LIBERTY TOWNSHIP, Ohio — Jon Kitna walked into Lakota East High School's auxiliary gym with formal business attire late Wednesday morning and a purpose to start a transformation in the football program.
The buzz around his entrance as the new head football coach infused a fresh confidence and plenty of smiles around the Lakota East administration, staff and student-athletes.
"I think that his vision is to create a national powerhouse," Lakota East athletic director Jill Meiring said. "I think within the next five years he would like to see Lakota East on the national map. I think there is no reason why we can't do that."
Lofty expectations are nothing new for the former longtime NFL quarterback, who was officially named Lakota East's head football coach and dean of students on Wednesday.
"We do a lot of praying at our house," Kitna said. "And for God to open this door for us and make this a possibility is a huge blessing."
The Tacoma, Wash., native had a 14-year NFL career, including his time with the Bengals from 2001 to 2005. After his NFL retirement in 2011, Kitna has immersed himself in coaching including 10 years at the high school level in Arizona, Washington and Texas.
Lakota East focused on Kitna from the start of its coaching search after longtime coach Rick Haynes stepped down on Feb. 1. The school didn't interview any other candidates besides Kitna.
"We are so excited," Meiring said. "It's been a crazy past couple weeks with trying to get coach here. And just talking with him and hearing his vision for the program and what he plans to do — it makes me even more excited. I think he's going to do a great job."
Coaching football is a genuine passion for the 50-year-old, who lived in Liberty Township during his time with the Bengals and has a family and friends connection in Ohio.
Besides coaching high school football, Kitna served as the Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach in 2019 when he mentored Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott. The Cowboys star threw for 4,902 yards — second in the NFL — and 30 touchdowns in 2019.
For Kitna, football is a means for building young men as leaders, too.
"I really try to put the young men in position to be successful and highlight what they do best," Kitna said. "We're going to work on their weaknesses to try to help them improve those but really we're going to try to get them in positions to be successful at what they are."
Lakota East had a 3-7 record this past season but Kitna said he's ready to start a new slate with an initial emphasis on his offseason weightlifting program. Kitna said he will make decisions on his coaching staff in due time.
"We have to see how things have been done but it's just probably new energy," Kitna said. "Let's get going. It doesn't matter what program you're talking about. There has to be a commitment to the weight room, a commitment to each other, a commitment to being coachable and a commitment to having mental toughness."
Kitna coached the past three seasons at Burleson High School in Burleson, Texas. Burleson, located in the Dallas and Fort Worth area, is a Class 5A program which is the second-largest classification in Texas.
"The top level week in and week out battles that you have in Texas - that's what you want for your young men, for your program," Kitna said. "And that's how it's here in the GMC and beyond when you go to the playoffs. You know that you have to bring your 'A' game every week."
While Kitna continues to evaluate the personnel he has for the upcoming season, there likely seems to be no question for the quarterback position.
2025 quarterback JT Kitna, Jon Kitna's youngest son, enrolled at Lakota East on Tuesday. He has scholarship offers that include Houston, Duke, Texas Tech, North Texas, Baylor, University of Alabama at Birmingham and University of Texas at San Antonio. Michigan has also expressed significant interest, too.
"I'm just here ready to work," JT Kitna said. "I've been to Ohio plenty of times. I was actually born here. It's nothing really new. We have a lot of connections to this school."
JT Kitna said he's looking forward to being a leader in the program and following his father's guidance at Lakota East. He also plans to compete in the 200- and 400-meter dashes during the track and field season this spring for the Thunderhawks.
"He taught me from the ground up how to be a QB," JT Kitna said of his father. "Even off the field how you carry yourself, leadership qualities and everything from my throwing motion to my footwork — it's all from him, basically everything."
The family made the lengthy roadtrip from Texas to Greater Cincinnati earlier this week. But father and son can't wait to get started on the football aspect at Lakota East.
No one inside the school is doubting coach Kitna's vision for success in football, in the school and in the community.
"Everybody saw his passion when he was a player," said Meiring. "And then to be able to instill that in young athletes. I think he's done a great job at the previous schools he's been at. He's built them into winning programs. I'm really excited for that to happen here at Lakota East and I know our players are excited, too."