Vineyard Coach Don Herman, on eve of Island Cup


“Temperature,” said Donald Herman, when asked about the biggest difference between living on Martha’s Vineyard and Savannah, Georgia, where he’s from.

“I’m still a warm weather guy. But it was easy, the adjustment. I can adapt fairly easily, and as long as I’m teaching and coaching and taking care of my family, that’s all that matters.”

Now in his 23rd year as head coach of the football team at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), Coach Herman will lead his charges onto Dan McCarthy Field at 1 pm Saturday, to resume the rivalry with Nantucket that was so crudely interrupted last year. It will be the 63rd time the two schools have clashed, and the 32nd edition of the Island Cup.

Teaching, coaching, and family – actually it was those three in reverse order that fetched Mr. Herman up on these shores in the first place.

“We came here in 1988,” he said. “My wife, Pam, is from here. Stan Mercer from Chilmark is her father. I was teaching and coaching in Savannah, and Pam was teaching elementary school there. I was actually hired for a one-year position. Eric was 18 months old when we moved up here, and Pam was pregnant with our second son, Adam. That was 23 years ago, and we’ve been here ever since. It was kind of one of those meant-to-be things, and I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else.”

In 1992, Eric and Adam were joined by Gail, now a freshman at the University of Connecticut, where Adam is a senior. Eric graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2008, and he’s now serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras. Ms. Herman is a fourth-grade teacher at the Vineyard Haven school.

In addition to coaching, Mr. Herman teaches physical education at the high school, where he was also athletic director for a time in the early 1990s. Since 1989 he has worked in the summer at South Beach in Edgartown, formerly as beach director and now as part of the beach patrol.

Has he noticed many changes in the two decades he’s been coaching at MVRHS?

“Years ago, we had 85 kids in the football program, two years ago we had 75, and this year 51. I don’t know what the kids are doing. That’s a concern. Not just for me as a football coach, but as a phys ed teacher too. We have noticed a drastic decline in hand-eye coordination with kids coming into school. We think it’s because kids aren’t going outside and playing.

“When I was growing up, even in the summer when it was 90 degrees, we were always in the park, just playing. You don’t see that now. They’re on the computer, they’re texting, or they’re waiting for an activity organized by adults — rec leagues or whatever. In my opinion there is a huge decline in instinctual athleticism.”

Mr. Herman says he is troubled by another change in the way children and their families approach sports these days.

“I think specialization has become the norm, and I think that’s terrible,” he said. “If a kid has any kind of success in youth sports, the parents see dollar signs — a college scholarship. Are you kidding me? Do you know how often that happens?

“I was a three-sport athlete in high school, and I tell my players, play as many sports as you can. College coaches, professional athletes will tell you: don’t play one sport. It increases your athleticism working different body parts.”

There are benefits to playing more than one sport, certainly, but it’s not hard to guess which sport is most important to Mr. Herman.

“Football is the ultimate team sport,” he said. “Nowhere else do you have that many people on the field at a time, where if one person messes up, everyone is going to suffer. Football teaches organizational skills, time management. I’ve heard teachers say that they wish football went year-round.”

Studies at all educational levels confirm the anecdotal evidence offered by teachers: because they are more organized and more focused, student-athletes perform better in the classroom during the season.

“A team sport player has to cooperate with other people, has to work as part of something,” Mr. Herman said. “I tell kids ‘Be a part of something, it makes your high school experience better.’ And I don’t care if it’s athletics, or theater, or Minnesingers.”

Being part of the Vineyard-Nantucket rivalry, being part of the Island Cup, is frosting on the cake — a cake that fell flat last year when Nantucket opted out of the GAME.

“It was a mess,” Mr. Herman said. “August 8, I was at work at South Beach, and an old Nantucket football player comes by and says, ‘Hey, I hear we’re not playing this year.’ I couldn’t believe it.

“Vito Capizzo had retired and they were in the process of hiring John Aloisi — great guy, 30 years old, from Nantucket. He was a former quarterback, ’93, ’94, ’95, beat me three times. My concern was that they didn’t want to play because they couldn’t be competitive — we’d beaten them six years in a row. But John’s opinion was he didn’t care, the game should go on. But bottom line, it didn’t.”

It was a bitter pill to swallow, for people on both sides of Muskeget Channel.

“I just felt terrible for the senior players, from both islands. It wasn’t about winning or losing, it was Island Cup, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s great to have it back.”

Anyone and everyone who cares about high school sports, or who has even a bit of Island pride hidden away somewhere, would agree. And because of the hiatus, this year’s game is attracting more attention than usual. There are also a couple of extra, added attractions surrounding the game this year. First, it is the fiftieth reunion of the first regional high school football team.

“We’re bringing back the 1960 football team, from as far away as Florida,” Mr. Herman said. “They will be recognized at half time, and the captains of that team will go out for the coin toss before the game.”

Second, this year’s game will play a major role in a book being written about the inter-island rivalry by James Sullivan, formerly of the Boston Globe. Third, the game has been selected by the Great American Rivalry Series.

“There are a number of games across the country throughout the fall that were selected, and we’re one of them, ” Mr. Herman said. “The host school, us, is going to receive a $1,000 scholarship. A player from each school is going to be inducted into the Great American Rivalry Hall of Fame. Jason Dyer will be our inductee. He was a quarterback for three yeas in the early 90s, and beat Nantucket two out of three years. An academic scholarship will be given to the top student-athlete of each team. Brian Montambault is going to be our recipient this year. An MVP from each team will be selected. And they are going to broadcast the game live on the Internet.”

As for the game itself, the Vineyard should be favored. With a record of six wins and three losses, the Vineyard goes into the ultimate game knowing that a win would make a solid season shine, while a loss would tend the season toward mediocrity. Nantucket has won seven and lost three. But all bets are off when it’s the Island Cup, when underdogs can find new life and play a perfect game, when favorites can get overconfident and stumble.

Coach Herman shied away from predicting an outcome, preferring to focus on the pre-game hoop-la. At 6 pm tonight, Thursday, there will be a bonfire behind the bleachers. It’s open to the public. Friday is purple day at the school, and the winner of a hall-decorating contest on Thursday night will be announced. Friday night, the touchdown club puts on a steak dinner for the football team and the cheerleaders. And Saturday?

“If the weather cooperates, it could be a huge, huge crowd,” Mr. Herman said. “Back in ’91, we had 5,000 people for this game, and this might rival that.”

At midweek, the forecast for noon on Saturday was for temperatures in the upper forties with a brisk breeze from the west — not too bad, considering the season. But if you were born and raised in Georgia, you’d be more apt to notice the temperature — unless you had something more important on your mind.