Mike Allen's first three seasons as Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley football coach read like this: 0-9, 1-8 and 3-6. It's the kind of thing you typically read in conjunction with "fired" or "let go."
Allen was neither.
School administrators had two things you don't always see in the face of losing: belief in the coach they hired and the backbone to support him.
"The only pressure we got was what we put on ourselves," Allen said Tuesday. "We wanted more. We expected more."
Most coaches would prefer to forget such difficult times. It would be easy in light of where Allen and his program are now ... preparing for Saturday's Class 2A state semifinal against perennial power Sterling Newman.
Allen hasn't forgotten. That first season remains clear in the mind's eye. Particularly vivid is a practice on the Thursday prior to the season finale.
"You would have thought we were playing for a state championship," Allen said. "We walked away from that practice and said, 'That was as intense a practice as we've had all year. And it's week nine and we haven't won a game.'"
The enduring image for Allen is one of his players doing a 75-yard bear crawl on that late-October afternoon. Certain mistakes merited a bear crawl in Allen's newly established way of doing things.
This was one.
"I said, 'Just go,'" Allen said, as in go do a bear crawl. "It was the last half hour of practice and I'm sure he thought, 'You jerk.' But he did it.
"We could have given up and been lazy. We weren't going to do that."
The next night, the 2001 season ended with a 40-13 loss at Clifton Central. The Falcons had lost all nine games by double digits.
In 2002, a week six win over Westville came amid eight losses of 16 points or more.
Still, the effort level was high. Allen attributes that to the players on his first team, saying they "set a foundation of working hard and not giving excuses."
Allen had a rule about excuses. He still does. It has remained in place through all the winning that's followed years one, two and three.
Simply, there are no excuses.
"We had an 'excuse tree,'" Allen said. "If they (players) were going to give excuses, they had to tell it to the tree and not the coaches.
"You learn that you don't accept excuses, you keep working on fundamentals and the team is the most important thing."
GCMS has been in the playoffs 13 of the past 14 years. Allen's 113-63 record includes a 109-40 mark since that 4-23 start.
This year's 12-0 team is the second to reach the 2A semifinals, joining the 2009 squad. The Falcons lost 42-18 at Morrison that year, ending an 11-2 season a step shy of the state title game.
Saturday's 2 p.m. home game comes against a five-time state champion in Sterling Newman (also 12-0). Win it and the Falcons will actually be practicing next week for a state championship game.
Sixteen years ago, at 0-8, it only felt that way.
"That first year we had two returning starters (from a 6-4 playoff team) and we moved up a division in our conference (the Sangamon Valley)," Allen said. "We knew it was going to be tough. But we didn't whine and cry about it. We went ahead and worked."
The rewards on the scoreboard came a bit later. Seniors on the 8-3 team of 2004 were the first to play in Gibson City's newly created youth program.
Allen will tell you that has made a huge difference, saying the youth coaches prioritize developing players over "winning at all cost."
He also credits the opportunity afforded him by former GCMS coach Vic Jennings, and having a number of assistant coaches through the years who played for GCMS or Gibson City.
"They have a lot of pride in it," Allen said. "My feeling is, 'Who has more pride in it than someone who played in the program?'"
The approach has worked. All of it has worked.
Maybe another coach could have made it happen, but the reality is this one did. He stayed true to himself and the powers-that-be stood by him when neither of those things was easy.
That's winning, regardless the final score Saturday.