How ‘Coach Toby’ built an elementary school football dynasty in Norman

How ‘Coach Toby’ built an elementary school football dynasty in Norman

In addition to being one of the nation’s most famous singers, Toby Keith was also a successful football coach. To the Mud Dogs, Keith was a respected role model and beloved coach.

Sam Hutchens

By Sam Hutchens

| Feb 12, 2024, 12:49pm CST

Sam Hutchens

By Sam Hutchens

Feb 12, 2024, 12:49pm CST

(Sam and Ben Hutchens’ OSU newsletter hits inboxes every week. Subscribe here for the latest)

On an unkempt field at Berkeley Park in Norman, the type where grass and dirt compete for supremacy, Trey Pruett could hardly contain his excitement.

Toby Keith had heard his pleas.

Pruett, a fifth-grade offensive lineman for the Roosevelt Mud Dogs of the Norman Optimist League rec team, craved an opportunity to catch the ball. He knew the country music superstar as only “Coach Toby,” and he was elated with Keith’s latest work. 

Keith, who coached with a playbook in his hands and a whistle around his neck, designed a new play. It was the Mud Dogs’ first pass play, breaking from their basic wishbone offense that opposing defenses feared.

Fifteen years later, Pruett, now a commercial banker in Houston, still remembers the play call. 

“Toss Sweep Right Trey Pass,” Pruett said. “He used my name in the play call. 

“That play got a lot of teams because the whole time you’re running the ball throughout the entire game, and then the one time you think you’re about to tackle the running back, he throws it over the top, and I’d catch it.”

Keith died Monday at 62 from stomach cancer. Most knew him as an international country music sensation who sold 40 million albums. But he was also ‘Coach Toby’, thanks to his five-year run as head coach of the Mud Dogs, where he coached his son, Stelen, and about 30 other boys in the late 2000s. 

Faded memories have made a consensus impossible, but most players say the Mud Dogs lost just once or twice with Keith at the helm. They stacked trophies, which were just inexpensive, golden figures affixed to a simple, black wooden base. 

“We were freaking good,” Mason Crook said, laughing. 

Crook, who now lives in Tulsa and builds custom pools, played linebacker and defensive end for Keith. 

Jake Thornton played quarterback and linebacker for three years on the Mud Dogs. Now the accountant who lives in Norman feels that playing for Keith allowed him to really know the country music legend.

 “I think he is the greatest country music artist of all time,” Thornton said. “But he’s still coach.”

Keith ran practices while wearing sweatpants or cargo shorts. He always wore a golf polo, ballcap and sunglasses. Line him up with the other eight coaches in the Norman Optimist League, and it was hard to see a difference.

“I remember my parents would be dropping me off at practice, and we’d hear his songs on the radio,” Thornton said. “It never registered. We knew he was a singer, but he was always coach first. Even today, if you’d see him or talk to him, it’s still weird thinking of him as a country singer.”

Joe Castiglione Jr., the son of the University of Oklahoma’s athletic director, grew up with Stelen and played three seasons under Keith on the Mud Dogs. Keith even taught Joe Jr. how to swim in the deep end of a pool. 

“On the surface when you hear he was our elementary and middle school football coach, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’” Castiglione Jr. said. “But if you knew him or were around him, you’re like, that’s probably all he ever wanted to do was coach football and coach his kid.”

Keith took every opportunity to coach his son. He was an assistant coach for a rec league baseball team in Norman and later at Whittier Middle School and Norman High, where Stelen played. As head coach of the Mud Dogs, Keith dutifully completed administrative obligations such as attending coaching meetings. 

To everyone’s delight, the Mud Dogs were assigned crimson uniforms resembling OU’s. They got their name when Keith asked the boys for suggestions. 

Keith’s favorite drills for end-of-practice conditioning were up-downs and having players run to a lamp pole 150 yards away. During practice, the Mud Dogs competed in their version of the Oklahoma Drill, where players around the same weight crashed together in a one-on-one tackling drill.

“We were a very physical football team,” Castiglione Jr. said. “I remember doing a ton of tackling drills and classic football stuff like sit-ups and push-ups.” 

When the boys would goof off, Keith corrected it. He didn’t yell, instead usually pulled a player to the side, putting an arm around them and explaining what they did wrong. 

“Coach Toby, he was a hard-nosed dude,” Thornton said. “He took care of us. Sometimes he would get worked up at us boys for being goofballs. But he was always kind.”

Keith had nicknames for his players. Mason Crook was Moose. Kaden McClellan was K-Man. Thornton, a 70-pound middle linebacker, was Kneecap Breaker. 

Years later, Castiglione Jr. said Keith could rattle off the names of boys on the roster whom Castiglione Jr. had long forgotten.

Keith “was the most encouraging and uplifting guy,” said running back Trace Magee, who now owns Tuff Contractors construction in Oklahoma City. “We’re all forever grateful for some of the things he instilled in us at such a young age.”

Even for fourth graders, high-level performance was expected. The Mud Dogs practiced a snap count so they could run plays on one or two. They had inventive plays like a Fumblerooski and a “Brotherly Shove” quarterback sneak later popularized by the Philadelphia Eagles.

“Pretty much every game we had to deal with the refs not thinking a play was legal,” said defensive end Mike Mayberry, who lives in Arkansas and works for Luck E Strike, a bait-and-tackle brand Keith acquired last year.

The Mud Dogs’ season was eight weeks long, plus playoffs. Games were played on Sundays in the fall, and Keith did his best to be on the sideline. 

All Pruett remembers Keith missing was a week of practice in 2006 to film Broken Bridges.

Keith arranged for a professional crew to videotape each game. At the end of each season, Keith passed out DVDs that included every game. Every player got one. 

The videos were partly a gift and partly a way for their competitive coach to improve his team.

“People started accusing us of cheating,” Crook said. “Toby would take film of every game and stuff. We’d legitimately watch film.”

As dialed into the Mud Dogs as Keith was, there was one night when his stardom threatened to pull him away from the action. It was November 8, 2007, the same night Keith was being inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. 

The Mud Dogs were playing a playoff game against Madison Elementary, whom they had already lost to in the regular season. It was played at Reaves Park, about halfway between OU’s football stadium and the Lloyd Noble Center.

“He had every rightful excuse to miss our game and go be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame,” Castiglione Jr. said. “Everybody would be understanding of that. But he wanted to coach.”

The game went to overtime. 

As Keith called plays attempting to break through the Madison defense, Joe Castiglione Sr. was in Keith’s ear, providing time updates for the ceremony. As one overtime bled into another, the updates got dire.

The Mud Dogs eventually won in five overtimes with a defensive stand, then scored the winning touchdown on Keith’s passing play: “Toss Sweep Right Trey Pass.”

As the Mud Dogs celebrated a trip to the league’s Super Bowl, Keith and Stelen ran to Keith’s nearby tour bus, where he changed into a tuxedo. They changed vehicles again, hurrying to a waiting helicopter. They flew about 15 minutes to downtown Oklahoma City, and Keith made the induction ceremony with minutes to spare.

Most of the Mud Dogs weren’t aware their coach couldn’t afford another overtime.

“We always knew him as coach with a whistle in his hand,” Thornton said. “Not as some famous singer with a microphone.”

Years later, Keith remained fond of the Mud Dogs. When Crook started golfing in high school, he practiced at Keith’s Belmar Golf Club in Norman. Crook chatted with Keith often, and the instructions were clear — never be a stranger.

Magee and a couple Mud Dogs attended a benefit event Keith hosted in Norman a few years ago. The state’s most famous names milled around.

“Me and a couple of the Mud Dogs came rolling in just to say hi,” Magee said. “He turned all of his attention to us, and we spent the rest of the night with him.

“He impacted so many people. His reach was so broad. But there aren’t a lot of people that he impacted on quite a personal level as the Mud Dogs.”

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Sam Hutchens covers Oklahoma State sport for Sellout Crowd. He interned for The Stillwater News Press in 2021 and The Guthrie News Leader in 2022, where he won a first-place OPA award for in-depth reporting. He has also covered sports in southwest Oklahoma for The Lawton Constitution. He strives to tell you the OSU sports stories that you want to tell your friends about. You can email him at [email protected] and connect on Twitter (X) @Sam_Hutchens_

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