In a perfect sports world — or, perhaps an overly optimistic one, depending on who you talk to — the business of big time collegiate and professional sports would never trickle down into the realm of high school athletics.
Yet, too many times in my six years of covering high school sports in one of the nation’s most talent-rich states, I’ve found that such a perfect world is likely to ever be little more than a pipe dream, even for the biggest, most pollyanna sports enthusiasts.
Over the last couple of weeks — and more specifically the last couple of days — I’ve seen more reminders that confirm that pipe dream status.
It began Friday, although that was unbeknownst to me until Monday morning, with the firing of Dutchtown High School football coach Mark Myers.
Myers entered Dutchtown three years ago after then-head coach Kevin Jones was dismissed after one 6-4 season. That situation, as Jones himself acknowledged, was more about a mismatch in program direction philosophy between coach and then-athletic director April Tate, than necessarily the product on the field.
Jones is a proven coach, having built a reputation as a defensive specialist when he constructed championship level defenses at Lovejoy during its back-to-back state runner up finishes early in the early 2010s. He’s now at Mount Zion-Jonesboro, and is gradually turning that program from moribund status to a producer of Division I talent. Why? Because he’s been given time.
However, this isn’t about Jones, per se. Or even Myers, the coach who succeeded him. The coach who had to come into a tough situation and establish a fractured football culture at a school that has won seven or more games just twice (2009 and 2010) since it began in 2004.
This is about the alarm in seeing how high school football is adopting some of the most undesirable tendencies of the big college game — the ever-moving coaching carousel. And more and more it seems people are becoming content with being quick to start its merry-go-round.
Twenty-four hours before I found out the news about Myers, I watched my social media timelines flood with the news of Texas Longhorns coach Charlie Strong being ousted from his duties after the Longhorns lost on the road to a bad Kansas team.
Like Myers, Strong was only able to hang around Austin for three seasons. It used to be that the magic number for college coaches was about five years — that gave a coach time to have a full senior class of his own recruits to pass through.
But with the pie of college football success ever increasing in lucrativeness while shrinking in terms of the schools this pie seems to be available to, more programs are vying to get a bite anyway they can — even if that means creating wildly unrealistic expectations for coaches, and allowing the “student” part of student-athlete to be pushed back to rhetoric status only.
And while I kind of get it in the college game where big bucks are on the line, I always felt the high school game was safe. I don’t think it is anymore, however, and I think decisions like what was made regarding Myers is a glaring example.
From what can be seen, there was no mismanagement or egregious character issues involved during Myers’ tenure. He graduated his players. He pushed them on to athletic and academic scholarships. From what I saw from him, he created a culture where his team wanted to play for him.
Perhaps, his biggest sin was his inability to win more than five games in a season.
Myers went 5-5 in each of his three seasons. Sounds mediocre, but when you peel back the numbers you’ll see an extremely competitive product consistently being placed on the field under his watch.
In his first season in 2014, after losing big to juggernaut Camden County and Lovejoy which still had remnants of state championship level talent on it, Myers’ next three losses were by two points, seven points and three points.
Similar stuff in 2015. Starr’s Mill blew them out in the season finale, but the losses that year were by 14, 12, two and three points. Not exactly embarrassments.
And then there’s this season. Dutchtown hung tough with top-ranked Stockbridge in a 27-14 loss and dropped a heartbreaker to Ola in the season opener and Locust Grove before losing more decisively to Jones County and Woodland — both solid playoff teams.
The combined record of the teams Myers suffered some of these close losses to over the years? 109-41.
Each year, Dutchtown looked to be a solid offensive line or one more skill player away from stepping over the hump. The foundation Myers was building seemed to be settling. And the junior class promises to be perhaps one of the best in school history.
But for reasons only known by school brass, Myers won’t be around to finish what he started.
Myers seemed gracious in the brief conversation we had regarding the end of his time at Dutchtown. He found out Friday after school, he said, and when asked what reason he was given for his dismissal, he simply stated that it seemed Dutchtown administration wasn’t particularly pleased with the direction the program was going.
Presumably those powers are the current principal and athletic director. Neither were present at the school when Myers was hired. So perhaps it was a situation where a newer administration wanted to make their own hire.
So be it. But when I see these programs making these coaching changes after just two and three seasons — see also Union Grove coach Craig Melton who was let go after going just 2-17-1 in his two years — I just want to know, what exactly do these schools want out of high school coaches who are supposed to be teachers first?
I know, I get it. Winning is important. You want to win. You should want to win. Players’ college futures are at stake. But for goodness sake, create realistic expectations.
If you’re coaching at Dutchtown, you’re not only competing with the teams in a stout region, but also more indirectly 10 other GHSA Henry County public schools, a GHSA private school power in ELCA that can glean its talent from anywhere and nine Clayton County schools which makes the Southern Crescent a very large, talented and difficult place to build a state title contender.
So unless a coach or a program is in complete disarray, and unless a high school athletic team is rife with egregious character and behavior issues, why not give a coach an opportunity to have a full four years with his incoming freshmen to truly establish culture?
What can you possibly establish in two or three years?
It’s one thing when you’re talking college ball, and coaches are being given multi-million dollar contracts and hefty expense accounts to solely concentrate on luring the best talent available to your school. But the high school game with coaches who are teachers first isn’t supposed to be about that.
Key phrase: “supposed to be.”
Go to Texas, and you’ll find high school stadiums and facilities that rival that of mid-major colleges. And let’s not even talk about the salaries. Heck, even right here in Georgia you’ve got a handful of high school football coaches making six figure salaries, thanks to hungry booster clubs who value winning at this level as much as the Alabamas, Georgias and Ohio States of the next-level world, and will do whatever they can to help secure it.
And while I get it, I hate it. In my opinion, it’s not healthy. It opens the door for some of the worst aspects of professional athleticism to trickle down to a place where it shouldn’t be about that yet. It’s, no doubt, some of the reason why the transfer and “super team” epidemic has leaked into the high school game.
High school students are being taught — by parents, trainers, peers and even coaches alike — to push for the Division I college scholarship the same way college and NFL stars position themselves for the fat professional contract.
Meanwhile, it cheats a lot of other marginal-to-good players who may never see the Saturday or Sunday stardom the privilege of being apart of teams in their backyard communities that can compete at a high level on a more balanced playing field. The gap between the high school haves and have nots is unmistakably growing.
Once upon a time you could maybe put the onus of blame on unscrupulous coaches who recruit players on the high school level, or trainers who work in cahoots with win-hungry coaches to do the dirty work for the sake of Georgia Dome glory.
But now, it seems the “just win, Baby” infection is spreading. And this sports writer believes it needs to stop.
I’m not saying don’t be competitive. I’m not saying don’t try to win. I fully understand what goes into that. That’s why I’m not even saying, don’t make changes when it seems obvious that a situation isn’t working out. All I am saying is, let’s not start making short-term musical chairs a thing in the world of high school football coaching.
I realize that even at the high school level, there’s more at stake than ever before, and that creates real pressure to win. But I challenge ADs and principals across the area to truly consider the messages being sent to your kids when you show an inability to stick it out with a solid coach who teaches your kids how to be solid men, and not just expert pigskin carriers — a solid coach who, for many of these players, is so much more than just a man with the Xs and Os.
In short, please be careful not to build your programs at the expense of tearing down your students and the coaches who sacrifice for them.
Gabriel Stovall is founding editor of The Southern Crescent Buzz and sports editor at The Covington News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1.