Todd Dodge slid back into the saddle at 6:30 Monday morning as the new head football coach at Lovejoy High School, in the Dallas suburb of Lucas, about thirty miles north of the city. Seldom has one man oozed so much joy about a first day on the job. “Gosh, am I fired up to be back in it,” he told me this week. “I guess I didn’t know how much I missed it.”

Dodge is among the greatest Texas high school football coaches ever, with a 234–72 overall record, including a 79–1 run during one five-year stretch. His teams have played in nine state championship games and won seven of them, four at Southlake Carroll and three at Austin Westlake.

Dodge had the best of intentions when he retired two years ago, after winning a third straight championship at Westlake. He was 58 at the time and did his best to keep busy with summer camps and watching high school and college football. At some point last year, though, he realized nothing would ever be as much fun or as fulfilling as doing the thing he was better at than almost anyone.

On Monday, he was busy assembling a staff, getting a first look at his new team, and being reminded of why he missed leading a football program. “Oh, gosh,” he said, “I missed putting a team of coaches together, that camaraderie with coaches, and I, more than anything, missed putting that team together.

“When most of us in the state of Texas got into this crazy thing called coaching, we knew we wanted to do it when we were fifteen or sixteen years old,” Dodge added. “It didn’t happen by accident. It’s not like, ‘Well, nothing else worked out; let me try coaching.’ It’s not like that.”

As a player, Dodge was one of the top quarterbacks in Texas high school history, at Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, where he was the first player in the state to throw for three thousand yards in a season. That was followed by a productive playing career at the University of Texas. In the end, though, influenced by the coaches who had helped shape his career and his life, he knew his football destiny was to be on the sidelines.

“When you’ve got a group of fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year-old kids and your expectation as a coach is met by theirs, then it really gets good,” he said. “When you see a bunch of kids hold each other accountable to a certain standard in the way you’re gonna play, in the way you’re gonna conduct yourself in the community, the way you’re gonna treat the other kids in school and be a leader and a really good person off the field, that’s what you’re working toward.”

Those seven state championships are only part of the reason Dodge’s name has risen into the pantheon of great Texas football coaches. As one of his former players, Sam Ehlinger, now a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, told Texas Monthly in 2021: “It’s one thing to be a great coach. It’s another to be a great man. You know the quote ‘Ability takes you to the top, but character keeps you there’? Coach Dodge perfectly embodies that.”

He also created a template for how high school football is played in Texas that is still prevalent to this day. Far from the plodding game of another era, Dodge introduced speed and precision, with four and five wide receivers crisscrossing the field and quarterbacks flinging forty and fifty passes a night.

When Dodge met his new team on Tuesday morning, the first word his players saw on the locker room whiteboard was the same one word he used at all of his previous stops: “family.” He tells his players that he loves them, joins his players in the weight room to share stories about his own life, and prods them to share theirs.

In addition to the close bonds he works to build within his teams, Dodge sticks to the maxim that great teams are built from the ground up, one hour at a time in weight rooms and on practice fields. “I’m not sure they’re that fired up about the discipline that it takes to be on a championship team or a really good team,” Dodge told me. “But, once they’re ingrained in it, they expect it, and they expect you to push them in that way, that’s a beautiful thing. All the selfishness, all the drama, all the everything, it just fades away, and kids start caring about one another. When we say family, we really mean it. It’s just there.

“There’s nothing like it,” he went on. “And whether that leads to state championships, whether that leads to great runs or just doing right by kids and giving them a better opportunity to become better fathers, better husbands, better workers, that’s what you try to do.”

The Lovejoy Leopards play in class 5A, the second-most competitive in the state’s public high school sports organization. The school began playing varsity football in 2008, and the team went 45–9 under head coach Chris Ross the previous four years. After last season, Ross accepted a job to become offensive coordinator for Stephen F. Austin in the college ranks. Lovejoy needed a new coach, and Dodge reached out.

“It truly felt like it was too good to be true,” Lovejoy ISD superintendent Katie Kordel told me. “Very little of the conversation was about his remarkable accomplishments and achievements. He talked about relationships. He talked about impact and growth. We could tell that he cares deeply about positively impacting students through athletic programs, and then also building programs that are characterized by excellence. You don’t have to talk to him very long to realize just how genuine he is and how focused he is on kids. His reputation for integrity and relationships were a strong draw.”

Dodge said he’d had his eye on Lovejoy because it’s close to Southlake Carroll, where his son, Riley, is head coach. (Southlake Carroll plays class 6A ball, so Todd Dodge shouldn’t have to worry about coaching against his son in the state finals, like he did in 2021.) Lovejoy is a single–high school district, which means Dodge can install his own development programs beginning in seventh grade, with young players receiving the same training and learning the same skills and values from middle school through their senior years. It’s the same formula Dodge used at his previous two stops, and the coach hopes it will help him replicate his past success with the Leopards. 

His initial goal, he said, is to stay for at least one complete cycle of seventh graders getting the full Dodge treatment for six school years. After that? “We’ll see,” he said.    

“You know the one thing you have to do as a coach is once you have stepped away from it, once you make that decision, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to do this again?’ ” Dodge told me. “Is it just convenient because this is an area we want to move to and the job happened to be open, or are you doing it because you have a passion for it? I mean, you really have to have that conversation. I’m doing it one hundred percent because I’ve got a passion.”