3. Mike Sirko, turning Aspen into a winner
December 28, 2007
His arrival was contentious. His first season in Aspen was nothing short of miraculous.
No matter where you stand on the Mike Sirko issue, the embattled high school football coach triumphed in a way that impressed everyone. He made the Aspen Skiers relevant in the 2A Western Slope. He gave the town a team to rally around.
Under Sirko’s leadership, one predicated on discipline, commitment and accountability, Aspen took off. The transformation was evident from the start when the Skiers stunned the Battle Mountain Huskies ” and even their own fans ” with a 40-20 win in Aug. 24’s season-opener.
A year earlier, the Huskies beat Aspen 35-2. Aspen won just three games that season, and a total of six games from 2004-06.
The Skiers spent an entire season making similarly demonstrative statements. Aspen won six of its first seven games, and, with victories over Basalt and Roaring Fork, asserted itself as the valley’s top team. The Skiers were in contention for a league title until a late loss to Gunnison ” the only blemish on an otherwise clean conference record.
Aspen rebounded one week later with a resounding 54-14 victory over Coal Ridge, assuring itself of an undefeated home record, a second-place league finish and, most important ” perhaps astounding, a spot in the state tournament.
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In many ways, Aspen’s 265-mile trek to Eaton, Colo., Nov. 3 symbolized how far the Skiers had come “regardless of the outcome in their first playoff game since 1974. The Eaton Reds went on to win, 30-7, but little could temper the pride of the faithful that made the pilgrimage.
“I was hoping for something like this, but I can’t say I would’ve guaranteed it,” Sirko told The Aspen Times in November. “I’ve had some good moments in my career. This one’s right up there.”
The Aspen reclamation project may have been the most ambitious for Sirko, a 32-year coaching veteran who has made a career of reviving stumbling programs.
He inherited a team and a community that was reeling after the controversial departure of coach and former Aspen graduate Travis Benson last December. School administrators, which included athletic director Carol Sams, high school principal Charlie Anastas and superintendent Diana Sirko (coach Sirko’s wife), proposed that Benson take a subordinate role under the veteran coach; Benson said the discussion felt more like an ultimatum.
In the wake of Benson’s decision to step down, everyone took a side ” some cried foul, condemning the administrators’ move as disloyal and fueled by nepotism, while others felt, much like school officials, that having coach Sirko mentor Benson would be in the program’s best interest moving forward.
Sirko said he consciously removed himself from those discussions. Instead of concerning himself with something that was out of his control, he decided instead to focus on his players.
It didn’t take long for those players to turn into winners.
“I know that some people will go by wins and losses and try to make comparisons,” the coach told the Times in July. “By the end of the next year or two, those kids will say they want to be a part of football because this is good for the high school and the town of Aspen.”