NORTH SIOUX CITY – Take it from someone who knows better than anyone, football is more than just a game for Jeff VanDenHul.
“The No. 1 thing about coaching with my dad is that it is more than football,” said his son Josh VanDenHul. “Yes, he loves football, but it’s more about making boys into men. It’s more about getting kids to graduate, teaching kids how to grow up and be good citizens and good people.”
Jeff VanDenHul has used that philosophy to guide the Dakota Valley High School football program to new heights. His 2018 squad was ranked No. 1 in South Dakota Class A for a good portion of the season and reached the state semifinals.
The Panthers finished 9-2, losing only to 11A state champion Tea Area and runner-up Dell Rapids. Dakota Valley made it all the way to the state title game in 2017 before falling to a highly talented Madison squad.
Today, the 49-year-old VanDenHul is honored as the Sioux City Journal Football Coach of the Year.
VanDenHul has a long history at Dakota Valley, having served as head coach of the high school’s inaugural football team. He was coaching at Jefferson, South Dakota, when the school became part of the Dakota Valley system in 1994.
He relinquished the head coaching duties after a season but stayed on as an assistant until 2010 when he became the junior high coach.
Then, when the school was looking for a head coach again in 2013 to replace Jason Jund, who had done a tremendous job of rebuilding the program, VanDenHul took on the challenge.
“When we hired him he said he wanted to do this and do it right, and he sure has in a lot of different ways,” Dakota Valley athletic director Bill Clements said. “He has created a great culture among the program. He’s created a family atmosphere and really cares about the kids on and off the field and the kids know that. You always talk about a coach with influence and he truly is a coach with influence.”
VanDenHul’s first squad in his second stint as coach finished 5-4, but successive 2-7 campaigns followed. A drastic turnaround followed, beginning with a 6-2 record in 2016 followed by a combined 20-3 mark the past two seasons.
Josh VanDenHul, a 2008 Dakota Valley graduate, was teaching and coaching in Forest City, Iowa, when his father told him he would take the head coaching job at Dakota Valley if he moved back.
“I actually quit my teaching job there before I came here because I wanted to come and coach with him,” said Josh VanDenHul, the team’s defensive coordinator. “A couple weeks later I got a teaching job at West and made it work.
“Obviously, he was my dad, so he helped me grow up and taught me how to be a man. He was hard on me, held me accountable and that’s how he runs his program.”
A noticeable advantage for Dakota Valley, Josh VanDenHul said, is that they work hard in the weight room.
“I think when we went in the boys weren’t quite ready for what we would be doing,” Josh said. “It starts in the weight room and once kids figured out that was going to happen they started buying in and we have become a much more physical and stronger team because of that. Our boys know how to work hard because of the weight room. That was Coach VanDenHul’s plan and once we got that rolling, it really changed our program for the better.”
Austin Cole is another original member of Jeff VanDenHul’s coaching staff who coached offense until leaving for a position in eastern Iowa before last season.
“The thing that stands out to me about Jeff is he is using football as a way to reach and influence kids on a much bigger level,” Cole said. “He is a great football coach but I don’t think it’s truly about football. He realizes if he teaches his kids how to block and tackle and execute plays on Friday nights that’s great but if he doesn’t reach out past their high school experience and doesn’t influence them beyond his football team he’s failed as a coach.
“He’s always seen it as a broader picture. He’s always focused on how to influence the kids, not only to play together, but to be better husbands, fathers, students in the classroom. Although he’s had a lot of success on the football field I think his focus on building relationships and getting his kids to be the best men they can be is what ultimately drives his program.”
A change in offensive strategy played a key role in the turnaround, according to Cole.
“My first two years there we went 2-7 and we knew if we needed to compete with the Dell Rapids, Madisons and West Centrals we knew we were going to have to do some things differently,” Cole said. “We did some research and found something called the single wing that we felt fit our personnel pretty well. We jumped on board with it, believed in it and got our kids to believe in it and it’s been really successful.”
Nate Rice moved from running back to quarterback this season and flourished in the single wing, rushing for 1,810 yards. Rice formed a dynamite combination with Sam Chesterman, who finished his senior season with 1,095 yards.
“Any good program and head coach has to have good athletes,” Cole said. “If you ask Jeff he will recognize he’s had some real good athletes the last couple of years.
“Jeff is really down to earth and would do anything for you. Just an all-around phenomenal guy and coach. I’ll take my four years with him working underneath him and moving forward I will always be grateful having him as a colleague and a friend.”
Josh, 29, is Jeff VanDenHul’s oldest child and he also has a daughter, Ashley, 23, from a previous marriage. Jeff and his wife, Dorynda, are parents of daughters Gracyn, a 10th grader at Dakota Valley, and Jorja, an eighth-grader, along with son Grant, who is in seventh grade. Jeff is a career and technology education instructor in the Dakota Valley school district.