Jeff Duffin Aberdeen

Aberdeen High School football head coach Jeff Duffin during the Tigers’ 2A quarterfinals game against St. Maries on Nov. 7 in Aberdeen.

Years ago, before Aberdeen was the top-ranked 2A football team in Idaho preparing for the championship game, before the Tigers were a blossoming powerhouse with multiple all-state players, before they ended West Side’s reign over District 5 and shut down the state’s top offenses in the playoffs, Aberdeen football had nothing.

No weight program, no tradition — just a generation of losing.

Since the early 2000s, the Tigers football program has gradually risen to prominence. Now, dominance. Aberdeen plays in the state title game for the second straight season Saturday versus Grangeville in Moscow. With a win, the turnaround will be complete.

The beginning — the Cory Hollingsworth era

When Cory Hollingsworth took over as Aberdeen’s head coach in 2001, the football team hadn’t had a winning season in more than a decade. The program’s brightest moment was 23 years earlier, a loss in the state championship game. There wasn’t a weight program in place, and a handful of coaches had shuffled through the helm in the time since Aberdeen’s 1978 runner-up season.

“The program was not good before that,” said Aberdeen assistant coach Derek Jolley.

Hollingsworth instituted a training program for players, requiring them to enroll in a weight-lifting class every semester each year through high school.

In 2007, Aberdeen reached the state quarterfinals, the furthest it advanced in more than 20 years.

A season later, the Tigers were a touchdown away from making the championship game.

“Before (him), there were 0-8 seasons and one-win seasons,” Jolley said. “(Hollingsworth) never had any of those.”

Hollingsworth stayed at Aberdeen through the 2012 season, leaving to pursue a job in Oregon and eventually returning to east Idaho to take a job as athletic director at West Jefferson High School in Terreton.

He laid the groundwork for a once hopeless program that was on the rise, giving Aberdeen a sense of structure and a pedigree that was moderately successful instead of frequently failing.

“Growing up, I saw the program building,” said former Aberdeen football player Bo Duffin, whose dad, Jeff, is the team’s current head coach. “I saw kids working hard in the weight room, and there would begin to be more excitement and passion about football in Aberdeen.”

Youth movement

Five years ago, Aberdeen’s senior class got an early taste of championship football.

The seventh-grade team, the Aberdeen Dolphins, won the Southeast Idaho Youth Football League Division B championship against the Snake River seventh-graders.

The next season, the same group took down Marsh Valley as eighth-graders to win back-to-back Division B titles. The seventh-grade team beat the South Pocatello Lions to give Aberdeen a sweep in the two highest age groups of Southeast Idaho Youth Football.

Those teams featured current Aberdeen starters Hilario Carrillo, Jared Carrasco, Cesar Cerna, Alex Villafana and Juan Juarez, among others. The group qualified for the postseason every year of high school and has a chance to leave Aberdeen as the school’s first-ever football state champions.

“They were a fun group to watch,” Hollingsworth said. “They were teeny tiny, and there were only about 13 of them. They looked like a rag-tag group, and they would hit and get after it.”

Around the time Jeff Duffin took over Aberdeen’s varsity program in 2013, youth coaches in the Aberdeen area began integrating the Tigers’ double-wing offense into their playbooks, helping the future high schoolers learn necessary terminology and make the transition to the next level as seamless as possible.

Jolley, who coordinates Aberdeen’s offense, also coaches the eighth-grade team and said all of Aberdeen’s youth teams now run the double-wing offense.

“I think it’s a big deal,” Jolley said. “I think it’s helped big time.”

The man behind the scenes

Most Sundays, Jolley sits in Aberdeen High School’s meeting room, in what used to be a storage area, analyzing game film for hours.

“He’s here all day,” said Aberdeen assistant coach Joe Ingersoll. “He’s here from like 9 (a.m.) to 6 (p.m.). Him and his wife both.”

Jolley is Aberdeen’s textbook of football information, dissecting the Xs and Os of future opponents and game planning for the Tigers’ next victim. Hollingsworth said Jolley showed his coaching talents during his playing days, leading Jolley to earn a coaching gig in Aberdeen immediately after high school in 2006.

“He just jumped right in, took over that JV program,” Hollingsworth said. “I know he had a couple undefeated seasons coaching JV and moved up. He’s a great coach. Real smart guy.”

Jolley clocks extensive hours, pulls the trigger on Aberdeen’s offensive play calls and knows everything there is to know about opposing teams, truly acting as the behind-the-scenes driving force of the Tigers’ success.

Jeff Duffin even went so far as to say he would give himself a different job title if he could.

“If there’s a person that puts in the most hours and the most work with the kids directly and is just an integral part of our program, it is Derek Jolley,” Duffin said. “I just try to coordinate and make sure I minimize distractions and keep everybody focused.”

Duffin’s final push

Jeff Duffin originally declined the head coaching job at Aberdeen. If he was going to run the ship, there were going to be some changes.

The program was $500 in debt. More than half of the team’s helmets were outdated. Other equipment was inadequate. The weight room was sub-standard.

Duffin used local resources, enlisted the community’s help and his own finances to install a new weight room, a big-screen TV and whiteboard-lined walls in the meeting room, a new track, new jerseys and new football equipment. He helped facilitate a potato fundraiser that, over three years, has raked in what Duffin called a “substantial amount” of money, though he declined to state an amount.

Bo Duffin said he estimates the annual fundraiser has brought in at least $50,000. Ingersoll said he estimates Jeff Duffin’s personal contributions to be upward of $10,000.

“Whether it’s paying for buses to go up this weekend or whether it’s paying for dinners after games,” Ingersoll said, “he doesn’t leave any stone unturned.”

On Aberdeen’s football roster, boosters are ranked by donation amount, from bronze sponsors ($50 to $249) to platinum elite ($2,000 or more). Jeff and his wife, Chana, represent one of nine parties on the platinum elite list. Jeff Duffin said he donates most of his coaching pay back into the program, essentially making him a volunteer coach.

“I’ve heard him say to me several times just at home that he’s doing it for the kids,” Bo Duffin said. “He wants them to have a good experience. He wants them to learn the life lessons that come with playing football, and he wants the kids to believe in themselves and believe that they can win and reach their potential.”

Community support

Leaving Aberdeen High School on Saturday, game day, at 4 a.m. were three buses. Two will carry students, family and fans. Another will transport the school’s pep band. They’ll drive nine hours from Aberdeen to Moscow, watch the game and drive nine hours home. All for their beloved Tigers.

“People just come out of the woodwork supporting us like that,” Jeff Duffin said. “It’s phenomenal the support we have.”

If they’re lucky, Aberdeen’s supporters will make the round trip in 24 hours.

But there’s history on the line. The program’s rise is almost at its apex. A 180-degree turnaround 37 years in the making.