New Riverside Military Academy football coach Gary Downs is a high-energy coach who has long-term visions that include making the Eagles the best military academy program in the nation.
Downs, who was a reserve running back for the 1998 Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl team, knows the work won’t be easy with an Eagles program that has slumped the past three years. However, this isn’t his first time coaching at the private military school.
He was an assistant coach at Riverside Military from 2003-06 under coach Doug Dixon, and was on staff for the Georgia Independent Schools Association Class AAA state championship run in 2005.
After the 2006 season, Downs left with Dixon to go to Mount Pisgah Christian, in Johns Creek, where he served as an assistant the last five years.
Last week, Downs sat down and spoke with The Times about what drew him back to Riverside Military, his plans for the program, the highlights of his NFL career and the reasons behind getting into coaching.
Question: What drew you back to Riverside Military?
Answer: Obviously, when I was here before, we experienced a great bit of success. My first year, we won seven games; we won 10 the second year, won the state title the third year, and the fourth year we won nine games. I had fond memories of being here and wanted to see if I could build on that.
I know the possibilities here are great. There are also challenges; I’m aware of most of them. That made the invitation appealing because I know what most of those are, but seen it done successfully here before.
Question: So Riverside approached you about the head coaching job?
Answer: Yes. I was not looking for a head coaching job. I had chances in the past to pursue other jobs and professional opportunities, but when the opportunity came at Riverside, the familiarity, the possibilities, I came over to have lunch with the commandant (Kevin Jarrard) and athletic director (Marc Paglia). We sat down, talked about the possibilities and what needed to be done with the program. That process took about two weeks when I was hired in March.
Question: What is the first order of business when players report to campus and you get them all in the same room?
Answer: First of all, we have to talk through what our vision is for the program. Then it goes into the how. How is this going to be accomplished? We have to knit them together as a group. We have to make the boys knit together one on one, then we to build a rapport between the coaches and players.
All the kids are not here for the same reason, but we have to bring them in to the family. At that point, we start the building process of getting them ready for football and improving their character as people.
Question: The last three years, Riverside went from five wins, to two victories, then one last year. What happened to the program?
Answer: A number of things happened. Obviously when I left in 2006, we won nine games. Then coach (Chris) Lancaster took over and won seven or eight and made the playoffs for two years, then the third year coach (Scot) Sloan took over and had a good year as well.
At that point, the school was going through turnover with leadership at the top and vision for the school was not clear. With the economy being the way it was a few years ago, financially the school wasn’t in the position to support athletics the way it would like to.
School enrollment was down at that time. So they went through the last two years with leanness, those challenges. Coach Lancaster came here with a vision. He came here kind of like me wanting to be here in the role he was in.
Coach Sloan inherited the job, then took a college job. Then it came to coach (Chris) Cotter. I don’t know what his vision was, but it’s a lot if you get the program dropped on you to deal with changing enrollment, retention, shortened schedule and getting kids that have never played football and some that have played football, just not with your program.
All those pieces are tough. If you’re not familiar, it can be tremendous.
Question: One area Riverside struggled in the last couple years was running the ball, the same position you played in the NFL. How do you address that need right away?
Answer: Well, a running back by himself can’t address it. But I understand what it takes to have a good running game. First of all, you have to commit to it. You have to have an outstanding offensive line.
One of my first hires was to hire an offensive line coach, Ron Green, a veteran of about 30 years coaching high school football. He loves the game and his expertise is in the offensive line. That was a pivotal hire. When you have an offensive line coach, he can build a relationship with the linemen and let them know they are important.
The other piece, when you’re going to commit to run the ball, you have to have good backs. We don’t necessarily control who is here as backs, but you to commit to it. Running the ball is not like passing the ball. It’s scheme but also determination and strength. It’s not a finesse thing. Strength and conditioning is going to be a big element.
When I was here before, three elements lead us to become successful: We ran the ball well, we played defense well and had a strength and conditioning program that undergirded those things. I can’t control how talented the back we have here is, but I can make sure they are conditioned well.
Question: Since you’re a high-energy guy, is it easy for kids to feed off that?
Answer: What I’ve learned over the years, is that I build a rapport with kids and when they know you care for them, they’re willing to run through that brick wall. You meet them the first day and ask them to run through a brick wall, they won’t do it.
But after they get to know you and realize you care for them as a person, student and athlete, then you can get them to do a lot they may not have known they were capable of before. Yeah, I’m pretty passionate about football.
I’m pretty passionate about young people. So my energy does come forth. I do believe it’s my job to teach, to motivate and inspire. And correct, that discipline part is something I’ve grown better at to create a good team.
Question: Since you played in the NFL, what was a highlight during your career?
Answer: I remember the run we had with the Atlanta Falcons to the ’98 Super Bowl. A personal highlight was the first round of the playoffs that season when we were playing the San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons had never done well against them.
Jamal Anderson was our starting running back, but he got injured on a second-down play. They’d already called in the play and I was his backup. And we were losing. So they sent me in the game on a draw play. We were looking at a third and 15, and I was able to pick up 16 yards for the first down. Immediately after the play, I came out of the game.
The momentum changed on that play. We went down and scored and won the game. As a team highlight, it was the (NFC Championship game), when we were in Minnesota and were winning. And Gary Anderson was lining up for the (game-winning) field goal, and he hadn’t missed all season. And then he missed it. At that time, that it was just confirmation that it was meant to be and all the stars were aligned.
The favor of God was with us, let’s say. I mean, Minnesota was that unbeatable team with one of the most prolific offenses, maybe in NFL history with Randy Moss and Cris Carter (wide receiver). I’m still friends with a lot of guys from that ’98 Falcons team.
Question: After your playing career was over, you probably had lots of avenues you could pursue. What led you into coaching?
Answer: Even when I was playing back in 1998, I was living in Fayette County and I helped out with North Clayton High’s track team. I helped North Clayton Middle the previous season. So, I’d always been involved with youth sports. I helped out with my younger brother, who is 12 years younger than me. When I finished playing, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I went to seminary for a year. I worked with insurance for a while. I thought about selling stocks and bonds as a broker. When I was in seminary, a friend offered me a coaching job, but I turned it down. But I was always there helping out. Then I realized I wanted to coach.
Then the question was one with a wife and three kids: What level did I want to coach? I knew if I coached at the professional level, I could make money, but would I have any time to spend with my wife and kids? If I coached college football, the question was also would I have any time to spend with my wife and kids? The question with high school was I would have time, but would I make any money? Could I support a family on this salary?
And, so basically, I took the opportunity at Riverside in 2003 as an assistant. That year, I went on two interviews and was offered two positions: Here and Greater Atlanta Christian. I felt better about the position here at Riverside and took a leap of faith that I would be able to support my family.
The money’s not great being a high school coach, but I have been able to pay my bills, provide for my family and spend time with them.