Friday nights between August and December dictate so much of Southern tradition.
Bragging rights, trips to the playoffs, college scholarships for players and even big paydays for coaches are on the line. But gauging success for the Grand Strand football coaches has changed.
No longer do wins and losses – the most visible numbers on a coach’s resume – provide the biggest measuring stick. For the nine Horry County high schools and their counterparts in Georgetown County, the lights on the scoreboard after each game have taken a back seat to the other aspects of the coaches’ jobs. How they do in the classrooms or weight rooms, how their players mature into college-ready students and how the gate and concession receipts look at the end of every season are becoming significantly more important.
Every coach and administrator wants to win, but it’s clearly not the only thing. Because when it comes to high school football on the Grand Strand, the men leading those programs are asked to do something altogether different than simply bring home state titles.
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“What I’ve seen in high school, is it’s not like they’re hired just to coach football,” said St. James Athletics Director Paula Lee, who was partially responsible for hiring Mark Fischer in 2011. “When they come in and they do an excellent job in the classroom, and they might have an off season in a sport, especially in one of your revenue sports, there’s a lot that you weigh there. They’re doing everything correctly – they’re dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s. In college, without a doubt, you have to move on.”
Pockets of high school football around the Southeast have also made a name for themselves by delivering the proverbial pink slip based on coaching record alone. That’s not the case here.
With the start of the 2013 season less than one week away, six of the 11 local coaches who have had at least one year with their current team have a losing record at that school. Even with those six, however, the athletics directors, principals and for the most part, the booster clubs raising funds for them, have continued to remain strong with their support.
It started with how and why many of them were hired.
Finding the right coach
When Scott Earley left Myrtle Beach for Chapin after the Seahawks’ 2008 Class AAA state championship season, the school moved fast to promote then-offensive coordinator Mickey Wilson to the top job.
Wilson wasn’t subject to a large committee of administrators, teachers and boosters. He said he never even formally applied for the head-coaching position.
Signs point to that type of hiring process being over.
North Myrtle Beach, Georgetown, Waccamaw, St. James, Loris, Green Sea Floyds and Socastee have all hired new coaches in the last four years. At least five of those schools underwent massive undertakings to find the right person. There was a stringent online application process, as well as the standard federal and state background checks for new teachers. And there were also those committees responsible for in-person interviews.
Jody Jenerette, who was a finalist for the opening at Socastee this past spring before withdrawing and remaining at Aynor, knows just how influential that part of the process is.
“I’ve interviewed for jobs in Horry County, and it’s different,” he said. “I’ve interviewed for jobs in other areas. In other areas, you’ll have three guys on a committee. Here, you’ll have seven or eight people firing questions at you. I think those seven or eight people could see through you. … [They would] find the skeletons in the closet.”
Skeletons, in this case, doesn’t necessarily equate to a past run-in with the law or school administration. What these committees are looking for is the right attitude, the right person to coach and teach in that specific community.
When Socastee hired Doug Illing, Athletics Director Tim Renfrow said his school scrapped candidates who only talked about winning in their applications. The Braves’ next football coach had to sell the others sitting in that interview room the fact that he would become a part of the family.
It was almost inconsequential that Illing could boast a 127-66 overall record and a trip to a state championship game at Davie County (N.C.). In more ways than one, however, Illing was also an anomaly for the recent crop of football hires.
The first-year coach will turn 49 on Monday. And while that is considered within the range of a football coach’s prime, he is approximately 13 years older than the average age each of his Horry and Georgetown County peers when they were hired at their current schools.
North Myrtle Beach’s Perry Woolbright and Georgetown’s Bradley Adams are now just 31 and 33, respectively. Green Sea Floyds’ Tony Sullivan and Jenerette are also still under the age of 40.
Not surprisingly because of some of those ages, eight of the 12 area coaches have been a head coach only at their current school. A ninth, Carvers Bay’s Nate Thompson, had only been a head coach at Choppee prior to the consolidation with Pleasant Hill to form Carvers Bay in 2000.
“Everywhere you go, you hear ‘new blood, young blood,’ ” Jenerette said. “I think that has more to do with coaching. People want excitable young coaches now. I think you learn on a job. When they hire a young guy, they’re going to be patient with you.”
Daryl Brown, who was a principal at Carvers Bay, North Myrtle Beach and Aynor prior to becoming the executive director of student affairs for Horry County Schools last year, said there is no district-wide edict to hire younger coaches. He accurately points out that that would identify age discrimination.
He did, however, agree that Jenerette was spot-on with the level of patience given to the current crop of men in charge of the area football programs.
“Everyone’s not going to be able to play for the state championship every year,” Brown said. “If your coach is making your weight room better, if he’s growing the program, you’re going to give him an opportunity. It takes more than two to three years to build a program.”
The fact that so many people of power vouched for the coach in the first place has helped buy leniency when it comes to wins and losses. The old adage that there are two types of football coaches (those who have been fired and those who will be fired) simply doesn’t exist locally, though.
The closest thing to an official dismissal the area has had in the past five years was when former Green Sea-Floyds coach Joey Still was put on temporary administrative leave for an off-field incident in 2011. He resigned two months later.
On the flip side of that, only two, Earley and former Loris coach Jimmy Longerbeam, have left for out-of-area jobs. Of the other recent departures, one retired outright, three remained at their school in another capacity and former Georgetown coach Tyronne Davis made the short leap to Waccamaw to be closer to his children.
Local ties have also played a role in some coaches’ potential relative longevity.
Conway’s Chuck Jordan is entering his 31st year at his alma mater, and Jenerette is heading into his ninth year at his. Carvers Bay’s Thompson and Myrtle Beach’s Wilson graduated from Conway. A handful of others went to high schools within the Palmetto State.
“I’ve had the opportunity to go other places, but I like what I do,” said Jordan, who is 11th in state history in all-time coaching victories. “Conway’s my home. It’s my wife’s home. There really hasn’t been a compelling reason to leave.”
Said Wilson: “You have guys like me and Jody and coach Jordan who have a lot of family ties in this area. They’re probably not going to leave. You have guys who come in and love living in this area. No matter where you live in Horry County, you’re 30 minutes from the beach. The Horry County area sells itself.”
Building for the future
St. James has yet to have a winning season in nine years on the football field. It has made just two trips to the playoffs.
A casual observer wouldn’t know that by attending a single home game.
“We haven’t had an overall winning record, but our stands are still packed every Friday night,” Lee said. “If we start winning, there’s no telling what will happen at St. James.”
Fischer, who is 6-14 in two seasons, has revved up the Sharks’ fan base to the point where the school is bringing in solid money during the fall. North Myrtle Beach, Loris, Aynor and Georgetown have also seen significant spikes in game attendance in recent years under newer coaches.
Gate and concession money is directly or indirectly going back into those athletics programs.
Every football team in the area has also produced multiple players in the last three years who have received scholarship money to go to college, be it for athletics or academics.
It’s a source of great pride, one that some coaches have said publicly is also more important than an individual record.
“At the end of the day, the general population looks at wins and losses,” Brown said. “But to those of us who have been and are in those decision-making processes, there are myriad things that go into that.
“Sometimes, athletics are the only things that make kids stay in school. Are you making a difference in these kids’ lives? If you have a bad season or two, are you going to terminate a coach? No. These things are cyclical. If you have consistent growth, that’s what you’re looking for.”