Former Ridgeview standout Cotton-Moya reflects on first year as head football coach in Iowa

·5 min read

Dec. 6—When it came time to pick the next head football coach at Denison High School in Denison, Iowa, activities director Derek Fink turned to a substitute teacher whom he had seen building connections with the student body — not just with athletes but with at-risk kids and those on the periphery.

It certainly helped that the sub in question, Kamari Cotton-Moya, had been a first-team All-Big 12 defensive back at Iowa State just four years earlier.

But Fink saw that his ability to forge bonds was based on his genuine interest in students.

"Obviously, you're going to get the attention of kids when you tell them some of your past, but he wasn't a guy that came in here and said, 'I played at Iowa State.'"

Cotton-Moya, once a standout dual-threat quarterback at Ridgeview High School, arrived in Denison having dabbled in coaching, but with teaching as his primary focus. After one season leading the Monarchs, his outlook has changed.

"Being a first-year head coach this year has made me find my true passion," he said.

Cotton-Moya took the helm under unusual circumstances. His hiring as head coach was finalized in May. Longtime assistant John Torrey said that Denison uses a spring seminar to instill cultural values in its football players. With the team lacking a head coach throughout the spring, but returning a host of assistants, there was no telling how Cotton-Moya would mesh with the existing staff.

"When you go through a coaching change," Torrey said, "(culture) totally gets disrupted to whatever the head coach wants to have for a mission or a vision."

This left the school, and Cotton-Moya, with a challenge leading up to August, Fink said: "How do we blend philosophies? How do we blend what our kids' knowledge is offensively and defensively of what we've done in the past with what we want to do in this coming year?"

He started by working more with players over the summer than any previous coach had, Fink said. In the meantime, he prioritized getting to know a community that was still new to him.

"Going out to community outings, events, whatever that calls for, those are ways you build relationships," he said. "Being present, being available, being someone that the kids can look up to and talk to."

His time in-state at college hadn't prepared him for what he encountered in Denison. If anything, Cotton-Moya said he felt the town of about 8,000, economically centered around a pair of meat-packing plants, with a 48-percent Hispanic population that makes it an outlier in Iowa, was more like Bakersfield, with its "blue-collar, hard-working people."

The alignment became clear to Torrey right away. He said it's "great that we have a person of color who's going to come in and lead this program" and help with blind spots among the largely white pre-existing coaching staff.

"He's from a diverse family, his background is very similar to, I think, what our kids experience in our town, and he looks different," Torrey said. "And Denison looks different across Iowa."

Being a new head coach at the age of 26 means Cotton-Moya has plenty to learn. But it means he's closer to his young charges.

"I'm adaptive to the new way we play," he said, "the new era of how kids are so social media-driven and technology-driven."

Reaching players will be crucial if the Denison program (which competes as Denison-Schleswig) wants to up its participation rates. Two years ago, the Monarchs had a winning season in which just one practice was fully attended — imagine what they could do if they had more, Torrey said.

Results on the field were mixed in Cotton-Moya's first year, as he trusted the returning coaching staff while still trying to make his own impact. The Monarchs started 3-3 and then lost three straight conference games to finish the year. Fink said there's other ways to measure the team's progress — he'd like to see Cotton-Moya help build youth football to help boost participation numbers, while putting his own stamp on the team and managing the staff.

"Winning is great," Fink said, "and winning is the goal, but at the same time, do your kids play hard? Do they represent your school and community and, when people leave, do they know that you left it all out there?"

Cotton-Moya said the team needs a more defined structure when it comes to discipline, conditioning and on-field strategy — he said the structure was "off and on" this year.

Early reviews of the newly minted "Coach K" have been positive.

"I got more compliments this year from parents, saying, 'Coach Torrey, Coach K needs to stay, we love him,'" Torrey said. "They totally entrust their sons under his care, they trust his decision-making, they trust his character."

They're also asking Torrey how long Cotton-Moya plans to stay in Denison.

While he's devoted to the Monarchs, Cotton-Moya said he has his sights set on the college ranks in a couple years' time. With a season under his belt, the world of football coaching has opened up before him.

"I think it's something I want to do forever now," he said, "and I think that I'm adjusting my lifestyle in order (to do) that."

Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.

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