High school football coaches live on a strange line that has them constantly straddling deification and vilification that few others with the luxury of private job performances can understand.
The only people who understand the demands on a high school football coach are other high school football coaches, and that is precisely what Barrow County’s three head football coaches exemplified when they gathered for a round table discussion this past week.
When Bethlehem Christian Academy’s Lance Fendley, Winder-Barrow’s Heath Webb and Apalachee newcomer Steve Sims got together this past week, they were quick to discuss the topics that most outsiders have no idea about when they think about high school football.
“Laundry, cutting grass, painting fields,” Winder-Barrow head football coach Heath Webb said. “People probably think that our job is what they see on Friday night, and that might be just 10 percent of what we do.”
“That’s the fun part,” Steve Sims of Apalachee added.
According to the three coaches, a large part of what high school coaches do is completely bereft of the glamour and sweat of football, but those side aspects are just as crucial to a team’s success on Friday night week after week.
Larger schools have some luxuries that smaller schools do not, Fendley was quick to point out, in that his staff at Bethlehem Christian Academy is much more limited than the options available even to Barrow’s public schools.
“You’ve got to print everything out, type everything up, hand things out to your assistant coaches and youth coaches. I spend just as much time doing laundry as I do sitting behind a computer screen making sure that everybody has the information they need,” Fendley chimed in.
Adding those extraneous demands to the already considerable time demands of actually coaching a team and preparing a game plan can make it extremely difficult for coaches to find a proper work-life balance, but that sharpening of the saw and spending time with family has to be a priority.
“I’ve got a 4-year old, a 6-year old and a son on the way due in October, so I’ve got to get home. I’ve got to be dad,” Webb elaborated. “I’m very regimented. Our meetings are 30-minute blocks. When it hits 6 o’clock, I’m locking the doors and sending my coaches home to their families.”
“I have football and I have my family. Those are my only two passions,” Sims said, while adding that he encourages coaches to bring their families up to practice sessions when they can. “You can’t have a third thing if you’re going to be a football coach. That’s how I do things.
“I tell all my coaches that you have to find time to spend with your family.”
Both Sims and Webb have a wife and children at home to give their time to, and they jealously guard that time.
Fendley and his wife do not have children, but that in no way means that Bethlehem’s coach is any less reluctant to get home and give his time to someone.
“I’ve got my wife and our dogs, but I value them the most over anything,” Fendley added. “You’ve got to be organized. You’ve got to be details. If you go into it saying, ‘We’re going to do football today,’ you’ll just spend all day working. Not by choice, but by necessity.
“All it takes is one good lashing from the people at home and you’ll find a way to get home early,” Fendley acknowledged.
There are several things that can make a coach’s job easier, the group said, but chief among those aids is actual aids.
Assistant coaches are the lifeblood of any football staff, but especially high school football. When it comes to finding good assistant coaches, all three of Barrow’s chiefs of staff place a high value on surrounding themselves with good men.
“You can’t put a price on it,” Fendley said.
“You’ve got to delegate. A lot of us may not have that personality, but you can’t do it all yourself. You have to have coaches you feel good putting in charge of other stuff,” Sims echoed. “You’ve got to find a way to keep good coaches around.”
For Webb, the issue is as simple as admitting that the purpose of assistant coaches is to help a program do better and be better.
“Hiring people and letting them do their job is huge,” Webb pointed out. “There are so many moving parts [in football] that you have to have people you can trust and you can hand something off to and know that it will be done right.”
In Fendley’s eyes, the key to getting good people is finding balance.
“You don’t want to hire a bunch of rag-tag, loud-mouth go getters. You have to have some balance in your staff. Just as important as their quality is the balance in your staff,” Fendley noted. “Football knowledge is important, but they have to be good teachers.”
In addition to assistant coaches, one overlooked tool that can help coaches is the internet.
Websites like Hudl give coaches a place where they can upload their team’s game film and download the opponent’s game film, saving assistant coaches one particularly troublesome job.
As an assistant at Norcross for the better part of two decades, that is one job that Sims is glad to have done away with.
“I used to spend a couple hours every Saturday driving somewhere just to hand off tapes,” Sims mentioned. “It makes what you were doing so much quicker, but then you find all this other stuff you can do to fill that time.”
As with any other convenience, the advent of Hudl also created a few additional problems for coaches. That kind of perpetual access almost creates a new need to be connected at all times.
“What he’s talking about is a double-edged sword. There are sometimes when you’re sitting at the breakfast table with that phone out when you should be having conversation,” Fendley said of checking Hudl.
Widespread access to the internet has created more problems than just access for Barrow’s coaches, especially where player activities are concerned.
It came out a few weeks ago that Duke head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski uses a fake Twitter account to track his players on social media. According to Webb, the secrecy is unnecessary.
“For me, I’ve got my social media accounts and I try to keep up with every player that’s there. If I get blocked, which has happened, I’ve had some of my players block me, which is a huge red flag obviously, then we’re going to have conversations,” Webb stated. “If you’re trying to block me, that means you’re putting something up there that doesn’t need to be said.
“I don’t have a secret account. I have my account,” Webb added. “I have a portion of my day that that’s what I do.”
Even at Bethlehem, Fendley has had similar issues. Although he handles the problem of players blocking him a little differently.
If a player blocks his account, Fendley just uses the one his assistant coaches set up for BCA football at large.
“I have my accounts and then we have the one my assistants set up. They’ll block me or not let me follow them, I haven’t gotten too involved in Twitter, but then they’ll go to the BCA football page and post. They think that’s something that somebody in the school set up, so that’s the one you can go to and take a screenshot and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” Fendley explained.
“There’s probably a third of your day has something tied to the Internet that wasn’t around just a few years ago,” Sims noted.
Before too many players start thinking that their coaches are simply disconnected members of an older generation, these coaches are active on Twitter and social media for more reasons than just keeping track of the athletes.
Both Fendley and Webb enjoy retweeting Duke assistant football coach Derek Jones while also following several other prominent athletes.
While the habit of checking an athlete’s Twitter content may seem strange to some, college coaching staffs do the exact same thing when profiling players and deciding who to recruit.
“They’re looking at kids pages and looking at what they say,” Fendley said. “If they post something stupid, mark them off and let’s go. Move on to the next one.”
This week’s article marks the first in a series talking to the Barrow football coaches about life as a coach and what it takes to keep a football program going.