A decision to go into coaching is comparable to a religious calling for some. But for Johnny Felders, it was simply a means to an end.
“I can’t really tell you I thought about being a coach when I was growing up,” Felders said. “As you play football and get older you find yourself in a position of authority. You’re responsible for what you do and making sure everybody else does what they’re supposed to do.
“I thought about that a lot when I was playing in college at ULL (University of Louisiana at Lafayette). And one day it hit me. Coaching ? that’s the ultimate way to make people do what they’re supposed to.”
These days, Felders is living that realization in a big way as the first-year head football coach at Istrouma. Felders and first-year coach Aaron Vice, of nearby Redemptorist, also share another distinction. The two 27-year-olds are the youngest head football coaches in Baton Rouge going into the 2011 season.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t really go into the process thinking too about being a head coach,” Vice said. “As an alum, Redemptorist was the place I wanted to be.
“More than anything else, I thought I’d get the experience of going through the interview process. When they asked me if I wanted the job, it took me less than a minute say yes. I jumped right in from there and haven’t stopped.”
Felders and Vice both look young enough to be mistaken for a prep player. Their diverse experience helped make these new jobs possible.
Vice played wide receiver for Redemptoist as the school was gaining a statewide reputation under coach Sid Edwards. After graduation, he actively sought a number of jobs in coaching.
Along the way, Vice apprenticed under current Zachary High coach Neil Weiner - one of his RHS coaches - at Catholic-Pointe Coupee. Most recently, he was offensive coordinator at St. Michael the Archangel.
Felders is a former quarterback at St. Helena Central and was a defensive back at ULL. He came to Istrouma in 2007 as an assistant to his high school coach, current Amite High head coach Alden Foster.
Armed with a degree in criminal justice and sociology, Felders minored in English and Spanish and teaches English III at Istrouma. He initially thought coaching would be a transition job before a stint in law school or another criminal justice-related field.
“What I like about this is the challenge,” Felders said. “I won’t back down from it, and I have certain goals that I want this team to attain.
“Istrouma is like a lot of other public schools that don’t have a lot of resources, financial or otherwise. That doesn’t bother me because I came from a situation at St. Helena that was similar.
“Right now, we have 30-something players and that includes some freshmen. It’s going to be tough to play in Class 4A, but we’ll find a way to make it through.”
Felders’ insistence on discipline and dedication have already led to the dismissal of several players who were starters a year ago.
The issues for Vice have been different. The Wolves, who drop to Class 2A this fall, have one of their smallest teams in recent memory - a roster of 45. Several players opted to transfer before Vice arrived.
“All we can do is work with the players we have,” Vice said. “Kids who decided to leave and go some place else is something we have no control over.
“We’re going to go more of a wide-open offense, which is a little different than what’s been done here before. And we have some other goals. One is to improve things academically.
“We want all of our players to be a 2.5 grade point average or better. It’s going to take some work on and off the field.”
Putting together a coaching staff was just one key element for Felders and Vice.
Felders’ staff at Istrouma has just two holdovers from the 2010 staff of McKinney Evans. Brad Smith came over from McKinley to be the offensive coordinator.
Another notable assistant is Derrick Green, the younger brother of ex-NFL star Warrick Dunn.
Green, who played at both Istrouma and Catholic High, was previously at an assistant at Catholic. The connection - Felders played with Green’s younger brother, Travis Smothers, at ULL.
Vice has no one on staff who coached under Guy Mistretta at Redemptorist last season. Justin Franks also came over from Catholic-PC and will be the defensive coordinator. Jonathan Lane came from St. Michael and will also coach on the defensive side.
Some of the other tasks have been daunting, too. Vice says he starts each day with a “to-do” list that seems to grow longer as the hours pass.
In addition to his coaching duties and classroom responsibilities, Felders has spent time in the community looking to garner financial support for the Indians.
Along with those duties, Felders is getting a crash course in field maintenance.
“I didn’t know anything about growing grass, maintaining it or cutting it,” Felders said. “But I’m learning.”
Vice’s learning curve accelerated with the start of spring practice. Because he was still teaching at St. Michael, Vice didn’t get to RHS until school was out. By then, his primary concern was to make sure everything else was out and ready.
“We’ve got a tremendous support group here at Redemptorist and they do a lot,” Vice said. “But I went from being an assistant only worried about one side of the ball to being the guy who has to make sure everything is in place - from water bottles to pads. There’s more to it than people think.”
Both coaches also rely on their mentors. It is not unusual for Vice to call Edwards, Weiner or St. Michael coach Eric Held. Felders said he talks to his ULL position coach, former Destrehan High coach Tim Rebowe, and Foster.
“I feel like I have a good background in football and I have some strong ideas,” Felders said. “But there’s still plenty out there for me to learn.”