Before the wins, before the tears, and before he could fill the empty picture frame in his West Hall High fieldhouse, Tony Lotti looked down around the first ever football team at Union Grove High School and asked them a simple question.
“How well do you think we can do this year?” Lotti asked of his newly-formed group of players in the spring of 2000.
Starting a program from scratch wasn’t difficult, in hindsight. The hard part is convincing a group of 16- and 17-year-olds that he knew what was best for them.
“What can you do, that when you put your head on the pillow at the end of the night, you can say you feel good?” he asked.
The answers, coming from kids who had rarely seen success at the high school level, surprised Lotti.
“Going 5-5 would make me happy,” said one student, according to Lotti.
“6-4, that’d be successful,” said another.
Lotti, the program’s first assistant head coach, then pulled out the team’s schedule for the fall and asked the first student to pick which five games he planned on losing.
“The only time you can look back and feel good about what you did,” said the rookie assistant coach to his new group of athletes, “that’s when you’ve given everything you’ve got and refused to quit.”
Sophomore kicker Nick Ellis said he could tell from his first meeting that he knew he had found the coach he was destined to follow.
“When you’ve got a coach in there like Tony,” said Ellis, who now serves as the athletic director at Union Grove, “you know he’s got the ability to make kids run through brick walls for him. You guys have got a great thing going for you up there (in Oakwood).”
Lotti’s ability to breathe life into struggling teams allowed him to transform a West Hall squad mired in mediocrity into a Region 7-AAA champion for the first time in the program’s 27-year history.
Fourteen years later, he’s still using the lessons he learned in his past to inspire the students of the future.
For his efforts, Lotti has been named The Times’ Coach of the Year for the second straight season.
Lotti earned the distinction last year for leading West Hall to its first winning season and first playoff appearance since 2002. But the third-year Spartan coach did the program one better in 2014 by winning nine of 10 regular-season games while recording five shutouts and earning the team’s first region championship with a 35-0 demolition of Lumpkin County last November at West Hall Stadium.
“I loved that feeling after the championship game, being on top for the first time,” said Tyquan Statham, a junior running back and outside linebacker for West Hall. “It was a great feeling.”
Building programs into successes has come naturally for Lotti, who helped open Union Grove in McDonough. The Wolverines went from 0-10 in their first season under head coach Scott Mason to completing a 10-3 season in 2002, along with a shocking upset of Washington-Wilkes in the second round of the Class AA playoffs.
“By then, we had guys like me playing for three years, since 10th grade,” said Ellis, who went on to enjoy a four-year playing career at Charleston Southern University. “We were picked as a 21-point underdog and won by 21. It was a magical season and I’m realizing that’s what Tony’s doing for those guys up at West Hall.”
It’s almost innate for Lotti, 47, to be a part of success from the ground floor. Lotti enrolled at Tennessee Wesleyan College as a freshman in 1985, when the school had reopened its football program for the first time in 36 years. As a punter, he earned a Division II All-America distinction.
“It was a big time, an exciting feeling on campus,” he said. “My senior year of football there, we went 0-10, but the life lesson I took from that is that it’s great to be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself.”
After five seasons as an assistant coach with Woodland High School, where he helped guide the Wolfpack to a Class AAA postseason appearance, Lotti said he felt a calling to join West Hall.
“I feel like God will give you billboards, and sometimes when you need it, he’ll drop a billboard in front of you,” he said. “That’s how I felt about coming to West Hall. I hated leaving where I came from, but I felt like this is where I was supposed to be.”
Spartan fans would agree. Since arriving on campus, he has given his teams the same pep talk that he did at Union Grove, to motivate and guide his young players into developing goals that they can achieve and conquer.
Bringing in Jay Reid, a former Georgia Tech football player, as the Spartans’ defensive coordinator brought a competitive edge to a once-leaky West Hall defense. Running backs coach Will Gross and offensive coordinator Luke Wiggs worked daily with star rusher Kwon Williams, who finished the 2014 season with 16 touchdowns.
The biggest goal of all hung in the plain daylight of West Hall’s fieldhouse since Lotti’s first day on the job in January 2012. It was a picture frame, designed to border a snapshot of the Spartans celebrating their first region title.
The picture was taken, and the frame was filled after a night of celebrations, tears and more than a little Gatorade spilled on Spartan Field.
Lotti said he felt relief as the buzzer sounded after four quarters, mercifully ending the school’s long wait for a championship.
“It was a relief, a type of exhale for me,” he said. “I tell these kids all the time, you’ve got to do what you say you do. I never promised a region title. But everything that we were working on was based on our original promise that we’d get better as individuals and as a unit.”
But Lotti already has plans to hang another empty frame — this time for a state championship celebration picture.
“I think we’ve got what it takes,” said Statham, who will be a senior in the fall. “I think the younger players will be able to step up. We’ll be ready. I think we’ll do just as good as last year, if not better.”
Yet it’s always been more than the 48-minute game for Lotti, who hopes to raise money for renovations to the West Hall stadium press box and fieldhouse. He said he’s learned to take pleasure in each practice, each game, each moment that he gets to spend with his players.
Each team, he said, has a shelf-life of one year. He’ll be losing 14 seniors to graduation, which means the 2015 West Hall Spartans should be markedly different from last year’s group.
That’s no problem, according to Ellis.
“He’s got a group up there that are buying into his system and following his steps,” he said. “Winning games is about seeing the forest for the trees and letting the little things take care of themselves. That’s Tony Lotti.”