Waldorf head coach Josh Littrell reclines to his right in his chair. He’s wearing a gray t-shirt that reads, “Squad Up” in black letters with a lime green logo. Offseason is by no means quiet, especially after leading the Warriors to a 7-4 record, their best season in 20 years.
It was a storied commencement into Littrell’s head-coaching career. But his football education started 34 years ago on the sidelines next to his dad, Mark, at Olathe South High School in Kansas.
“I’ve been on the sideline of a football game since I was probably 6 years-old, whether it’s been a player or as a coach or just as a kid growing up with my dad, I’ve been on the sideline,” Littrell said. “Watching my dad through the years as I grew up…I figured this was probably my route.”
Mark was honored in the Greater Kansas City Football Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame this past summer. Littrell would interview for Waldorf that morning before driving down to Kansas City for the induction.
Two days later, Littrell would get his first head-coaching job on his 40th birthday.
What started on the high school sidelines grew on the field. Littrell was a wide receiver at Garden City Community College and, later, Emporia State. Following in his father’s footsteps, Littrell started student coaching alongside Tracy Claeys, Emporia’s defensive coordinator at the time.
“He asked me, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ and I said, ‘I want to be a coach,’” Littrell said. “He said, ‘I tell you what, I’ve got extra room at my apartment and you can move in there,’ because I didn’t have any money, so we got started and we went through a season.”
While on a recruiting trip in Topeka with Claeys, Littrell remembers the panicked feeling when head coach Jerry Kill took the job at Southern Illinois University, taking Claeys with him.
“I was like damn, you know,” Littrell said. “I just got my start and now these guys are leaving… and Coach Claeys said, ‘I’ll be back to get you in the summer right after spring ball is over.’ And I said, ‘Yeah ok.’”
To Littrell’s surprise, Claeys came back with a U-haul to bring him to Carbondale, Illinois.
“When he said he wanted to get into coaching, a big part of that was his family,” said Claeys, who was the head coach at Minnesota from 2015-2016 and is the current defensive coordinator at Washington State. “A lot of kids say they want to be a grad assistant coach and they have no idea how many hours it takes and they get smart and they go find another crew and stay stubborn. His family being into coaching… he would know how many hours it would take to be successful.”
Littrell paid his dues. He laughs when he talks about the dirty work of a graduate assistant, like driving to the airport to pick up video or doing the team’s laundry.
“I don’t think I made any money my first 5 years of coaching,” Littrell said. “Working part time jobs at Subway or Applebees, just all kinds of different things, trying to make enough money to where I could pursue this profession.”
In between the chores, he sat in on every coaches’ meeting, practice and game, learning more about the defensive side of the ball, something he wasn’t as familiar with. He attributes his offensive success to his time learning defensive coverages under Claeys.
Littrell bounced from place to place, growing his network of mentors and knowledge from offensive coordinator at Hutchinson Community College (2003-2005) in Kansas to a passing-game coordinator under the Friday Night Lights of Texas high school football (2005-2013) and up to Doane University in Nebraska (2014-2016) as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, when his wife, Renae, became the head softball coach.
But he says he feels settled here in Iowa, hoping his three boys, Cooper (12), Max (9) and DJ (2) can grow through the Forest City school system, hanging out on the Waldorf sidelines after school.
“I was very honored that he wanted to follow in my footsteps,” Mark said. “My dad was an electrician and none of us took up the electrician business. Josh’s grandpa said that’s the highest compliment to a father: to have a son follow in his footsteps.”
Mark never strayed far from his son, spending time as a high school football coach in Texas when Littrell was there. It was oddly coincidental.
But this season, Mark enjoyed standing on the sidelines, watching his son take the reigns as a head coach.
“I just sat there and watched...they had scored 35 points and it’s not even halftime yet and I said, ‘Yep he’ll get her done,’” Mark said. “I remember that last game against Presentation when it went into overtime and I was with Cooper and the AD [Denny Jerome]. He [Jerome] asked, ‘Do you think he’ll kick it or go for two?’ And I said, ‘He better go for two or I’ll go out and talk to him.’”