Mike Daniels has been the head football coach at his alma mater Princeton High School for three seasons, and he understands the proud tradition of the program. Princeton is one of the original member schools in the Greater Miami Conference — one of the premier high school athletic conferences in Ohio.
And Daniels has a unique place in its history.
“We haven’t had a whole lot of opportunity for us, as Black men, to have the top leadership positions, and so when you get one, it's a big deal,” he said.
The GMC formed in 1966. Fifty-three years later, in 2019, Daniels became the first Black head coach to make the playoffs.
“You talk about historic things in life, I mean, this is a big deal," he said. "I'm very proud of it.”
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Middletown head coach Don Simpson, who served as Daniels' defensive coordinator for a year at Princeton, is proud, too. He's the first Black head coach in the 108-year history of Middletown High School.
“It makes you reflect," he said. "A sense of pride and and a sense of responsibility that you've been given this opportunity, which is not very abundant among African American coaches.”
Simpson and Daniels are breathing rarefied air in the GMC. There have only been six Black head coaches in the history of the conference: Doc Gamble, Eric Gillespie, Calvin Johnson, Gary Croley, Mike Daniels and Don Simpson.
Gamble, who's now the head coach at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, was the head coach at Fairfield in 2008. He says he'd like to see the number of Black head coaches in the conference grow.
"It should be a priority," Gamble said. "The schools are more diverse, so the staffs should be more diversified. The make-up of the schools now are different. We need to train some more guys and develop more assistant coaches."
Daniels serves as an inspiration to Black coaches in the area, including Simpson.
“We’ve come here (to Middletown) with almost somewhat of the same type of culture that's being built down there (at Princeton)," Simpson said. "That's reassuring to me that we're doing things the right way, and if we continue to do it the right way, we can have that success.”
It’s not enough to just make the playoffs, though. The state championship expectations at Princeton put pressure on Daniels, and he welcomes it.
“We, as Black men, have to do a little bit more in terms of having success,” Daniels said. "I've known ever since I've grown up as a little boy that my expectation was to do a little bit more and to be just a little bit better to get certain opportunities. If you're not in somebody's shoes, you don't have the slightest idea about the things that we deal with."
Being a trailblazer can be a heavy burden, Simpson acknowledged.
“You just don't get those positions and then become Black," Simpson said. "You've been Black all your life, you've had that added pressure all your life that you had to be excellent that you had to excel at everything you do. So when you go into those opportunities and you don't have the success that you want, it is disheartening.”
With the realities of the past and the desire for change in the future, Daniels presses forward. He wants the impact of what he’s building to go far beyond the game.
“(I hope) our young people are represented, that they have someone that they can look up to and say, 'I want to be like that guy,'" he said. "'That guy grew up like me, he looks like me, and that's my role model.'”