to Conyers’ attitude and approach to facing the challenges of head coaching.
“One of the biggest things is that he’s extremely organized,” Ofodile said. “He’s a very tireless worker and very regimented in the way he goes about things. The most important thing is that he develops great relationships with the kids.”
So when the Battle Spartans take on African Centered College Prep on Aug. 30 at home, expect an emotional and historic moment in Columbia football history, thanks in part to Conyers’ enthusiasm and demeanor as head coach.
“The pride for this school has been eye-opening,” Conyers said. “I love the opportunity to be at this school. I’m very excited with what our program is going to be.”