From the time Tom Swittel announced his intention to retire as head football coach, it took Brookfield East more than three months to name a replacement for the architect of the Spartans' program.
As it turned out, the correct pick was right in front of them: an assistant coach and a former student-athlete.
After guiding Brookfield East through injuries and two difficult losses to win the first-ever state football championship in school history in his first season as head coach, Ben Farley is the Now Newspapers All-Suburban Coach of the Year for 2016.
"I always knew Brookfield East was special to me, and that will never change," Farley said. "I always want to help the school out in whatever capacity I could."
A Brookfield East guy
After helping Brookfield East to its first football playoff appearance in 2002, Farley went on to play collegiately at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He became an All-American defensive back for the Warhawks and played a crucial role on Whitewater's 2007 national-championship team.
When Swittel was hired as head coach at Brookfield East in 2010, then-Spartan athletic director Corey Golla recommended he interview Farley for a position on his staff. Swittel hired Farley to coach defensive backs, and a year, later promoted him to defensive coordinator.
"Even though Ben had not coached football before, Corey thought very highly of him from Ben's days as a student-athlete at Brookfield East," Swittel said. "I interviewed Ben, and it was obvious he had a passion for Brookfield East football.
"I always try to hire in-house whenever possible. Ben showed me he was ready. I had the utmost confidence in him to do a good job with the defense, and he did."
As a member of the coaching staff, Farley got a first-hand look at how Swittel took the Spartans from the bottom half of the Greater Metro Conference to six consecutive playoff appearances.
Because Farley knew what went into the building of the program, Swittel was pleased when he found out his former assistant was his successor.
"Because Ben was a part of the total rebuild of the program, he understood what had been done and why," Swittel said. "Because of the success the program has had since we all got there, those very difficult — I'll call them lean years — have been forgotten. The fact is there was a tremendous amount of work that went into the transformation of Brookfield East's football program from pretender into contender.
"It hasn't been easy. Ben, along with many others, contributed to that. Ben had also connected with the players in such a way that I knew the transition to him being the new coach would be seamless."
While it might have seemed as an easy transition on paper for Farley to accept the head football coaching job at Brookfield East, he faced the difficult decision of having to leave his job as a guidance counselor and head varsity boys basketball coach at Menomonee Falls High School, positions he held for three years.
"I didn’t aim to set out to be the head football coach at Brookfield East," Farley said. "It just kind of was there. I really like the school and really like the kids and thought I could help make a difference. I’m just so fortunate for the opportunity."
Becoming a state champion
The Spartans began the season 4-0 before being hit with a rash of injuries, including one to star running back Sam Santiago-Lloyd. Brookfield East struggled in a 43-14 loss to rival Brookfield Central on Sept. 15 and let a late lead slip away in a 20-17 overtime loss to Marquette on Oct. 7.
But Farley kept the team together, and as Brookfield East got healthy, it began to round into a physical football team on both sides of the ball. Throughout the year, Farley leaned on his former college coach and current University of Buffalo coach Lance Leipold for advice. He even sought the ear of University of Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst.
"I really look up to Lance and (Buffalo defensive coordinator) Brian Borland," Farley said. "I was in contact with Lance up until the state-championship game, just asking for advice because I saw a lot of similarities to when he was in his first year of coaching at Whitewater. He had some helpful things to say. (Coach Chryst) had some nice things to say that I passed down to our team."
After closing the regular season with a win over Sussex Hamilton, the Spartans easily downed Cedarburg and Menomonee Falls to reach Level 3 for the second straight year. That's where Brookfield East exacted its revenge on its rivals, posting a 21-0 shutout of Brookfield Central to reach the state semifinals. Brookfield East continued using its blueprint of a dominating game up front with strong offensive line play, a dominant running game and a physical defense to down Menomonie, 20-13, in Level 4.
Farley and the Spartans capped their season by setting numerous championship game rushing records in a 42-36 win over Monona Grove in the WIAA Division 2 state title game.
"Ben is very smart and has a real good feel for the game," Swittel said. "He is also a tireless worker, which a lot of coaches think they are but they're not. Ben is. He worked on things until they got done regardless of how long it took. In that way, he reminded me of myself. In that respect, Ben and I are very much the same — no shortcuts. Ben is also like me in that he would never make excuses. It either gets done or it doesn't. Don't make excuses if it doesn't get done. I built the program on that premise. It is the absolute No. 1 pillar of the program. Ben is the embodiment of that.
"I respect that a lot in Ben because, again, not many coaches follow that creed. It is always easier to make excuses than to look at yourself critically and see what you might have done differently. Ben will always evaluate his performance as a coach and find ways to improve."