New Deering High football coach John Hardy says he’s “up for the challenge” of building the Rams back into a top contending football program. And, to be clear, he’s talking 11-man football.

“Our goal is to stick with 11-man with the emphasis of growing the program, not just our program but promoting football in Portland as a whole,” Hardy said. “Deering High School is a big school and there are plenty of athletes, and plenty of athletes in the community. It’s just working on the education piece of football.”

At least 15 schools have indicated they will change from 11- to eight-man football for 2020, including Cheverus High, which played in Class B South with Deering last season. Rumors have swirled that Deering, which will graduate 18 seniors, was about to join the exodus to eight-man football.

“Those rumors never came from this building,” said Michael Daly, the school’s first-year athletic director. “I didn’t have those discussions or conversations.”

Hardy becomes Deering’s sixth varsity football coach since 2012. He replaces Rob Susi, who had an overall record of 6-14 in two seasons, including a 32-13 win in last Thanksgiving’s annual game against Portland.  Susi, the former resource officer at Falmouth High, resigned as Deering’s coach shortly after taking a new job with the Maine Department of Education in December.

“I am in Augusta or traveling most days so I wouldn’t be able to get to the school (until) 4:30 or 5, and that’s very tough to build a program and generate interest,” Susi said in an email. “Coach Hardy is a great young coach, a fantastic offensive mind, and he’s in the schools so he can talk to those kids who don’t play football and try to get them to try something new.”

Hardy, 27, has been a Deering assistant coach the past four seasons and is a health teacher at Lincoln Middle School.

A native of Portland and 2011 graduate of Deering, Hardy was a Maine Sunday Telegram all-state pick as a senior after catching 51 passes for 924 yards and nine touchdowns. As a walk-on at Maine, Hardy red-shirted his freshman year, appeared in a total of three games the next two seasons, and then played in every game as a junior, primarily as the holder for place-kicks. As a senior, he started every game as a slot receiver and was the team’s third-leading receiver with 22 catches.

“Really my junior and senior years at UMaine, I knew I would want to be a coach and I got passionate about teaching as well, so I really started to watch the coaches to see how they handled discipline, how they ran drills, how they would deal with different ability levels,” Hardy said.

After graduating from Maine in 2016, he joined then-coach Jason Jackson’s staff as a volunteer and was a paid assistant the past three seasons.

Daly said that this past fall he could see Hardy had a strong connection with Deering’s players and appreciated the young coach’s leadership and teaching skills and ability to make in-game adjustments.

“Also his pride in the program and you could tell how invested he is,” Daly said.

Three key assistant coaches will be staying on as part of Hardy’s staff: defensive coordinator Jamal Murph, assistant defensive coordinator Leon Smith, and John DiBiase. Hardy said he will be the offensive coordinator.

“We’ve kept most of the staff which was super important,” Hardy said. “Our foundation is set. We just need to build and grow.”

Hardy added, “I want to bring that old-school pride back to Deering and that’s the ultimate goal.”

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