By Steve Carpenter
Blue Dragon Sports Information Director
Hutchinson Community College head football coach Rion Rhoades has produced 16 NFL players, 23 All-Americans, six conference players of the year, 190 all-conference players and have sent 239 players to four-year programs.
Now 14 years into his head coaching career – Rhoades opened year No. 13 on Thursday with the first practice of the 2019 season at Gowans Stadium – Rhoades is now seeing plenty of former players get into coaching.
Three of Rhoades' former players are on his 2019 Blue Dragon staff – quarterbacks coach Greg Cross, receivers coach Kody Cook and volunteer assistant Akeem Francis.
"It's really cool have those guys on the staff this year," Rhoades said. "With them being junior college players is one thing that's valuable; and then being in this system and knowing the expectations. They are a little younger. That makes them a little more relatable (to the players). They can serve as the interpreter and that's a big asset."
Cook and Francis are Blue Dragon alums.
Cook played receiver and emergency quarterback for Rhoades in 2011 and 2012. Francis was an outside linebacker for the Blue Dragons in 2013 and 2014. Cross was a quarterback for Rhoades in his one season at Fort Scott Community College.
For Cross and Cook, this is the second time on staff with the Blue Dragons.
Cross was at Hutchinson from 2012 to 2014 before heading to his home state of Georgia to coach at the high school level for four years. He returned to Hutchinson before the 2018 season to begin his second stint with the Dragons.
Cook was Hutch's tight ends coach in 2017 and left to coach at a northeast Kansas high school last season before coming back to Hutch.
For Francis, after two highly successful years at Baker University, a couple of shoulder injuries while trying to break into professional football moved his professional interests to coaching.
"I'm here to be the best coach and mentor I can to these guys," said Francis, a native of Kissimmee, Florida. "I love football. I always saw myself coaching. Here with Coach Rhoades, I had a good connection with him the first time I stepped on this campus. I just want to be the best coach there is for these kids."
Francis will serve as the assistant defensive backs coach this season.
"We had been talking throughout the summer," Rhoades said. "We didn't know if it was going to work, but he got his stuff squared away."
As a player, Cook became a Blue Dragon hero in the 2012 Salt City Bowl.
Filling in for injured all-conference quarterback Luke Barnes late in the first half, Cook led a storybook comeback as he led the Dragons on four-consecutive second-half scoring drives en route to a 41-21 come-from-behind victory over Iowa Central . Cook was named the Bowl's Offensive Most Valuable Player after completing 20 of 30 passes for 277 yards and tying a bowl record with five touchdown passes. Cook rushed for another touchdown.
As a receiver for the Blue Dragons, Cook caught 55 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns in his career. He had at least one reception in 20 of 24 games played for the Blue Dragons. His best game statistically was a seven-catch, 103-yard performance with one touchdown against Independence in 2012.
Cook said it was a no-brainer when Rhoades asked him to return to Hutchinson.
"I told him I was on my way," Cook said. "He's brought be back twice now. The trust he has in me in the ability to live up to the family aspect he brings. Coach taught me a lot on how to approach different people."
When Cross played for Rhoades at Fort Scott, they combined to lead one of the biggest turnarounds in Jayhawk Conference history. Cross went on to become the 2007 Jayhawk Conference Offensive Player of the Year and ultimately a shot at Division I football at the University of Pittsburg, which netted the 2010 Big East Conference championship for the Panthers.
But like Cook and Francis, Cross' wanted his coaching career to start with Rhoades.
"Getting an opportunity to come here has been an incredible experience," Cross said. "Coach Rhoades has always been more than a coach to me, he's been a father figure as well. As a player, you see about the Xs and Os and as a coach you see the business side of it. (Rhoades) holds us accountable and we hold our players accountable."
"I'm thrilled to have these guys," Rhoades said. "They have all held a special place in my heart. The quality of people they are, too, is big to us.
"They all have a burning desire to be great."