Rusk football coach Jowell Hancock read a quote from legendary NFL coach Jimmy Johnson over the phone on Wednesday: "Treat a person as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a person as if he were where he could be and should be, and he will become what he could be and should be."

When Hancock returned home to East Texas last year to coach the Rusk Eagles, he brought along with him an obvious sense of passion and ambition for the program. He took over a team in 2016 that hadn't won a playoff game since 2011 or had a winning season since 2006.

Rusk bowed out in the first round of the playoffs in his first year, but this year's Eagles have risen to be one of the area's surprise teams of 2017. Rusk went 8-2 in the regular season and 3-1 in District 8-4A Division II, finishing second behind Jasper. Pittsburg (6-4) awaits the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Bullard.

"When I got here we said we're going to provide the 'how-to,' you have to provide the 'want-to,'" said Hancock, who graduated from Jacksonville just up Highway 69 from Rusk. "When you come in and you're a new guy, and I've been a new guy in several places, you always hear, 'The former coach did it this way.' When you move in you've got to get the 'new coach' off your name and say, 'This is the program. This is why you do it. You buy in and you're a champion.'

Hancock talks often about things such as work ethic, leadership, accountability and honesty. That resonates into a team that wants to win, he said, and that "want-to" turns into execution.

"I run a tough program, but it has to be that way to be special. If you don't have the work ethic, you won't be successful," Hancock said. "If you're blessed with better talent, then so be it but eventually talent evens out and you're left with character. I'm a firm believer in character and we instill that into all of our guys every week, starting with our nine seniors."

The Eagles are led by a stout offense that averaged 38.5 points per game in the regular season. The offense is fronted by senior quarterback Darrian McDuff, who has thrown for 1,546 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushed for 891 yards and 15 scores. Senior running back Sam Thomas is averaging more than 9 yards per carry on the ground and has rushed for 1,171 yards and 14 touchdowns through 10 games.

Just a couple of days before Rusk's bi-district game against Pittsburg, Hancock spoke of an energetic environment around campus and on the practice field.

"It's a different beat right now, uptempo. Everybody's got the same record. It's a matter of, 'Are you there for a one-time deal?' or 'Are you there for a march?' We're pushing for a march. That's the pulse here in Rusk, America," Hancock said. ""It's a great thing to be able to practice during Thanksgiving. That's the goal. But we've got to take care of Pittsburg first."

Rusk faces a 6-4 Pittsburg team that took third behind Pleasant Grove and Pittsburg in a tough District 7-4A Division II. The Pirates boast a similar balanced offense as Rusk and is led by dual-threat quarterback Jaylon Jimmerson.

"They know what's ahead of them," Hancock said. "We've done the study guide and the review, now it's time to take care of business. There's not any coulda, shoulda, wouldas on Saturday."

Hancock said a win Friday would mean a huge step forward for his program.

"You can't even describe it," he said. "It gets me fired up emotionally right now. The win is there for us and Pittsburg is telling their kids the same thing right now. We'd set this place into a frenzy. With that win you've now got the culture of excellence and then you just keep it rolling."

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