Ryan O’Leary: Moore still larger than life

INDIANAPOLIS

At 10:25 p.m., long after most of the fans had cleared out of the stands, Eric Moore walked into the tunnel at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Center Grove coach disappeared briefly, only to pop back out and step back onto the turf at the northeast corner of the field. He looked up around him for a couple of seconds, as if to soak up the moment one last time, then disappeared again, ambling into the tunnel with his arms raised above his head.

It was about the first moment that Moore had to himself all night.

As soon as the clock had ticked down to zero on the Trojans’ 35-9 victory against Fort Wayne Carroll, Moore was the man everybody wanted a piece of. The congratulations from Center Grove principal Jeffry Henderson, athletic director Joe Bronkella and assistant Katie Fisher. A gaggle of print and television reporters encircled him, eager to get his thoughts on a third straight Class 6A state championship and his fifth overall. His family. His friends. His players.

Moore owns Lucas Oil Stadium like perhaps no one outside of Peyton Manning.

I’ve been around plenty of big-time coaches over the years, from Pete Carroll and Bobby Bowden on the gridiron to Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw on the hardwood. Eric Moore has a presence that rivals each and every one of them. He’s a true titan in every sense of the word.

(Personality-wise, he actually reminds me quite a bit of Charlie Weis — a couple of teddy bears with sandpaper exteriors. But Moore, of course, has enjoyed much, much more head coaching success.)

And in a coaching career full of larger-than-life moments, Friday night have been the largest for Moore.

Center Grove wasn’t necessarily supposed to be playing in the Class 6A state championship game this season. Not that the Trojans getting here was a total shocker, but at the very least, they didn’t come into the season as the prohibitive favorite they had been entering the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Not even this perpetually reloading program could graduate as much talent as it did (including five Power Five college recruits) and not at least feel it a little bit.

And after it closed the regular season with a home loss to Cathedral, one that dropped them to fourth in the Class 6A polls, Center Grove making a fourth straight trip to Lucas Oil was hardly a sure thing.

But Moore just kept doing what Moore does. He coached up the next batch of starters and had them ready to go.

It wasn’t a bump-free ride — the Trojans lost twice in the regular season and had to sweat out a 14-10 sectional semifinal win at Franklin Central — but Center Grove got better as the tournament went on. It convincingly avenged its Week 9 setback with a 33-10 semistate win over the Fighting Irish, and Friday’s methodical rout of previously unbeaten Fort Wayne Carroll placed the whipped cream and the cherry on a three-peat sundae.

It might not have felt quite as one-sided as the Trojans’ 38-14 win over Westfield in the 2020 final, but it still wound up being the second-largest margin of victory in any 6A final. And it might rank as his greatest coaching feat to date.

That’s saying something.

But Moore — and his red sweater vest that he’s donned for each of his eight championship game appearances since 2000 (which means it’s older than any of the players he’s coached during this current three-year run at the top) — might not be done just yet. Several key players from this year’s title team return, and while the coach’s health has been up and down throughout this season, some of his peers believe that continuing to coach gives him strength more than it saps it.

Center Grove football could very well be back here again next fall, with the larger-than-life figure in red leading them out of that tunnel yet again.

At this point, it kind of feels like it wouldn’t be a Thanksgiving weekend in Indianapolis otherwise. In a state loaded with outstanding football coaches, one stands above them all.

Ryan O‚ÄôLeary is the sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]