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Nate Olson: Former Gus Malzahn assistant Eric Munoz undeterred as he tries to rebuild struggling Rogers Heritage football program

Munoz had begun turning a struggling Brookland program around as he was set to begin his third season.

By Nate Olson

Eric Munoz is aware of Rogers Heritage’s football tradition – or lack thereof. He knows that not one coach has had success at the school. He knows some critics would question why he’d take such a job.

But he doesn’t really care. Munoz heard the same banter when he left his post as an assistant at Valley View two years ago to take the head-coaching job at nearby Brookland in the Jonesboro area in northeast Arkansas. The Bearcats were 2-8 and 4-6 before Munoz, who was also an assistant at Arkansas State and Auburn, took over. 

After finishing 3-8 in his first season in 2020, Munoz, a Springdale native, engineered a respectable 5-5 campaign last fall in the rugged 5A-East Conference. The prospects looked bright for 2022.

As little success as Brookland had, Heritage has been far worse. The War Eagles haven’t won a conference game since 2017 and have just one win over the past two seasons. In 2020, Heritage snapped a 25-game win streak with a 55-12 win over Springfield (Mo.) Central, whose losing streak grew to 43 after that defeat.

“[The negative talk] is very motivating to me,” Munoz said. “When you tell me I can’t or won’t, I am very competitive, and that drives me. They said the same thing when I went to Brookland, and we made great strides while running that gauntlet of a conference.”

Surprising to some, the decision to take the Heritage job was an easy one. 

“I think No. 1, every coach would like to build something,” Munoz said. “It is motivating to try to build something and put your stamp on it. Being able to build is a big key. We are also going to be closer to family, and being home around family is very important to me. 

“When you consider those two factors, and this is a 7A job, that is a big opportunity. There are a lot of intangibles, and the pros definitely outweigh the cons here. It really was a no-brainer.”

Munoz graduated from Springdale High School in 2005 and was a member of Gus Malzahn’s 2004 squad that won the 7A-West Conference title. Munoz, who played college football at Baker (Kan.) University, will now be right up the road from his hometown, and his wife, Sarah, who has family in Kansas, will be much closer. The couple has two children: Jace (6) and Collin (4).

What Munoz will be tasked with is to figure out how to change the culture of the program. And do so in a conference that is known for football excellence.

“I think No. 1, everyone on your staff has to be moving in the same direction on how to do things – a lot of details,” he said. “The other key thing is getting numbers up. You have to get kids to come out and play football.”

Munoz had success expanding his rosters at Brookland. When he arrived, only 50-some kids played junior high football. Now, there are 85 active players. The seventh grade total hovered around the mid-30s and has now grown to 65. The varsity squad this spring is comprised of nearly 75 players; it was comprised of around 50 players two years ago.

“You have to create excitement, and let the kids get to know you,” Munoz said. “We did an unbelievable job of that in Brookland.

“It starts with the younger kids. They see you [at youth games on Saturdays], and you show them a 15-minute highlight film and explain what football will do for them. You build a culture, and yes, it is about the high school kids, but it begins with the younger kids.”

Munoz coached on Malzahn’s staffs at Arkansas State and Auburn and admits his style has a distinct Malzahn flavor to it, but it is also a blend of different philosophies he has picked up.

“I have taken a little bit from every guy I worked for or coached with,” Munoz said. “I’ve learned a lot from Gus, but I have taken things from other coaches at the college and high school levels.”

The move was bittersweet. Munoz and his family made a major connection at the school and in the community. Little Jace cried at the news, not wanting to leave.

“Meeting with the team and looking those guys in the eyes and telling them I was leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in coaching,” Munoz said. “You try to impact their lives and get to know them and get close with them, and to have to tell them that is difficult.

“It shows the kind of character these kids have because they were very understanding. They know this was a good opportunity for me and my family. There is not a better group of kids. I told them: They are going to find a guy better than me.”

Munoz plans to be in Rogers on Friday morning to meet with the staff and will greet the team later in the day, and he will observe a team workout. He will also meet with the staff individually and with player parents next week.

These are the first steps in the process that Munoz hopes will lead to finally bringing the Heritage program to respectability.

“I don’t know 100 percent what has been lacking, but whatever it is, I am going to tackle it with a full head of steam and get things turned around in the right direction,” he said.