New Cinco Ranch head football coach/athletic coordinator Chris Dudley.

A new era of Cinco Ranch football might have been born Monday evening, but a familiar face will lead it.

Katy ISD approved the hiring of Chris Dudley as the Cougars’ head coach and campus athletic coordinator. Dudley spent the 2018 season as assistant head coach/defensive coordinator at Taylor High after 16 seasons as a defensive assistant coach at Cinco Ranch from 2003-2018.

“They say the cream always rises to the top, and as we went through this process it became very evident that Coach Dudley was the right guy for the job,” Katy ISD athletic director Debbie Decker said. “Although he was gone for 8-10 months, he knows the culture at Cinco Ranch High School, he grew up as a coach in that culture, and he’s a man of great character and integrity.

“We think he’s going to do great things.”

Dudley, 39, succeeds Don Clayton, who retired in mid-April after serving at the helm of the Cougars since the school’s inception in 1999. At Cinco Ranch, Clayton compiled a 141-78 overall record, with 13 playoff appearances in 19 seasons. He led the Cougars to the state semifinals in 2009 and 2016.

Shoes don’t often come bigger to fill, though Dudley was on staff for all those postseason appearances, including 12 in a row at one point.

“Coach Clayton building an elite athletic program like that over 20 years does not go unnoticed at all,” said Dudley, a native of Pennsylvania who was a versatile defensive player at Duquesne University. “He’s done such a phenomenal job. It’s something I have to embrace. I don’t look at it like trying to do the same things Coach did, I have to put my own stamp on things as well, but I’m fortunate Coach Clayton and (former Cinco Ranch assistant and current Taylor head coach) Coach (Chad) Simmons really trusted me and, whether they realized it or not, were preparing me for this day right here.

“It’s not a rebuild by any means. The culture is great, and the athletics is phenomenal. It’s more about building upon things.”

Dudley intends to keep the same 4-2-5 defensive scheme that he’s been coaching since 2011 under Simmons, who was a longtime defensive coordinator at Cinco Ranch before accepting the head coaching gig at Taylor last spring and bringing Dudley with him. Under Dudley’s leadership, the Mustangs allowed just 18.3 points per game last season, ninth-best among the 64 teams who qualified for the playoffs.

Dudley said he will meet with his players and decide what offense to run, though he envisions more tight-end usage and two-back sets than what Cinco Ranch has been accustomed to.

Dudley carries a reputation of paying great attention to detail and a strong builder of relationships.

“He’s very meticulous about what he does,” Clayton said. “When he’s coaching kids, he was as good as anybody, if not our best, coach, as far as teaching techniques and fundamentals. That was big, and it’s a great personality trait. He kept our stats, our record books. When he left, we had to get three or four guys to take his place with all the things he did.”

Clayton said it was a testament to Dudley’s character—Decker refers to Dudley as a “kids magnet”—that he seldom had kids quit at linebacker when Dudley was coaching the position group.

“Defensive back, defensive line ... we had kids quit. But linebacker, we didn't. I think he did such a good job developing relationships that those kids wanted to play for him,” Clayton said.

Dudley has been known to scour through decades’ worth of Katy Times articles to scan and copy and hang around the fieldhouse in order to promote kids, program legacy and accomplishment.

“The key thing is building people,” Dudley said. “You build kids, you have a great program. There are certain traits Cinco Ranch athletes have had over the years—they’re hard workers, they’re coachable, they’re high-effort and disciplined. If you have those traits on a day to day basis, regardless of sport, you’re going to be successful.

“Our head coaches have high expectations for athletes and push them past their comfort level. That’s why Cinco Ranch gets really good results.”

It’s been a long climb up the professional ranks for a coach who asked for a volunteer coaching job two months after graduating college in the summer of 2003. And it speaks volumes that Clayton opted to carry one more volunteer coach than the typical number in order to get Dudley, who knew he wanted to be a head football coach as a kid.

“A lot of times people want something for what they do,” Clayton said. “But what he wanted was the experience. I admired that. Not all coaches do that. That really stuck out to me, that he was giving his time, with nothing in return other than experience and learning in how to do some things.

“The fact (the new hire) was one of our guys, and I still consider him one of ours coaching 16 of 17 years at Cinco Ranch … that was good. The continuity should be strong. We’ve talked and visited several times, and I’ve told him if he has questions, just ask. But I’m not going to tell him what to do. The program will take on his identity, and if he needs help, I’m here. Obviously I want to see this program continue to do good things.”

Decker said the hiring process for what would typically be a highly in-demand job was different in its timeline. Clayton’s late resignation expedited the process so that the new coach could meet with players and staff before the end of the school year, but really, Decker said, Dudley’s interview started long, long ago.

When he first met Decker 14 years ago, to be exact.

“I tell our coaches when they get here that, in my opinion and in my experience, their job interview starts the first day we started working together, or even the first day we got to know each other, whether they’re in our district or another district,” Decker said. “I take that philosophy into how a person communicates: are they a relationship-builder, are they a kids magnet? Coach Dudley is a kids magnet. Coach Dudley is a good communicator.

“Watching him grow as a coach, this is a great opportunity for him and the right time for Cinco Ranch.”