GRAND JUNCTION – Mike Sirko has prowled the sidelines of Colorado high school football fields for more than 40 years for one reason: He still loves the game, still loves coaching kids.
Sirko's travels to coaching positions across the state have encompassed five classifications.
His latest stopover is in Grand Junction, as he began his second campaign as head coach of the Tigers.
Wherever he's gone, Sirko has seemed to taken over programs that have not seen a lot of success of late.
"I've always gone where I'm needed," he said. "All of my travels were with teams that had losing programs."
The thing is, wherever he goes, he wins.
After graduating from Western State College, Sirko got his coaching start as an assistant at Montrose. Two years later, in 1978, he got his first chance to be a head coach at Hotchkiss.
The Bulldogs made the state quarterfinals in each of his first two seasons.
From there, he got a chance to move up a couple of classifications when he took over at Falcon, another school that, like Hotchkiss, didn't have much of a recent winning tradition. He led the Falcons to the playoffs.
He then moved across Colorado Springs, inheriting a Rampart team that hadn't had a winning season in its 10 years of existence. He promptly led the Rams to the playoffs four times in five seasons.
It was then time for Sirko to challenge the 5A ranks as he moved to Aurora to assume the reins at Smoky Hill.
He got that program turned in an upward direction, only to head back and coach Rampart for a second time. When his principal transferred to Doherty, Sirko went with him to coach the Spartans.
Then it was time to take on his biggest challenge. His wife Diana, like Sirko a lifelong educator, got an opportunity to become the superintendent for the Aspen School District
In seven seasons, he led the Skiers to a 52-13 record and numerous appearances in the 2A playoffs .
Then it was a brief return to Hotchkiss (to which he commuted from his home in Basalt). The Bulldogs again found success under Sirko.
Last season he took over the controls at Grand Junction. The Tigers struggled at times to establish the senior leadership he desired, finishing with a 2-8 record.
Out of that came something good. Sirko was forced to play a lot of underclassmen and the sophomore class got some valuable experience – especially on defense.
That showed last Friday, when the Tigers opened their season with a 21-0 win over crosstown rival Grand Junction Central. Sirko was most pleased with the lack to turnovers and penalties.
"Those are paramount early in the season," he said.
No matter where Sirko has coached, he's stuck to the same principles.
"It's about building a culture," he said.
That requires a couple of things on his players' part: accountability and responding to adversity.
"One of the common things is getting kids to believe in each other," he said of establishing a team culture.
One of his other core beliefs is to keep things as simple as possible.
"It's high school football," he emphasizes. "Don't make it harder than it needs to be. Do what we can do successfully. It's not what you know, it's what the kids will learn."
That's especially true with a young team. The Tigers have only 24 upperclassmen, but 25 sophomores and 40 freshmen are out this season.
He's taken a senior who played his sophomore and junior seasons at tight end and defensive tackle and made him his quarterback this season.
Overall, Clay Payne said, the atmosphere has been more upbeat under Sirko.
"Overall the energy is way better," Payne said.
And Sirko has made the transition to quarterback easy for Payne by going back to that core principal.
"It's not complicated," Payne said of picking up Sirko's offensive system.
The Tigers may take their lumps again this season, playing in a conference that includes, among others, Windsor, Loveland, Greeley West and Brighton.
"We're gonna have a war every week, and our kids have to prepare for it," he said.
He'll prepare as well, for every week.
"Every week you've got to earn their love and respect," he said of building that culture.
Mike Sirko never believed he's be coaching for more than 40 years, but he realizes he still loves working with kids.
"I still think I've got something to give," he said. "That's why I'm still here."