Commerce football coach Marvin Justice may be entering just his second season at the helm, but he already has a wealth of knowledge and experience that has led him to this point.
A former college football player at Middle Tennessee State, Justice looked at a number of different professions before settling on teaching and coaching high school.
From there, he spent more than two decades as an assistant football coach at various locations before finding what he calls the perfect situation, getting the job at Commerce after five years as an assistant to longtime coach Steve Savage.
Last season, Justice’s first at the helm, the Tigers returned to the state playoffs before falling in the first round for a 4-7 overall record.
On Friday, Justice talked with The Times about his journey to where he is now and his respect for the coaches who came before him.
Question: How long have you coached football?
Answer: This is my second season as a head coach. I have coached for 21 years, next season will be my 22nd. I have coached track and wrestling but mostly football.
Q: What brought you to Commerce?
A: I was an assistant coach at Commerce for five years, but before then I was the defensive coordinator at Hart County. Coach Savage asked me if I was interested in coming to Commerce, and I said I certainly was, and so it went from there. Hart County has a lot of tradition, but Commerce has even more. It seems like it’s always a place where you can play for a state championship, so it was a no-brainer for me.
Q: How long did you play football?
A: I started playing football in pads in the third grade in 1974. I played through high school and played one year of college football at Middle Tennessee State, where I had a full athletic scholarship. So I guess I played 11 years of football in pads. … I went to Forest Park High School in Clayton County, and Hines Ward graduated 10 years after I did.
Q: What made you go into coaching?
A: It was kind of a long journey. First I wanted to be a dentist, but to go that route required a lot of math, chemistry, physics. And I was probably best at math, but the curriculum was boring, so after a few years I decided to do law, because I did political science and pre-law as an undergrad. I interned for a lawyer for 10 weeks and was around all day, going into the courtrooms and the office. … But there’s a lot of gray area in the law. Then I thought, I was always a good student and I enjoyed sports, so I thought, ‘why not go into teaching and coach sports?’ So I had to go get my graduate degree, and I’ve been in the schools since.
Q: Did you have chances to be a head coach before?
A: I was actually offered the head coaching job at Hart County in 2003. I applied and interviewed, and I was at the top of their list. But there were some issues with it, and my daughter was born at that time, and I didn’t think it was the right thing to do at the time.
Q: So this was the right time, right situation?
A: It’s a perfect place to work. And I had already been there five years, so it made sense. It’s a neat place to be a part of.
Q: What about your Jackson County rivals?
A: Jefferson is no doubt the big rival, always has been. But we’re going to be playing East Jackson for the first time ever this year, and I think the East Jackson game will probably become a big rivalry game, since they’re just three miles down the road.
Q: Speaking of county rivals, what’s it like to coach against (Jefferson’s) T. McFerrin?
A: I love football and I’m a football historian, so to coach against a man who’s won over 300 games, it’s pretty neat to coach against a legendary coach and be able to talk to him after the games and be around that. And former Commerce coach (Ray) Lamb, who’s already in the Georgia High School Hall of Fame, and Savage, who most likely will be, both still live in the area. It’s pretty neat coaching in Commerce with the coaches we have here.
Q: Being into the history of the game, how much has high school football changed over the years?
A: You’re always going to have change, but between pro, college and high school, high school football has seen the least change. Because in high school you can still be any height or weight and still play. In college, now you have to fit the mold; if you’re not a certain height or weight you can’t play. …You don’t have to be the biggest or fastest or tallest guy to compete in high school football.