Respect is not a word used very often to describe any aspect of the rivalry between North Hall and Gainesville. Except when you talk to the two head coaches, who despite the hatred between the two schools, have an admiration for one another.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, he’s done a tremendous job up there,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said of North Hall’s Bob Christmas. “He gets the most out of those kids.”
Christmas feels the same way about Miller, especially when it comes to coaching a program as rich in winning tradition as Gainesville.
“He’s done a great job at a place where there’s a lot of pressure,” said Christmas, whose Trojans play host to rival Gainesville at 7:30 p.m. Friday. “The hardest part once you start winning big is keeping it there, and that’s one of the reasons why I admire what Bruce has done at Gainesville.”
All it takes is one look at the impact both coaches have had on their respective programs to figure out why each hold each other in such high regard. Since Miller took over the program in 2002, the Red Elephants (1-1) have gone 85-18, including five seasons in which they won 11 or more games.
The Miller-led Red Elephants have also reached the Class AAA quarterfinals four times, including last year when they were a two-point conversion away from winning the state title.
Miller also holds a 6-2 record against the rival Trojans.
Christmas has had just as much success. After a 1-9 record his first season, he’s 77-21 since 2002 and reached the quarterfinals three times and the semifinals once. That’s pretty impressive seeing the Trojans (1-1) were 0-10 the season before his arrival and a combined 3-27 from 1998-2001.
“It (North Hall) was at the bottom,” Christmas said of the program when he arrived. “Out of the 76 teams in Class AAA, I think we were No. 74.”
Yet he still took the job; partly because he knew he could turn it around, but mainly because of his family.
“It was the quality of life,” said Christmas, who has six children. “At the time, I had four children in the home. It was a great community with good churches and beautiful countryside.
“We’ve fallen in love with the community,” he added. “This is a very desirable place to live.”
While the area and opportunity to turn a program around was the most appealing thing to Christmas, Miller decided to come to Gainesville because of a changing situation at North Forsyth and a gut feeling.
“North Forsyth was about to go to Class AAAA, and at that time, I felt Gainesville had a whole lot to offer,” Miller said. “There was something there tugging.”
Miller still had to convince his wife, who said, “you’re not interested in that?” upon his arrival from a two-hour meeting with Gainesville officials.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Sweetheart, it’s got possibility,’” Miller said. “I just had a feeling I was supposed to come here.”
It’s safe to say neither coach regrets the decision to move to Hall County, especially seeing how each turned their programs into annual contenders. Despite that, neither is taking credit for the success.
“The turnaround started two years prior to me coming,” Miller said. “Steve Wilson was starting to get it turned around before he left to coach at Furman.
“I happened to be the beneficiary of good talent.”
Christmas’ work wasn’t so easy. After arriving from Bainbridge, Christmas instilled a strong strength program at the high school and middle school level and made his former offensive coordinator Steve Jones the middle school coach to mold Trojans at a young age.
“It’s not necessarily something I’ve done,” Christmas said. “It was the community and the coaching staff.
“I don’t think it was anything I did other than believing in the kids,” he added. “I told them they can be successful, they just have to work at it.”
So how long will these two coaches keep working at it?
“When I wake up and don’t want to go to work, then I’ll hang it up,” said the 58-year-old Miller, who has coached for 36 years. “I still enjoy the day-to-day camaraderie with the kids and coaches. I still enjoy the challenge of getting a team ready to play the best they can. I still have that competitive nature and like to see what we can get out of the kids.”
It’s no surprise that Christmas, who is in his 36th year of coaching, feels the same way.
“I could go to 40 or 45 (years), who knows?” said the 57-year-old Christmas. “I still enjoy it, so who knows?”
One thing both coaches know is come Friday night, the rivalry between the two schools will halt the mutual respect, at least for a couple hours anyway.
“This is what rivalries are made of,” Miller said. “We get along with everything except when our two teams are playing.”