Zone Read: Conrad Hamilton Unplugged

Arizona Sports News online

In Arizona high school football circles, Conrad Hamilton is widely considered one of the sharpest minds, and best coaches, in the game.

The former NFL cornerback has transformed Scottsdale Desert Mountain into a hard-noised, consistent winner in an area surrounded by elite programs.

“Zone Read” recently caught to with Hamilton to discuss a myriad of topics both at DM, as well as in the ever-evolving Arizona high school football scene.

What is the most rewarding part about being an Arizona high school football coach? “For me, I get to serve the community I live in. I live in the Desert Mountain community. I’ve lived in Scottsdale since 2007-2008. It’s a beautiful city to live in. I get the opportunity to work with young kids that are aspiring to be great. Giving them opportunities to build some character and discipline. I think that’s why most high school coaches coach ball. It’s more than just football. It’s always going to be. If you’re that invested in it, you want to be a person who gives back. That’s the most important thing.”

I know we spoke previously about the relationship you developed with Todd Graham working under him as a defensive analyst at ASU. Are you two still in close contact? “I probably talked to Coach Graham less than two weeks ago. It’s funny, I butt-dialed him. I was moving into a new home and, for some reason, my phone must have clipped his number at midnight (laughing). I didn’t realize it. I got a call back maybe 30 seconds after that. So, still in contact. He’s a great man. Did wonders for my coaching career. Culturally, how he ran his program, I feel suited the high school level. Him being a high school coach in Texas and how he turned that program around with some grit, with some toughness, with some discipline. I took a lot of that stuff from him and brought it to Desert Mountain. Academically, we’ve been elite. We’ve had a 3.3 GPA or higher all four years that I’ve been here.”

When you took over the program, did you have a general time line for the success you’ve now achieved at Desert Mountain? “Everyone knows when you take over a below average or underachieving program it’s going to take a little time to build. But I think in high school athletics, one, it’s a mentality. I think high school coaches can affect the end result, or the play, or the approach in a manner probably higher than any level, right? At the higher level, it’s all about players.

“At the high school level, it’s all about the mentality. We went from, I think, a soft-minded culture, to a tough and rigid culture. I think it’s helped from that mindset…we knew we were going to have some success moving forward.”

Do you cringe or embrace the term, “destination program,” when it comes to high school football in this state? “Well, I mean, that’s just like saying, ‘are there destination programs at the collegiate level?’ There are always going to be those power schools who have had success that people want to go and play at. It’s the same thing in high school, right? Right now it’s Chandler in the east Valley, right? It’s been Saguaro here in Scottsdale. I think there are some really good coaches. Some of the best coaches you’re going to find are high school [coaches] because most of them have to do with what they have…we do a lot of it ourselves. I remember my first two years I was the strength coach, the offensive coordinator, and the defensive coordinator all in the same year. I don’t think I got any sleep but that was something that needed to be done. Destination programs? Yes, they are destination programs. Do I really believe in mass transferring of student-athletes to certain programs? I do not, especially if they have to transfer 30-40 miles across town to do so…it’s an open enrollment state so you have the right to go wherever you want to go and I think that’s awesome. I’m open for kids to transfer. I just think it has to be for the right reasons. It’s hard on families and hard on people to travel one or two hours each morning back and forth to play high school football. There’s going to be, in my opinion, several quality programs that you’re going to drive past to get to where you’re at.”

You have a ridiculously talented 2024 class at Desert Mountain. Could you tell, even back during the COVID year, that this was going to be a special group of players? “Let’s be honest, we laugh about it all the time. We’ve played a lot of young players. starting two freshmen last year. Our first semi-final appearance (2021), we had seven sophomores starting. That year that the 24’s came in was the COVID year. We didn’t get the opportunity to practice. Normally we were running camps. All those camps got canceled. We didn’t get a chance to work with those guys at all that summer. By the time we got to work with them, it was September, and the season was right around the corner.

“[But] we knew we were going to have some talent. There was some size on the line. We had three kids that probably would have started as freshmen if we had time to work with them and develop them during the off-season.”

Two of those elite 2024 players, Dylan Tapley and Jack Freeburg, are back in the mix offensively coming off of 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Have you ever coached two returning 1,000-yard receivers? “Never. That’s really a testament to our staff, our offensive staff, and how we’re built from a personnel standpoint. The job Michael Sanders has done. I think he’s done a really good job. Sanders has done a really good job of getting those guys the ball.”

Santana Wilson is an elite cornerback with close to two dozen offers. With you being a former NFL corner, is he constantly picking your brain for tips on how to play the position? “Number one, Santana is a great human being. He’s really good kid. He’s got a wonderful smile. He coachable. My daughter calls him my home away from home son (laughing). He and I have a great relationship. I think Adrian (Santana’s dad) and his mother have done a really good job of raising the young man. I think he’s open to coaching. He’s coachable. His freshman year he played safety. That was the first time he ever played defense. His sophomore year he transitioned to corner. It was another little change he had to get used to. He had to transition to the position.

“He’s got that pedigree. Good genetics. His ability to work to be the best player he can be – not chasing in anybody else’s footsteps. He’s trying to carve his own path out in life by pulling into his father’s past (the former Cardinals star safety). Now he comes [to Desert Mountain] and he’s got a coach that used to play the position. He can see the improvement that he’s made. His future is bright because he has  the ability now to play several different positions at the next level. He can play corner, safety. He can play inside at the nickel back. He’s going to be the ultimate special teams player. I think he has the ability to play running back, potentially. So, the sky is the limit for him.”