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Fairfield Falcons head coach Matt Thacker looks on before the football game against Fremont in this Sept. 11 file photo. Thacker led the Falcons to a 9-1 record in 2020, earning him 2020 Goshen News Coach of the Year honors.

GOSHEN — In Matt Thacker’s first year as head football coach at Fairfield, the Falcons didn’t win a game.

Two years later, they didn’t lose any in the regular season.

Thacker has overhauled the entire Fairfield program, leading them from the basement of the Northeast Corner Conference to Big Division champs for the first time since 2015. Fairfield went 8-0 in the regular season in 2020 and 9-1 overall, earning him 2020 Goshen News Football Coach of the Year honors.

“I’ve been coaching for more than 23 years now, and in that time, I’ve never been part of a conference championship — played for conference and sectional championships, but have come up short,” Thacker said. “I’ve never coached on an undefeated team … it’s pretty special, obviously. So, it has to be the number one team (I’ve coached).”

JOURNEY TO FAIRFIELD

Thacker is originally from Indianapolis and was at Southport High School until moving to Warsaw late in his junior year. He graduated as a Tiger and went to college at Manchester University.

Following college, he started his coaching career at Whitko in 1997. He was an assistant with the Wildcats until moving to Lakeland, where he helped build up the Lakers’ freshman team for then-coach Rex Bowser. In 2006, Thacker returned to his alma mater at Warsaw and was an assistant under both Troy Akers and Phil Jensen.

After the 2017 season, Bart Curtis was hired to become the new football coach at Warsaw. Thacker planned on being an assistant with him, and the two went to a camp at Navy during spring break in March 2018 to gain more knowledge of the triple-option offense Curtis likes to run.

“I had always admired what Bart had done and the offense that he ran at Mishawaka, New Prairie and Maconaquah,” Thacker said.

When they came back from spring break, though, Jensen approached Thacker, saying there was an opening to be the head football coach at Fairfield. Thacker talked about it with his wife, who gave him the OK to pursue the job. A month later, Thacker was hired as the new head coach for the Falcons.

ROUGH BEGINNING

It took Thacker 20 years to finally get a head coaching job.

He didn’t get a win as a head coach until his 21st season.

Fairfield went 0-9 in 2018. Thacker implemented the triple-option on offense, which takes time to learn. He also only had one senior on a small roster that was forced to cancel a game due to so many injuries. Thacker’s youth and lack of players was on full display following the second game of the season against NorthWood.

“Every week, I would try to put it in perspective, as far as where we were at and where we were going,” Thacker said. “After the NorthWood game, I asked them to raise their hands if they had their driver’s license — it was only two.”

Thacker knew it was going to be a process rebuilding the Fairfield program. That’s why he was excited when the 2018 season ended.

“I remember after the first season, I told the kids that there’s only been one season in my entire coaching career that I couldn’t wait until it was over, and obviously it was that first year,” Thacker said. “It wasn’t because I wanted the season to be over; it was because I couldn’t wait to get started on what we were preparing for in that second season.”

The 2019 campaign showed Thacker had the program going in the right direction. After a 4-5 regular season, the Falcons won two postseason games and competed for the sectional championship. Although they lost to Eastside in the final, Fairfield outperformed everyone’s expectations.

“We knew we would be better,” said Thacker of the 2019 team. “We didn’t know if we’d win a game or two — a lot of the prognosticators said we were going to win one or two. … We knew we were going to have some success.”

2020: ALL COMING TOGETHER

Fairfield jumped out to a 4-0 start on the season. The level of competition the Falcons played in that time, though, was questioned. Whether or not the Falcons were legitimate NECC contenders was going to be answered on Sept. 25 against Angola.

Those questions were answered emphatically by Fairfield, as they knocked off the Hornets, 29-17, on the road to take sole possession of the NECC Big Division. After losing to Angola 70-0 in 2018 and 48-16 in 2019, the Falcons made sure to announce to the conference that they were a team not to be messed with.

They won their final three games of the regular season to finish 8-0 and Big Division champs.

“To finally break through in year three I think was a clear moment for us,” Thacker said. “I knew we were going to be good. Do I go out and promote that and say that? No. … But I knew we had an opportunity to be pretty good.”

Fairfield finished the season 9-1. They lost to Bishop Luers in the Sectional 35 semifinals, ending a dream season with bitter disappointment. It was a much better feeling than at the end of the 2018 season, though, as the groundwork has been laid for the Falcons to be successful for years to come.

Thacker credits this year’s senior class for revitalizing Fairfield football.

“Usually in a situation like (2018), kids in that type of situation don’t experience any type of success,” Thacker said. “They were able to find a little bit in that second year, which is rare. But then to get to what they did this year is truly rare and goes back to their character and leadership. … Hopefully, the legacy that they leave, looking back, will continue to grow with the classes behind them.”

With the foundation now set, Thacker sees growing the program into a consistent fixture for years to come.

“Obviously, we want to win the NECC, year-in and year-out, compete for sectionals and so-on and so-forth from there,” Thacker said. “And we can; we just have to go through that whole process.”

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.

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