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: Chestatee’s Stan Luttrell
June 26: Dawson County’s Jeff Lee
June 28: East Hall’s Bryan Gray
July 3: Habersham Central’s Stuart Cunningham
July 5: Johnson, 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, Jess Simpson coached one of the more talented Buford football teams in recent memory to a 14-0 start and an appearance in its fifth straight state championship game.
Despite the talent and the overwhelmingly successful season, the Wolves came up short in their pursuit of a state record fifth consecutive title, losing to Calhoun, 27-24, in overtime.
Even though the team didn’t achieve its ultimate goal, however, Simpson still considers the season a success. The Times spoke last week with the Buford coach about the disappointment, the fond memories and rediscovering the climb to the top.
Question: So, we’ve hit the later stages of the offseason. How’s the summer shaping up for you so far?
Answer: We’ve had a great start to it. Our kids have done a great job. They’ve been going for about three weeks now, and we’ve felt like we’ve had a real quality three weeks of work. We feel like we’ve been real busy.
Q: Talk to me about spring practice. How’d that go for you?
A: Spring was real good. There were a lot of new names and a lot of new faces. We had 10 great days, really focusing on the fundamentals. I felt like our kids got more physical as we went along, learned how to practice, and learned the kind of tempo we want from them. They started to build this year’s team as far as the identity goes.
Q: It was your first spring in four years coming off of a loss. Were things any different this year than in the past?
A: Every year’s different, really. Certainly, we’ve got that taste in our mouth from the last time we went out there. But when you look at just where we are as a program, we’re replacing 20 starters. I don’t care who you are, that’s a big deal. So this year was certainly different, but it was exciting.
Q: Let’s talk about that loss if we could. Have you been able to completely put it behind you yet?
A: It was a tough loss, and it stings and it probably always will. Any time you lose, it hurts. You remember the losses more than the wins as a coach. But part of life is learning how to handle those losses, move on and learn from them.
Q: I imagine it was probably a welcome relief to get back to the grind after that, too.
A: It does feel good to break huddles and practice football and get back to the routine. When you don’t play well on a Friday, the best medicine is a Monday practice. And when you lose that last game, you’re even more anxious to get back out there. You don’t have that luxury. You have to wait longer. So it was nice getting back out there.
Q: Now that you’ve got a couple months separating you from last season, what can you say about the year overall?
A: Really, my focus isn’t on last year. My focus has turned toward this team, this year and the building we have to do. As a coach, if you’re doing a good job, you get to January, you do some evaluation, and then you turn the page and move on. You’ve got a new group of seniors and a new team to lead. For the good or the bad, yesterday is gone.
Q: Buford is facing a little more adversity than it has in recent years, right? Coming off that loss and then, like you said, losing 20 starters from the 2011 team. What’s the outlook, and what do you have to do to continue the tradition?
A: We don’t look at it as adversity. We look at it as opportunity. We’ve got a group of seniors with a great opportunity to lead. These guys are looking at this like they have a lot to prove, kind of like that 2008 team after the great 2007 class. I’ve really felt good about them so far, just the way they’re learning and growing. They’ve been waiting their turn, and it’s fun watching them be excited about the things they can do.
Q: Buford also moved up to Class AAA. What’s the challenge there?
A: Our non-region schedule opens up at Elbert County, which everyone says is a real tough place to play. And then Gainesville comes down here, and everyone knows how many great players they have coming back. Then you have that region schedule, and it won’t be easy. More than anything, though, it’s exciting for us. We’ll have some new rivals, and I think everyone’s pretty excited about that.
Q: Any more motivation to return to championship form this year, or is it the same mentality as usual?
A: I think, for the most part, it’s the same. We do view it as a journey, and the journey continues. We’re always trying to go through that process of preparation and improvement. Playing Calhoun last year, though, we experienced a team that was just dying to win a championship. I think any time you lose, like they had for a couple years, that fire starts burning. Sometimes getting to that mountain top is easier than staying there, and we’re looking forward to being able to climb again.