About this series
Throughout the summer, The Times will conduct a series of interviews with each of the area’s 20 high school football coaches.
Thursday: Lakeview’s Matthew Gruhn
July 17: Jackson County’s Benji Harrison
July 19: North Hall’s Bob Christmas
July 24: Towns County’s Kyle Langford
July 26: Riverside’s Gary Downs
July 31: Union County’s Brian Allison
Aug. 2: West Hall’s Tony Lotti
Aug. 7: White County’s Bill Ballard
Aug. 9: Lumpkin County’s Tommy Jones
Jefferson High coach T. McFerrin isn’t making any promises past this season. Entering his 40th season as a high school coach, and fourth since coming out of retirement in 2009 with the Dragons, he’s operating on a year-by-year basis at this point in his career that spans six decades.
And this offseason has been a busy one for McFerrin, who won a state title in 1995 at Elbert County, one of eight schools he’s coached at in his career. Since last month, the Dragons have been busy with passing leagues, camps and lots of offseason conditioning.
Even though he’s spending this week on vacation with his wife, Jane, in Hilton Head Island, S.C., he says the note pad for jotting down plays and schedules will not be too from his side.
Last week, McFerrin, who has won 303 games as a head coach in Georgia, talked with The Times about his career highlights, greatest athletes he’s coached, keys to coaching success and anticipation for the upcoming year.
Question: Have you put much thought into how much longer you plan on coaching?
Answer: I’m going day by day right now. This has been a tough June. With all the passing leagues, passing camps and heat, I’m taking it one day at a time. I committed to this season, so that’s all I’m really thinking about right now is 2012.
Q: As you’re getting ready to start year No. 40 as a coach, do you get just as excited when you were in your first year?
A: I think so. I’m already getting nervous, so that’s probably a good sign. I still work on football some every day, even on Sunday afternoon and Saturday.
I try not to do that as much as I used to.
In fact, I’ve been working on things today in the off week. I’m going to be taking vacation (this) week and I’ll have my note pad with me and, I hate to say it, but I’ll probably be making practice schedules out for the first week of August. I’m not a beach person at all.
I make one trip to the beach, just to say I’ve done it. While in Hilton Head, I’ll probably be working on football stuff in the heat of the day.
Q: Since you’ve had such a successful career, can you boil it all down to one or two keys to being a successful high school football coach?
A: No. I think that would be impossible to say just one or two things. I think you have to be a little fortunate. I’m proud that I’ve had probably 22 or 23 former assistants of mine go on to be head coaches. That doesn’t mean the other coaches aren’t good coaches: Some of the best coaches are career assistant coaches. If they want any advice, I try to share some with them.
I always say, be careful where you take your first head coaching job, because if you’re not successful — even if it’s not your fault — it will be hard to get another job if a better offer comes along. I think another one of the biggest things is hard work, just being dedicated, working hard and being organized.
I think organization may be more important than it used to, because we don’t have two-a-day practices like we used to, at least not here at Jefferson because school starts so early. You need to be organized with the staff and make sure everyone is on the same page. Most importantly, though, is athletes.
I haven’t been blessed with Division I guys, I wish I had. My wife says I’m a glutton for punishment. I take these jobs that are rebuilding jobs, well, Jefferson wasn’t a rebuilding job. Jefferson was already successful when I got there.
But I’ve been to places that were 0-10 before I got there, and 2-7-1 before I got there and a new program when I got there. That’s not on purpose. I didn’t design it that way.
I don’t go around looking for the downtrodden teams, that’s just what seems to happen with me in my career, in three or four places. The bottom line is you have to have athletes, and if you don’t, you won’t win. I think it’s just a mix all together. I probably gave you five or six things there that are all important.
Q: Can you pinpoint the best player or players you’ve ever coached?
A: Yeah, I wish I could give you 20 or 30 or them. I’ve written down the guys that have played college football for me. The list isn’t as long as I’d like it to be. But you have a lot of good players that don’t go on to play college football.
Sometimes your best teams are the ones without any superstars on them, but the ones that play together, like each other and bond well. I think the first player I had that would stick out that everyone knows is (former University of Georgia quarterback) David Greene (at South Gwinnett High). He’s had the most successful career of anyone I coached.
That was pretty recent in 1998 and 99. For a while, he had the most wins as a college quarterback at 42. He broke Peyton Manning’s record from Tennessee. David was extremely coachable and didn’t make the same mistake twice.
They’d not thrown the ball much when I got there to South Gwinnett (in 1998), that was that 0-10 situation I was telling you about. They’d been 0-10 the year before I got there and they ran the Wing-T offense. And that’s not an offense where you throw it a lot.
I think one of the most important things in coaching is getting the players in the right position, and letting them do what they can do best. I think he was about 6-foot-2 in the spring of his sophomore season when we got there. And he wasn’t a running quarterback.
He didn’t have tremendous arm strength, but had great touch. I knew then that we needed to be throwing the ball. We just didn’t have anyone for him to throw it to. So we recruited a little boy off the track team, Ted Crawford, who’d never played football but could fly. We were just beating the bushes looking for anyone that could run.
I went out, talked to him and he agreed to come out and play. Well, Ted ended up getting a scholarship to South Carolina and ended up being a starting cornerback. He ended up playing against David in college at Georgia, saw them play against each other in Athens that day, and David threw a touchdown right over Ted that day. That was an interesting situation.
David was the kind of quarterback when you told him something, he remembered it. A smart guy. Just was very talented and there was nothing I could do about it. We just let him throw the football. He took coaching really well and ended up being just a great quarterback.
Q: Is there more pressure to win as a coach now than before?
A: I think there’s more outside pressure. I think a lot of it has to do with the internet and stuff we could do without. Of course, I’m old school. I don’t text. I’ve never received a text message, and proud of it. I think you see more high school coaches that lose their jobs because they don’t win as many games as the boosters think they ought to win and parents think they should win.
My pressure has always been self imposed. You have to be positive and think you can win, but that’s the kind of pressure I’ve faced over the years is self imposed. I think there’s more of everything. There’s more working out, more weight lifting. In the old days, you didn’t have the summer programs like we have now. But football has gotten better.
The boys are bigger, faster and stronger. There’s no doubt about it. The football is much, much better now than it was in the 1960s.
Q: Looking forward, you’ve probably already broken down the new Region 8-AA where your team will play. What is your initial reaction?
A: Well, I think there are some unknowns there. We’ve already watched film on the teams we’re playing again, even in the middle of a two-year cycle. Then if we have a new opponent, we try to get film on them. I know we are facing some really good teams. Washington-Wilkes really impresses me.
They got a lot of players back. I’ve got film on their game against Lincoln County from last season. I’m really worried about them. And Jackson County is moving up to Class AAA and have about 19 or 20 starters coming back and a new coaching staff in there, so I’m really concerned about them.
I’m concerned about all the games.
The region is different with Elbert County, North Oconee and Hart County no longer in the region. Those are three really good football teams. Really good. We struggled with them the last two years. We’re the youngest here at Jefferson in the four seasons that I’ve been here. We have more sophomores playing than ever before. We lost our entire offensive line, except for one starter.
The entire secondary from last season is gone. We have one running back back this season and he had knee surgery, so we’re really, really young and inexperienced. Even though it’s a new region and without those teams that I mentioned before, we’ll have to be ready to play every week.
Q: One area where you have a very experienced player coming back is quarterback. Talk a little about what you expect out of senior three-year starter Bryant Shirreffs this season?
A: Well, he’s a fine quarterback. We expect great things out of him. He’s gotten better every year. He’s done so well in these three passing tournaments we’ve been to over the summer.
We’re a AA school and going against Class AAAAA, AAAAAA and in one case a Class AAAAAAA school out of Arkansas that won a state title last season. We beat them on Friday, then they ended up beating us in the tournament part in the Alabama tournament on Saturday afternoon. So, we’ve had a good summer with the 7-on-7 tournaments we’ve been in.
Bryant is a very hard worker. In fact, sometimes to a fault. We’re making him cut back some in the weight room. We don’t want him to bulk up too much and get too big. We’re making him decrease the weight and do more reps. He’s about 6-2 now and about 215.
He’s a strong runner with good enough speed to escape running the football. Last year, he threw for almost 1,900 yards and 19 touchdowns. So we need him to have a great year. He’s just such a hard worker and has a great attitude.