FISHER — Once school let out last Monday at Fisher High School, the football players went to work.
A quick lap around the one-story school of 190 students in northern Champaign County. Then activity in the weight room ensued before practice later in the afternoon.
Bunnies assistant coach Jeff Palmer helped oversee the start of their workouts, while head coach Jake Palmer dealt with other administrative duties at the time before making his way into the weight room.
Jake Palmer, in his fourth season in charge of Fisher, relies heavily on Jeff Palmer since Jeff coaches the Bunnies’ defensive backs, running backs and is also the program’s special teams coordinator.
Jake also counts on him in other avenues, too, since it’s his dad.
“I couldn’t run my football program without him,” Jake said. “He paints our football field. He preps everything. He does a ton of stuff with our equipment. He’s kind of my utility guy who handles everything.”
The partnership has worked out well. Both on the field and off. Jake, hired to lead the Bunnies in December 2015, has guided Fisher to playoff appearances each of the last two seasons, including the program’s first playoff win since 2005 last fall.
Jeff has witnessed every step of the journey from an up-close point of view.
“He called me when he had an idea he was going to get the job,” Jeff said. “He said, ‘Hey, you want to coach?’ There wasn’t much arm-twisting there for that. It’s a tremendous blessing.”
Fisher is off to a solid start in the 2019 season, easily defeating Hoopeston Area/Armstrong-Potomac 57-0 this past Friday night at home. The Bunnies (1-0) open Heart of Illinois Conference Small action at 7 p.m. on Friday at Tremont (1-0).
The two Palmers will be on the sidelines in Tremont, much like they have spent Friday nights together each of the last three seasons at various football fields across east central and central Illinois.
“He has a special bond with the kids,” Jake said. “He’s definitely our players’ favorite coach, which balances me out, because I think I’m their least favorite coach.”
Jake laughs after making that last comment. The 2009 Villa Grove graduate, who played college football at Millikin, spent time growing up in Fisher since Jeff is a 1986 graduate whose parents still live in the community. So Jake is aware of the small-town vibe and how folks in town rally around the Bunnies when they’re playing well.
He lived it as a child.
And now he’s guided it as an adult. Jake’s intensity, passion and preparation are three key tenets of how he’s turned Fisher from a team that went 1-8 in his first season to one that not only expects to reach the playoffs this October, but extend their season well into November. Entering Friday’s game at Tremont, the Bunnies are 14-5 in the regular season during the last two-plus seasons.
“It’s awesome to see the kids that he’s coaching respond the way they have to him and the staff,” Jeff said. “He does a really good job of just leading by example. Probably one of the biggest things with him is he’s demanded that they raise their expectations. Instead of things just being the status quo, he’s continuing to just raise that bar. That’s one of those things that’s difficult to do that every year. He definitely does not rest on his laurels.”
Fisher senior quarterback/defensive back Will Delaney has seen that growth first-hand.
“My class has been his first class all the way through, so as players, we’ve progressed a lot, and the coaching staff has really developed, too,” Delaney said. “Everyone has gotten better and smarter about the game. There’s no better coaches in the conference, in my opinion. I trust them with everything.”
Jeff, a UPS delivery driver who coached Jake in youth leagues in Villa Grove, said Jake told him when he was in sixth grade that he wanted to become a teacher. The coaching aspect, though, didn’t come around until later during Jake’s playing career in high school and college.
“He was really a pretty easy child to raise from the standpoint of he was always very coachable,” Jeff said. “Him being coachable as a kid translates to that as a coach where he’s willing to look at some different things and re-evaluate things. As far as the dynamic with he and I, there are times where the other assistant coaches think we are about to get into fisticuffs because we are yelling and screaming at each other, but we really, really get each other. He knows everything I’m bringing to him is to try and make us better.”
It’s worked. And if both Palmers have any say about it, the coaching dynamic the two share will continue well into the future.
“My dad is my best friend,” Jake said. “We talk every single day, whether it’s about football or life. He’s been my mentor and kind of guided me to where I’m at. I feel like I owe him for the man I am today, and it’s just been special to not just spend that time together coaching, but spending that time together doing something we both love and making those memories. He’s been all in ever since I got here. I can’t imagine doing this without him.”