Before the coronavirus shutdown, Riverside Military Academy had its football program trending in the right direction, coach Nick Garrett said.
After not fielding a team in 2020, a decision the private military boarding school in Gainesville made months before the season due to the uncertainty of COVID-19, Garrett is ready to build the program back up again.
This season, it will be an almost completely new group of players for the fifth-year Eagles coach.
Last season, former Eagles standout Shad Dabney, now a defensive back at Kansas, played his senior year of high school at Cherokee Bluff. Wide receiver Adriel Clark, now playing at East Tennessee State, went to Rabun County for his final season of eligibility.
And lineman Wiley McDonald, who last season went back home to play in Chattanooga, Tennessee, now plays college football at The Citadel.
After posting back-to-back .500 seasons, in 2018 and 2019, Garrett isn’t going to make excuses for factors out of his control. Instead, he’s looking forward to a new group that has bumped up to the five-team Region 8-2A to go up against Rabun County, Elbert County, Banks County and Union County.
With four teams making the postseason, all the Eagles will need is one region win to make the playoffs.
So with a quick turnaround between new students arriving on campus and the start of the season, Garrett is eager to cultivate a winning culture with a new batch of players.
Garrett said he used the empty season to get better at his craft by constantly going to games, practices, studying college programs and attending coaching clinics.
“I used a crisis situation where most people would have folded under,” said Garrett, who coached at East Los Angeles Community College before coming to Georgia. “I looked for ways to grow. I don’t look for a way out, we look for a way in.”
This season, Garrett has Jason Pleasant, who will also be the Eagles head basketball coach, back as his defensive coordinator after he was coaching at Cherokee Bluff in 2020.
- Aug. 20 NOTRE DAME ACADEMY
- Aug. 27 ST. ANNE-PACELLI
- Sept. 3 vs. Druid Hills
- Sept. 10 GEORGIA MILITARY COLLEGE
- Sept. 17 EAST FORSYTH
- Sept. 24 Toombs County
- Oct. 1 Union County*
- Oct. 8 at Rabun County*
- Oct. 22 BANKS COUNTY*
- Oct. 29 at Elbert County*
Creating Riverside’s new identity
Garrett has hammered home the “we not me” approach to his players.
The Eagles players who were on campus this past season, despite the large crop of players who left, came out to spring practice.
This is where the seed of building an identity starts.
Riverside Military’s coach was focused on building the relationship piece with those players who would be with the program in 2021.
“Teaching these boys it is bigger than just them,” Garrett said. “They can achieve great things, if they buy in.”
Building a program is never easy.
But there is a standard that will not be compromised, which is the Riverside Military way. Its three pillars are military, education and athletics.
These three things are woven into the disciplinary fabric of the program.
“It is how you walk and how you talk,” Garrett said. “It is a way of life. It is a standard that carries over. We are just re-enforcing the school codes.”
Building a culture on love
When Garrett was focused on reinventing himself as a coach, the focus was not necessarily about learning more X’s and O’s.
He talked to a number of coaches, from every level, on how to build culture.
Culture is the reflection of the head coach.
Many told him it comes from emphasizing discipline and love (the most important piece).
“We don’t just tell people we love them,” Garrett said. “We don’t just tell them, we show them. This is what makes us unique.”
Players learning their roles
Whenever any program puts players together, the toughest thing is getting everyone to understand and accept their role on the team.
This is what Garrett is focused on with this year’s team.
Riverside Military lost the overwhelming majority of its roster when the players transferred because the 2020 season was canceled.
The team’s previous success came from everyone understanding what was expected of them.
Garrett has always been transparent with his players throughout his coaching career.
Living the Eagle brand
Every season, Garrett allows his football captains to come up with an acronym for Eagles ahead of the new season.
As soon as those cadets arrive on campus they should have what the football program will follow this season.
Riverside Military opens its season on Aug. 20 against Notre Dame Prep at Maginnis Field. The Eagles play seven home games this season.