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: Dawson County’s Jeff Lee
July 3: Habersham Central’s Stuart Cunningham
July 5: Johnson’s Jason Roquemore
July 10: Jefferson’s T. McFerrin
July 12: 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
In 2011, East Hall football coach Bryan Gray had his most successful season at the school.
His team started the season 4-2 and advanced to a Region 8-AA play-in game against Elbert County. Even though they lost that game, Gray is excited about what the future holds.
But after years in the sport at many different levels, Gray says he’s come to the realization at East Hall that the important statistics aren’t what happen on the field, but in the number of athletes who move on to college after they graduate.
Gray spoke with The Times on Sunday about helping give his athletes the tools to succeed in life and how he maintains his personal life, even with the time-consuming pressures of coaching high school football.
Question: So, you’re headed into your sixth year at East Hall. Last year, in your fifth, you guys broke even. It was the first time you’d hit .500 at the school. How much better did it feel to be playing some meaningful games late in the year?
Answer: It’s a great feeling. It validates all the hard work that our coaches and, mainly, our players put in. We’ve always kind of been behind the eight ball.
We’ve fought and fought. We were worried in the middle of the year when we lost some guys to injury that we wouldn’t be able to make it, but we were able to slide some younger guys in there and maintain the success.
The kids enjoyed it, and it was really kind of a stepping stone into our offseason and getting us steered back into the right direction. We think the future is bright.
Q: You came up short in the play-in game against a very good Elbert County team. Did you consider that a disappointment at all, or do you look back on last year and really see the progress with the program?
A: I think it was validation. We went into the game against one of the top teams in the state. Our kids knew that. We’re still battling mentally and learning how to compete.
We’re trying to get to a point where we aren’t playing not to lose, but learning to win, having confidence. Against Elbert, we had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
We had quite a few guys out in the game. If you looked at our sideline, we had more guys on crutches than in pads. But our guys played their hearts out, and our kids were very positive after that game. I was real proud of them.
Q: How do you maintain that progress with players always going in and out of the program due to graduation?
A: The reality in high school is that you lose players. The important thing as a coach is to maintain the same schemes, maintain a good work ethic and give the kids the tools to perform at their best.
It really comes down to fundamentals. Especially as we integrate so many first-time football players. We just have to try to put players in places where they can feel some sort of success. And we have a wonderful coaching staff that’s been together since I’ve been there, and they’ve done a great job doing that.
Q: I saw an interview you did with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and in it you were talking about how coaching high school isn’t really about the Xs and the Os. What is the most important job of a head coach?
A: To raise young men. No doubt about it. I take more pride in watching kids go on to college or the military, or a kid coming back six years from now saying that I did something to change their life.
I’ve been at every level of football, but it was East Hall that really brought me to the reality that nobody remembers the score from a couple years ago.
But I do remember the kids and what we were able to do with them. That’s what high school football is all about. We hold character to the highest level, and however high you hold it, I think kids can always reach that bar.
Q: How do you help them reach that bar?
A: As a team, we do a lot of team building and character building. We’ll break into small groups and just talk to the guys. Get to know them outside of the game and do as much as we can to help them grow.
Q: Do you feel more pressure to win games or more pressure to set a good example and help your athletes grow as people?
A: I feel no pressure whatsoever about helping my athletes grow. That’s what I wake up in the morning wanting to do and go to bed wanting to do. I hold our coaches and our players to a high standard.
That’s why I coach. After so many years coaching, Xs and Os really aren’t all that exciting in all honesty. And pressure to win? Hey, that comes with the job. Winning is something you love and strive to do because you’re competitive by nature. Going to college and growing up, that’s where I put all the stock.
Q: How do you maintain balance between your job and your personal life?
A: It’s very hard. It’s very, very hard, and I’ve struggled with that. I have three daughters and a wonderful wife, and they’re very accepting.
We try to immerse the coaches’ families into the program as much as we can. It’s a difficult thing that, unfortunately, I think a lot of coaches struggle with. Luckily, I’ve had some help from some great coaches to learn how to turn it off when I get home.
Q: Does your family ever get tired of all that football?
A: They’ll never watch it with me on TV unless I make it a party and have cupcakes. But they love going to the games and they love being at practice with the guys.
We find ways to keep them involved, but, yeah, there comes a point in November that if I mention football again, they might strangle me. But they have pride, and they sacrifice a lot of time with me to help the others. I think we’ll figure it out. (Laughing) It’s taken 15 years, but I think we’re getting there.