WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Former P-C legend, Jim Cox, fueled by war heroes, underdogs
By BRANDON HURLEY
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A family tragedy birthed a mission that perils in comparison to the sacrifices he made, but one Jim Cox knows would make his brother proud.
Perhaps the greatest coach in Paton-Churdan history is still cooking up success nearly four decades later. Motivated by a war hero and a passion for the underdog persona, Cox has pioneered another storybook season all the way near the Canadian border, 30 years after his initial coaching stint in small-town Iowa football.
A Bedford, Iowa native, Cox made a commitment in the eighth grade to honor his fallen brother’s life by pursuing his fleeting passion. Howard Max Cox was killed in action during the Vietnam War in 1968, at the young age of 22 years old.
Howard’s body was located and returned to his family a full month later, and when Howard’s best friend stopped by with his last letter, the words inside inspired Jim.
“(The letter) simply said, if he ever got out of there, all he wanted to do was come back and be a college coach,” the younger brother said, thinking back on that moment nearly 50 years ago. “From eighth grade, without having any coaching contacts, I tried to honor his name by living out his dream.”
That mission led to Jim taking a coaching position at Paton-Churdan, which he forever altered the history of the football and track programs. He led the Rockets to back-to-back state football titles in 1985 and 86, a 29-game win streak, a 1986 state track title and a 1987 runner-up finish. He was a man among boys, building the P-C Rockets from the ground up during his 10-year stint, engineering consecutive undefeated seasons.
Leading struggling programs to success has become his calling card.
Today, at 62-years old, Cox is the head coach at Northland Community and Technical College, a northern Minnesota program he led to its first conference title in school history not even two weeks ago.
The coach has always set the bar high, and his latest goal is to capture the Minnesota Collegiate Athletic Conference’s first victory over a scholarship program.
Prior to his arrival in 2016, the Pioneers were 2-5 coming off a 2014 suspension for lack of participation.
Rebuilding downtrodden programs is why Cox took the Northland job in the first place, in the twilight of his career. He thrives off the challenges most other coaches would run from.
Taking over a struggling team is something Cox has always been drawn to.
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The cards have typically been stacked against Cox. The coach who has never lacked confidence, is the mastermind behind several spectacular turnarounds.
He leapt into the coaching profession with little references to fall back on, and nearly half an athletic department to run, all on his own.
The P-C football team won a total of four games in four years prior to his arrival in 1979. Cox was 24 years old tasked with leading every aspect of the football program, from the defense and offense to the special teams. That first coaching job shaped his lengthy career. The now college coach took one of the state’s worst programs into prominence. It certainly wasn’t easy, but his success in Churdan helped craft him into the coach he is today.
“It was challenging for me because I’m high energy,” Cox said. “To be in a position where I had to coach offense and defense, to do it all, that kept me so busy and focused. It really helped me develop as a coach.”
Cox played the same role in track, coaching every event for both the boys’ and girls’ teams.
The 10-year run Cox had at the small, west central Iowa school district, is something he’ll cherish for the rest of his life. He remembers it as if it were yesterday.
“To be honest, (since) I started out and I’ve always continued on, you always go back to your first coaching job,” the football coach said. “Paton-Churdan was so down. I’ve fallen in love throughout my career going to schools that have never had success.
Paton-Churdan helped develop my coaching (career) where I really loved situations where I could rebuild.”
The hey-days of the 1980s are what continue to fuel his underdog persona. To say Cox pioneered (excuse the pun) a successful stint at Paton-Churdan would be an understatement. The Rockets never lost a playoff game with Cox at the helm, going 8-0. He compiled a 57-26 career record with three conference titles.
Jim and Lant Doran each earned all-state honors and played for Iowa State University. Cox coached 54 athletes who qualified for the state track meet, five of whom won state titles.
“I’m so happy that all the kids of Paton-Churdan are doing so well,” he said. “I owe so much to the kids of Paton-Churdan.”
The job he’s done with the Northland program is fittingly similar, as his career nears a close. Northland produced just 12 winning seasons in 40 years prior to 2016 with just one bowl appearance in more than 20 years.
The Pioneers were also left rotting near the bottom when he took over last winer.
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When Cox first arrived in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, a town of roughly 6,000 people 70 miles south of the Canadian border, the former two-time state champion coach immediately initiated a culture change.
The southwest Iowa native brought honesty to the forefront of the Northland Community and Technical College athletic department.
It was common for recruits to be misled of where exactly Northland was located and the life sacrifices they had to make before Cox took over. The average low temperatures in Thief River Falls hover around -3.7 degrees in January and 1.7 in February, with highs right around 15 degrees. It’s a tough sell for Cox and his coaching staff, but the atmosphere around the program now is a far cry from the previous coaching regimes.
The football program was in disarray, Cox said. He immediately set the record straight with any potential newcomers. He had to bring in players without the promise of scholarship program. The MCAC is not a scholarship league.
“(There were) decades of coaches lying to kids to get them here,” Cox said. “They were so desperate to get kids. We are almost in Canada, they felt the best way to do so was not tell them the truth on the cost.”
Cox’s intent was to attract top-notch athletes with integrity and he coupled that with a coaching pedigree that speaks much louder than any amount of words.
“The first thing we did was to be brutally honest with them when we recruited,” the coach said. “I think my years of experience (helped kids). I brought credibility. I’ve coached NFL Pro-Bowlers, I’ve coached kids who have broke world records in track.
When you are honest with kids, they have a tendency to gravitate to that. You get a whole different type of kid.”
Once Cox got the players he wanted, he knew the turning point was on the horizon. The Pioneers went 5-4 in his first year at the helm in 2016, a three-win improvement from the year prior, and with nearly his entire offense returning, expectations, at least for Cox, was bubbling toward the top.
The coach knows a team with untapped potential when he sees it, even if he wasn’t yet 10 years removed from high school himself the first time around.
“In 1984, I started a whole bunch of sophomores at Paton-Churdan and we were 4-4,” Cox said. “I told anybody and everybody that we were going to be really, really good, and i don’t think anyone believed that we would win back-to-back championships and go undefeated.”
The 2017 Northland team treated Cox with nine wins and a conference title. There’s still more work to do, though. The final unchecked box is taking down Ellsworth Community College, a scholarship program, in the Graphic Edge Bowl. It’s a goal Cox entrenched in the minds of his players during winter workouts, calling on his knack for predicting the future.
“I sat back and watched where we were. I put on my door, that not only were we going to be good, but we are going to be the first team in this league to beat a scholarship program,” Cox said. “That’s what the bowl game is all about. I don’t think anyone really believed me that I knew we were going to be really good.”
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The 20th-ranked Northland Pioneers will square off against Ellsworth Community College out of Iowa Falls in the Graphic Edge Bowl Sunday, Dec. 3 at the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls.
Ellsworth Community College, despite their 3-8 record, presents a challenge Cox’s players have yet to face. They’ve won the last three Graphic Edge Bowls with athletes bigger, faster, stronger, and most likely, more talented. The Ellsworth athletes were lured to the Iowa school with the promise of scholarship money. That notion sets Northland behind the eight ball, which is why Cox brought a new, non-traditional offensive philosophy to northern Minnesota. They out run guys, not overpower them. Frankly, it’s their best option against players of Ellsworth’s caliber. The Pioneers implore a run-and-shoot offense, slinging the ball all over the field.
“Preparing for the scholarships kids, knowing they’d be bigger and stronger in the offensive and defensive lines, for us to go to Cedar Falls and beat a scholarship program, we needed to be an aerial attack,” Cox said. “We can’t line up and drive off kids that are getting scholarships. When I went out to hire assistants on offense, that’s what I was looking for.”
The Pioneers are 9-2 this fall, more than tripling their win total from 2015, and entered the NJCAA rankings last week at No. 20.
Cox has flipped the notorious decline into a vigorous upward trend, producing a two-year record of 14-6.
In addition to the first league title in school history, the Pioneers earned a bowl game invite for just the second time in 15 years, last playing in the Graphic Edge Bowl in 2002.
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Cox’s coaching career has taken him all over the Midwest which has spawned some interesting opportunities. He left Paton-Churdan for Ellsworth Community College in 1989 (who Northland will face on Dec. 3), then pursued a coaching stint at Navarro College in Texas, which he left for William Penn University to bring them from the basement of small-time college football to one of the best in the state. He also latched on to Southeast Missouri State before eventually became a coach in the indoor arena football league with the St. Charles River Rage near St. Louis , Missouri, later taking over as director of operations.
His coaching career has produced an NFL rookie of the year, Dale Carter, with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1992, and Eliud Bargantuny, a world record-holder in the steeplechase. Carter played for Ellsworth Community College in 1988-89 and later went on to the University of Tennessee before being drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1992. Cox has coached 16 future NFL Pro Bowlers.
The transition into indoor football was surprisingly simple, Cox said. The restrictions allowed his philosophies to thrive and shine.
“It was real easy, the rules are so simple. The rules are all set up for offense,” he said. “You can’t blitz, you can’t twist your lineman. It makes it real easy as a coach. There aren’t a lot of Xs and Os.”
Cox took that offensive experience with him to northern Minnesota, where he’s produced the most efficient attack in the country.
In a mere two seasons, the Pioneers have climbed to the top of the NJCAA, scoring 39.2 points per game and averaging 454 total yards per game. Shannon Patrick has blossomed into the nation’s most proficient quarterback. He has thrown for a NJCAA-best 41 touchdowns and 4,122 yards, 800 yards more than the second place quarterback with a 60 percent completion rate. He averages 374 yards per game, which is also tops in the country. He’s No.1 in completions as well with 325.
Getting Patrick to come up north from Palm Beach, Florida was the final piece Cox needed. The sophomore signified the official start of the turnaround.
“I had talked to him for nine months everyday, texting and calling him to convince him that he didn’t want to sit on the bench somewhere,” Cox said. “Now he’s setting all kinds of junior college records. Recruiting him here was huge for us.”
The Pioneers beat Mesabi Range 68-35 in the historic Minnesota Collegiate Athletic Conference title game Sunday, Nov. 12 in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The Pioneers shook off a one-point halftime deficit to outscore Mesabi 41-7 over the final two quarters.
Northland compiled 668 yards of total offense, with Patrick throwing for 575 yards and eight touchdowns, completing 31-of-49 passes while four Pioneer receivers went over the century mark.
The victory ended a four decade drought for a school that has endured heartache, lies and carelessness.
Those that stuck with it were rewarded.
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The historical triumphs Cox has brought to the program has been as uplifting for the school as it has been for the long-time coach.
Now nearing 63, Cox was pulled out of retirement for one final rebuilding project. He hasn’t executed these near miracles for his own personal gratification, it’s more for the people within and surrounding the school. He craves the joy that resonates throughout.
“When I walk down the hallways, I see all the teachers that have been here for a long time and the smiles on their faces,” Cox said.
That emotional certification is all the reward he needs.
“It was fantastic,” the coach said following the MCAC title win. “When you do things like that, it’s not really relief, it’s a satisfaction. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been there and worked hard to get it.”
Just nine years removed from a winless campaign in 2008 and three years after a season with no football, Cox has the Pioneers situated firmly at the top of Minnesota, literally and figuratively. The school’s athletic director, Mike Curfman, has taken notice of the job Cox has pulled off. His presence will have an impact for many years after.
“Winning our first ever MCAC Championship is a tribute to Jim, his coaches and players and a great reward for all their hard work and preparation that they do week in and week out,” Curfman said. “Jim has really been able to move Pioneer football forward in the short time he has been here, it has been impressive to watch.”
He continued, ““Jim has been a wonderful addition to our athletic staff. He is a tremendous recruiter and has the ability to get the best out of his players.”
The records, the titles, the high-flying offense and the enthusiasm of the players, it’s all brought a rejuvenated energy to the school, Curfman said. And that inspiration Cox’s brother provided in 1968 is still with him, nearly 50 years later, leading the coach to heights he never could’ve imagined back in junior high.