Mark Macke was used to winning.
In the 19 seasons he was a Creighton Prep assistant football coach and the offensive coordinator from 1992 through 2010, the Junior Jays were in the Class A playoffs 17 times with state titles in 1999 and 2004, and runner-up finishes in 2000 and ’03.
He was teaching physical education in one of the top private Catholic schools in the state and coaching football at a perennial powerhouse.
Macke was in a comfortable place professionally, but by 2011, he was also ready to shake things up and try something new.
For Macke, that meant taking over a Lincoln High football program that had gone 6-48 in the previous six years combined and had been in the playoffs just five times in 35 years.
“I wanted a head coaching job, and there was something intriguing to me about Lincoln High,” said Macke, who has guided Lincoln High to an 8-1 record and a No. 4 state ranking in his seventh season at the school.
The Links host Millard South (5-4) in a first-round playoff game 7 p.m. Friday at Seacrest Field.
“When I was at Prep, we never played Lincoln High in football, but we played them a few times in basketball and I was always impressed with the athletes they had,” Macke said. “I didn’t mind taking over a program that was down, I’ve always been someone who enjoys being in that underdog role. I wanted the challenge of building a program from scratch.”
After four seasons at the helm, however, the only thing Macke was scratching was his head. The Links were 2-7 each of his first two seasons before going 3-6 and 1-8 in Years 3 and 4.
“I’ll admit, four years into it, I was thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?,’’’ Macke said. “My head was down and my shoulders were shrugged. But things gradually got better. Each year we became a little more organized and a little more competitive.”
While this season is the high-water mark for Lincoln High football since a run to the Class A state championship game in 1992, fortunes began turning two years ago.
The Links were 4-5 in 2015 and failed to advance to the playoffs, but they posted wins over Lincoln Northeast, Lincoln Southwest and Lincoln Southeast, victories that improved their image drastically in the city.
It was also the first year of the spread offense for the Links, who now run it as well as anyone in the state.
A five-game winning streak at midseason last fall propelled the Links to their first playoff appearance in 12 years. They lost in the first round to Bellevue West, but they pushed the eventual state champions to the limit for three quarters.
“I feel like that senior class two years ago sparked all of this,” 2017 senior standout wide receiver Zion Perry said. “They showed us what it takes to be successful, and we’ve taken it from there. Our senior class has been on both sides of it, from 1-8 and one of the worst Class A programs in the state as freshmen to flipping that completely around this season.”
A number of factors have helped turn Lincoln High’s football fortunes. For one, more athletes walking the Lincoln High hallways are playing football. Macke said their freshmen numbers out for football have gone from 19 his first year at the school in 2011 to 43 this year.
The Links are also retaining more players and seeing fewer of them transfer to rival city schools after their freshman or sophomore seasons. That became a big issue after Lincoln Southwest and Lincoln North Star opened their doors in 2002 and 2003, respectively, further cutting Lincoln High’s attendance boundaries.
And as the football losses piled up, the exodus of players to other schools picked up.
Zion Perry’s older brother, DeVonte Madlock, and his friend, Super-State running back Devin Washington, are just two examples of players who transferred after spending their freshman season at Lincoln High. Both were contributors to Southeast’s state championship team in 2011.
“A lot of my friends I went to Irving with went to Southeast, and they were really trying to get me over there (at Southeast) after my freshman year when we went 1-8,” Perry said. “But there was no way I was going over there. I knew what we had coming here.”
For star senior linebacker Jack Buchanan, the choice of going to Lincoln High was easy.
“I lived close, I liked the school and I wanted to be part of their IB (International Baccalaureate) program,” he said.
Macke said the key to getting players on the football team and keeping them at Lincoln High is developing relationships with those students.
“If you’re not there for those kids and really showing an interest in them, then you’re swimming up stream at a school like Lincoln High,” Macke said. “That’s the only way to get kids out for football and keep them out.”
Two more factors have been a drop in coaching staff turnover and an enhanced weight training program for all of Lincoln High’s athletes under the direction of Stewart Venable. The Links have the same coaching staff this fall as they did in 2016, “and having that stability is very important in building a consistent program,” Macke said.
Perry said Venable “has made us all better football players in the weight room. We love the intensity and passion he brings to our workouts.”