MUSKEGON – Joe Tanis has had a lot of stops in his football coaching career.

He’s coached at numerous K-12 schools throughout Michigan – Grandville Middle School, Galesburg-Augusta High School, Napoleon High School, Ravenna High School, Wyoming High School, Orchard View High School and presently Hart High School, where he has found great success with a program that previously had very little.

He’s also had two collegiate stops, at Olivet and Northern Michigan.

But when it comes to coaching professional arena football, Tanis has been with only one team, the West Michigan Ironmen, and it’s a gig that he hangs on to year after year, despite his busy duties at the high school level.

Tanis has been the defensive coordinator for the Ironmen since 2019. Until this season he worked under Nate Smith, the team’s general manager who recently stepped down as head coach.

Joe Tanis

Now Tanis is there to help new head coach Terry Mitchell, the team’s former offensive coordinator, get off to a great start beginning a week from Saturday when the Ironmen kick off the 2024 season with a home game against Tri-State Bucks at Muskegon’s Trinity Health Arena.

While coaching high school football has become a bigger responsibility than in the past, with duties that extend throughout the year, Tanis has happily maintained his association with the Ironmen.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Tanis said. “It’s introduced me to a lot of guys from the area and outside the area who love football. It kind of fills my competition void this time of year, and both Nate (Smith) and (team owner) Mario Flores are like family. My wife and kids continue to love it and they’re a big reason why I continue to do it.”

Tanis has drawn a lot of positive attention in recent years for his work at Hart, where he turned around a long-suffering program and led the Pirates to their first state playoff appearance in history last fall.

He came to Hart ib 2021, after a previous stint as head coach at Orchard View. The Pirates were 4-5 in his first season, improved to 6-2 in 2022, then cashed in with a 9-2 record last season, the first playoff berth in program history and the first playoff victory in program history.

Tanis talks to Ironmen players during a recent preseason practice. Photo/Jeremy Clark

That was quite a turnaround for the team. In the decade before Tanis arrived, the Pirates had totaled 12 victories in 10 seasons.

“It was incredibly special,” Tanis about the playoff berth last fall. “It was a special group of kids and coaches.”

As the head football coach and Dean of Students at Hart High School, Tanis always has plenty of work on his plate, but he says there are unique things about his work with the Ironmen that make it a fun and valuable side job.

One is the incredible challenge of being a defensive coordinator in a short-field sport that very much favors offense over defense. Defensive failure in arena football is common, and the games are usually high-scoring shootouts between offensive units, kind of like in the NBA.

But one defensive stop or two can make a huge difference in a high-scoring game, and Tanis loves that aspect.

Tanis gives instructions to a player during a Hart football game.

“It’s about your perspective going in,” he said. “You have to understand that it’s meant to be offensive and exciting. You have to know you’re going to give up points. But the goal every week is to give up one less point than we score. It’s about winning and doing what it takes on our side of the ball to assure that happens.”

Tanis’ defense will play a key role in determining whether the Ironmen can repeat as champions of the Great Lakes Arena Football league    this season.

“Win every game,” Tanis said, when asked about his goals for the 2024 season. “If we meet our goal of giving up one less score, then we should win every game. We have to play to the best of our ability, maintain a good connection, maintain good chemistry and respond in tough moments.”

Tanis also likes the perspective he gains from being an assistant coach with the Ironmen, answering to the head coach.

“I think if you want to be a great leader, you have to be able to follow other people,” he said. “It has me put an assistant coach hat on and see things from that perspective. It helps me when I return to the high school field and see how it feels to be an assistant when things happen. I think some guys forget what it takes to be an assistant coach, so it’s great for me.”

The Tanis family, from left: Elissa (12), Jill Tanis, Calvin (10), Valerie (6) and Joe Tanis. 

Tanis said the Ironmen’s less intense practice schedule makes the job feasible for himself and his family.

“We really practice a very little because we have guys from all over,” he said. “Usually, it’s evenings or Sunday mornings so it really doesn’t take away from family time.”

Regardless of that, the Ironmen commitment means Tanis is coaching a football team on the field for about eight or nine months every year, which is a lot. He says it works because his wife, Jill Tanis, agreed from the beginning to sign up for a life full of football.

Over the years the sport has been a central element in their marriage and family, which includes three children between the ages of 6 and 12.

“Football is really our relationship,” Tanis said. “We first started dating and I told her I wanted to be a coach and move all over. She said yes, and it’s been a part of what we do and a part of our family ever since.”