FLOWERY BRANCH - Lee Shaw always dreamed about serving as football coach in his hometown of Clayton at Rabun County High.
And after a successful 10-year run at Flowery Branch High as its only head coach since starting the program in 2002, Shaw, a 1985 graduate of Rabun County, was announced Thursday as the new football coach and athletic director at the school.
"It's been a tough day for me, and very bittersweet," said Shaw, who announced his decision to players in a meeting in the locker room earlier in the day. "When you're losing something that's been so important in your life for so many years, it's tough.
"We had a great run at Flowery Branch, and it was the players and coaches I had along the way that made it so special. I'll always pull for the Branch Boys."
Shaw was offered the position after interviewing earlier in the week with Rabun County Schools superintendant Matt Arthur.
If approved by the school board, he'll take the reins as head of the high school's athletics department next month.
Flowery Branch High principal Mark Coleman was aware of Shaw's pending interview with Rabun County on Monday and totally supports his decision.
Before coaching at Flowery Branch, Shaw served as an assistant coach on three separate occasions at Rabun County (1989-90, 93-94 and 2000-2001).
"I'm so excited for Lee and this opportunity for his family," said Coleman, who served as Shaw's football position coach as a high school student. "I've known for years that if the opportunity presented itself at Rabun County and the pieces of the puzzle were in place and Flowery Branch was in good shape, then he would go there."
Shaw's coaching resume was highlighted by his recent run at Flowery Branch. Since 2005, the team has a 73-17 record, seven consecutive playoff appearances and earned a spot in the 2008 Class AAA state title game.
Over the past seven years, his teams averaged 10 wins per season. His only head coaching experience prior to Flowery Branch was at White County from 1995-99.
"When we flipped the program in 2005, it just caught fire," said Shaw, who endured a winless season at the school in 2002. "The players were the ones that bought in to what we were doing and really the ones that made it special.
"What I'm going to remember most about my time at Flowery Branch is just the full progression of where we started and how hard it was at first and how everyone just started believing."
Shaw also left a fingerprint on Hall County athletics with the drug testing program he helped pilot at the school in 2003, which took hold eventually through the entire county, said Flowery Branch athletics director Shannon Benton.
The program was a collaborative effort that was pitched to the Hall County School Board. His plan was to use it more as a deterrent, rather than punishment.
The plan is in effect for all student athletes and those that want driving privileges at the school. For a first offense, an athlete loses 10-percent of eligibility for the season and the ability to drive on campus for 18 days.
Before playing or driving privileges are reinstated, the student in question has to provide a negative drug screen in a reasonable time frame.
"He wanted the drug testing not as a disciplinary issue but as an intervention type plan," Benton said. "It gave kids a reason to just say no."
Losing Shaw at Flowery Branch is a huge loss, Benton said. He added, however, that he knows Shaw's heart is in the right place to be back near home with his family, including parents Bill and Donna Shaw.
"I feel like this is the only job he would have left Flowery Branch for," Benton said. "I believe it's more about the heart and the emotion than anything else."
Benton added that the school will expedite the process to fill the vacancy and settle any unrest about the direction of the program.
Benton and Coleman will entertain applications from within the program, as well as any outside interest.
"I feel like this is a pretty good job here at Flowery Branch," said Benton, who is aware some assistant coaches may leave with Shaw to Rabun County. "I feel like the quicker we establish leadership, the quicker the new coach can get settled, the better off we'll be."
Meanwhile, Shaw said that if he was asked, he would endorse Chris Griffin, his defensive coordinator since 2003, for the head job at Flowery Branch.
"He's been very loyal to me at Flowery Branch and I'd love nothing more for him to get the job," Shaw said.
The impact Shaw had on his players was very personal.
Falcons junior wide receiver/defensive back Chris Dilidili thinks of Shaw as a "father figure" and was totally surprised when they met Thursday morning to hear that his coach of three years was leaving.
"Coach Shaw doesn't just teach players about football, but also about morals and being a better person," Dilidili said.
Through his tenure at Flowery Branch, Shaw also had a number of players go on to successful college careers, including his own sons Jaybo and Connor, now starting quarterbacks at Georgia Southern and the University of South Carolina, respectively.
Also on the 2008 state finalist were defensive standouts Daniel Drummond and Izaan Cross, now starters at Georgia Tech.
"Playing for coach Shaw meant a lot to me," Cross said. "Coach Shaw is a winner and a great competitor.
"When we got out on the field on Friday night, he never felt like we were inferior to another team. I know he had a big impact on players in the program but also around the entire school."
Once at Rabun County, Shaw plans to hit the ground running with the entire Wildcats athletic department. He takes over the football program after Danny Durham went 6-34 in four seasons.
"My goal is to build the total athletic program at Rabun County," Shaw said.