In the 1970s, Wesley Martin always felt like playing football at Gainesville High came with modest perks.
However, those seem minor now, compared to what the current crop of Red Elephants get to enjoy.
A quarterback for Gainesville from 1973-75, Martin said the biggest on-campus luxury during his tenure was getting to use the carpeted upstairs dressing room: a privilege reserved for players who earned it.
They also had tear away jerseys for running backs and quarterbacks that looked like ‘rags’ by the third quarter, which he said no-nonsense Red Elephants coach Bobby Gruhn despised and viewed as an unnecessary expense.
Now, Red Elephants football players are about to move into a $22 million, three-story Student Activities Center, which will have meeting rooms, coaches offices and players lounge areas.
“When I was at Gainesville, the facilities were adequate but barely what we needed, for the time,” said Martin, who remains a season-ticket holder for Gainesville football.
In 2022, Gainesville’s football program gets to practice on the new synthetic surface at the Bruce Miller Field, while games are played on the immaculate real grass at City Park Stadium.
In addition, there’s an indoor practice area on Gainesville’s campus, on the patch of flat land overlooking the practice field and track, which is where the band practiced for many years.
The work done on Gainesville’s campus comes from $85 million in school bonds, which passed in 2020, and also included numerous school-building projects.
While the football program is not the only athletic benefactor of the improvements, since all the Red Elephants sports programs will get their own space, it’s certainly the one that stands out the most.
Since the beginning of the project, Gainesville’s athletics director Adam Lindsey has said he wants a ‘Division-I environment’ for its student athletes.
“I’m so impressed with the new facilities,” said Charlie Strong, who played quarterback for Gainesville in the late 1960s. “I’m not sure anyone could have better facilities than what they have at Gainesville. I know the entire school administration, (Gainesville City Schools Superintendent) Dr. (Jeremy) Williams, principal Jamie Green and Adam Lindsey all deserve credit.”
Strong said, during his days, the program’s biggest luxury was taking a Greyhound bus for trips to road games.
But with a great financial investment into facilities comes great expectations.
Certainly, first-year Red Elephants football coach Josh Niblett has the fanbase on the edge of their seats, waiting for the season to start.
Niblett won six state titles at the highest classification in Alabama with Hoover High, a tenure that lasted from 2008-2021.
Now, Gainesville (4-6 last season) is looking for some of those same results, after not winning a state championship since it had Deshaun Watson as quarterback in 2012.
“I’m pretty excited about the season,” said Jeff Williams, who was an offensive lineman in the late 1970s for the Red Elephants. “From what I understand, the kids on the team are really ready to go.”
Sammy Smith, a Gainesville City Schools board member and team manager for the Red Elephants in the late 1960s, said the 2022 season has all the ingredients to be like the 1966 season, which was highlighted by a 10-game winning streak and trip to the state semifinals, after three-straight 3-7 seasons.
“I’m excited for coach Niblett and I’m excited for the entire program at Gainesville,” Smith said.
Gainesville opens the season Aug. 19 against Marist, the 2020 Class 4A state champion, in Atlanta.
The Red Elephants home opener is Aug. 26 against Mountain View.