Some know him as "The Rookie," remembering four years ago when 24-year-old Kenny Hayes, fresh off the University of Montana Western campus, showed up at Payson High School as a raw, untested first-year teacher and coach.
Today, Hayes is considered one of the brightest young coaches in the 3A conference partly because --n only his first year at the helm of the PHS basketball program -- he led the Horns to a 24-7 record, the East region championship and a state runner-up showing.
Along the road to the Arizona title game, Hayes fellow coaches thought enough of his accomplishments to name him the "East Region Coach of the Year."
Hayes accepts the prestigious award modestly saying, "I had a lot of talented kids and tremendous cooperation and support from my staff, the faculty, administration and parents."
Hayes also touts his first year head coaching as a learning experience, "I probably learned as much from the kids as they did from me," he said.
The new coach's accomplishments didn't go unnoticed by PHS athletic director Jason Lobik.
"Kenny is talented beyond his years," he said. "He knows his X's and O's and he has the ability to motivate his kids to play well."
His players, including 6-foot, 7-inch junior Matt Wilson, also recognize Hayes as a talented coach.
"He gets along with everyone on the team and sometimes he's almost like one of the guys, but he's not afraid to jump on you if you do something wrong," he said. "He's kind of the best of both worlds, a friend and a coach."
As much as Hayes accomplished the past season, he often fondly looks back on the winding path that led him to a teaching and coaching career at Payson High.
A coach's influence
He remembers it was his Valier, Mont., high school basketball coach Wayne Durocher who first encouraged him to enter public education.
"He told me I needed to be a teacher and a coach," Hayes said. "He has since died, but I'll always remember the things he taught me."
Among the lessons were having players show up at 5 a.m. during the summer months for open gym sessions. Last summer, Hayes, first as head basketball coach, encouraged his players to attend the early morning sessions, but called them "Breakfast at the Casino."
The reason he gave the sleepy-eyed shoot-arounds such an odd moniker was to keep them secret from head football coach Josh Anderson.
You see, Hayes -- who is also defensive coordinator on the Longhorn football team -- often wanted his basketball team members, who also played football, in the gym and concentrating only on basketball.
Hayes knew that if Anderson was on the sidelines, football often crept into the proceedings.
So, when Hayes told his players there would be "Breakfast at the Casino," the signal meant to show up at 5 a.m. for open gym and, above all, keep it a secret from the football staff.
"I think Josh has caught on to it by now," Hayes said.
The off-season ruse Hayes brainstormed hasn't affected the close friendship he has with Anderson. Today, Anderson is one of the basketball coach's strongest supporters.
"He has a way the kids, they believe in him and trust him," he said.
Job hunt leads to Payson
After Hayes graduated from Valier High School, he entered UM Western wavering on a career choice.
"It was either teaching-coaching or becoming an RN," he said.
Midway through college, he settled on education as a career choice and graduated in 2001.
With diploma in hand but no job prospects in sight, he decided to move to Payson where his sister, Carol, was enjoying her stint as a physical education teacher at Rim Country Middle School.
Hayes arrived in the late spring and immediately applied for a teaching position at PHS.
He then took a summer job with the Town of Payson as co-manager and lifeguard at Taylor Pool.
"That was temporary and I was really worried about getting a teaching job," he said. "Payson was the only place I had applied."
In most districts, secondary school social studies teaching vacancies occur about as often as Shaquille O'Neal sinks a free throw.
But late in the summer, a job popped open at PHS and Hayes was hired to fill the vacancy.
"That was a relief," he said.
Little did Hayes know that, along with the teaching job, there would be a coaching load that for the past four years has consumed almost all his waking moments.
His first year, he coached freshman football and basketball. The following season he took over the junior varsity basketball team, served as the defensive coordinator of the football squad and coached the jumpers on both the boys and girls track team.
Last school year, he again coached three sports, making him a rarity in prep athletes where the new breed of coaches chooses to concentrate on one sport.
This year, he again was the Horns defensive coordinator but also added basketball head coaching to his responsibilities. In the spring, he'll coach both the sprinters and jumpers.
With his first year as a head coach in any sports program now in the rear-view mirror, Hayes is evaluating the basketball team's success, hoping it can be duplicated in the future.
"To build a program, it is important the kids be committed and show up for the off-season," he said. "They did that (last summer) and it really helped."
Once the season rolls around, Hayes will continue to emphasize improving individual and team defensive skills and the importance of team play.
"I think the keys are good man-to-man defense, never taking a play off and thinking first of the team rather than yourself," he said.
Hayes will also continue to emphasize the role parents play in the development of student athletes.
"Having their support is huge," he said. "I remember my parents being at every one of my (high school) games.
"Even now, they traveled down (from Montana) for my first game, a (holiday) tournament and for state."
Although Hayes admits his head continues to spin over the basketball team success and his coach of the year honor, he has taken the time to set a goal for next season.
"I want our kids to represent the school and the community well and for us to go back to Glendale (the final four state tournament site)," he said. "It takes work, commitment and dedication, but it can be done."