KINGDOM CITY - Kevin O'Neal played and coached under Mike Emmons, and his objective was to become Emmons' successor when the opportunity presented itself.
That moment arrived back in January. O'Neal - a 1994 North Callaway graduate - received his dream job when he was picked to replace Emmons as the next head coach of the Thunderbirds football team. Emmons announced his retirement in November 2013 after compiling a 157-94 record in 24 seasons at North Callaway.
The Thunderbirds will launch the O'Neal era tonight when they take the short drive up Highway 54 to open the 2014 season at Class 4 Mexico. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
"It was the job that I wanted - I wanted to be the head coach at North Callaway when Coach (Emmons) decided to move on, to kind of continue what he has built here and put my own stamp on it as well," said O'Neal, who spent eight years as an assistant on Emmons' staff - the last six as offensive coordinator. "... It means a lot to me to run my own program now. That's something I've looked forward to for a long time.
"I've had opportunities to go other places, but this is where I wanted to be, and with Coach Emmons is where I wanted to be. When he decided to step down, I wanted to take over and make it my program."
O'Neal noted Emmons has been a vital resource in helping make his transition to head coach as smooth as possible.
"Coach Emmons has been very supportive of me whenever I moved into this role," said O'Neal, who is also North Callaway's head baseball coach. "He's been around to help me out a lot. Any question that I've had to ask, he's answered.
"He's always been supportive - when I played here and when I went to school (at Westminster College in Fulton). He continues to be that way for me."
O'Neal explained Emmons' strongest influence on him will be the manner in which he handles relationships with players.
"The biggest thing about teaching and coaching is the kids," O'Neal said. "I want to help them develop their character, help them develop their leadership skills and prepare them to be successful in life.
"That is what Mike taught me, and that is what I plan on carrying on those types of lessons."
O'Neal will continue to call the offense for the Thunderbirds, who were known for their punishing running game - based out of the wing-T - under Emmons.
"We'll be more spread out on offense, making defenses defend the entire field," O'Neal said. "That's kind of bringing my Westminster imprint; that's what we did when I coached there and played there.
"That doesn't necessarily mean throwing the ball more. That just means taking advantage of what the defense gives us, which is a little different than Mike's philosophy ... of ground-and-pound, run it at you, here it comes, you stop it."
North Callaway returns five starters on both offense and defense from last year's squad that went 4-6 overall and 4-2 in the Eastern Missouri Conference.
Senior Cole Branson is back for his second year as the Thunderbirds' starting quarterback. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Branson completed 48 percent of his passes (122-of-257) in 2013 for 1,488 yards and 13 touchdowns, but also threw 12 interceptions.
"The biggest thing with Cole is that he has all of the athletic ability in the world," O'Neal said. "He has the tools to do all of it; it's the mental side of the game that he's been working on and getting a lot better at.
"... The touchdown-to-interception ratio wasn't very good, the completion percentage was down, and that's just decision-making. It's not that he doesn't have the talent to do those things, it's developing it mentally. This summer he has worked very hard on that part of the game and he has become an excellent leader for our team."
Branson lost two of his top three receivers - Miguel Hudson and Justin Menard - to graduation, but was expecting to have senior Steven Coleman (20 catches, 338 yards, 3 TDs) return as a primary target. However, Coleman decided not to play football this season, choosing to concentrate on his track and field career and is running cross country this fall.
O'Neal is looking to a pair of juniors - Tyler Mattes (5-9, 150) and Manzell Payne (5-10, 155) - and two sophomores, Wyatt Branson (5-10, 175) and A.J. Stubblefield (5-8, 125), as a quartet of receivers that Cole Branson will be able to depend on. Senior Trevor Crisp (6-0, 180) will also be North Callaway's tight end.
Meanwhile, 90 percent of the Thunderbirds' rushing output (1,195 of 1,329 yards) from last season was also depleted by graduation. Sophomore running back J.T. Higgins (6-0, 175) will take over in the inexperienced backfield, with Mattes and Wyatt Branson also expected to receive carries.
"J.T. is very patient; with the stuff we're doing with our running game, you've got to have patience," O'Neal said. "... When he sees a hole, he makes good cuts and accelerates through. I've been very impressed with what he's done there.
"Wyatt is a between-the-tackles guy, a very strong runner. Tyler is shifty and has a lot of speed."
North Callaway's offensive line will be anchored by returning senior starter Michael Pezold (6-1, 205) at left tackle. Pezold will be joined by senior right guard Shelby Rybolt (5-9, 225), who also saw playing time last year, as well as junior right tackle Lance Starkey (6-1, 200), junior left guard George Jones (5-9, 260), and senior center Zach Nitcher (5-10, 225).
O'Neal pointed out that defensive coordinator Reid Randolph has been adept at matching the personnel to fit the roles in North Callaway's 5-2 scheme.
"Our football IQ defensively is pretty high, I think," O'Neal said. "Coach Randolph did a great job this summer working with those guys and developing those positions, and finding kids that could play there for us."
Rybolt will split time with junior Nick Forgy (5-6, 170) at noseguard on the Thunderbirds' defensive line, while Jones and Nitcher will be tackles. Higgins will be one defensive end, while sophomore Sam Slaughter (5-7, 175) and freshman Adam Reno (5-11, 190) will rotate at the other spot.
Pezold - who topped North Callaway in tackles last season with 103 - will pair up with Crisp at linebacker. The secondary will be comprised of Payne and Stubblefield at cornerback, and Wyatt Branson and Mattes at safety.
O'Neal will square off tonight against another head coach making his debut in Mexico's Steve Haag.
"It's going to be a unique game ... with both of us trying to figure out what each other is going to do. It's going to be interesting," O'Neal said. "We're looking forward to it. We're going to go out and compete the best we can, and hopefully we'll come out on top."