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SERIES: Johnson football coach William Harrell looking to provide firm, fair leadership for its growing program
This is the first in a weekly look at each football program in Hall County and a day in the life of its head coach
Rotary club
Johnson High football coach William Harrell speaks at Monday's Rotary Club of Gainesville meeting at First Baptist Church. Photo by Bill Murphy

By Robert Alfonso Jr.

William Harrell never asked for it to be easy as football coach at Johnson High. 

Lower-than-ideal participation numbers and a student body that is generally less enthusiastic about football, have made it a constant uphill climb since taking the job as the face of the Knights program prior to the 2020 season.

However, he isn’t about to stop fighting now. 

Harrell, 37, feels like he’s finally getting a foothold at Johnson, as players have slowly gravitated to Johnson’s program, which went 0-9 in his inaugural campaign. 

Johnson’s coach went through summer practice with about 17 players, but has slowly seen an uptick since students came back to school. 

“We have a lot of kids who have not been exposed to football,” Harrell said. “Now, we are getting these kids who are coming out who are seeing some of the positive relationships we are building with their classmates and the positive feedback.”

His approach to the start of the first week of the regular season was vastly different than any other program in Hall County. 

On Friday, Johnson hosts defending Region 7-3A champion Cherokee Bluff to open the 2021 season at the recently-upgraded Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium in Oakwood. 

Eager to have every interested and eligible player on the field, Harrell spent Monday going through paperwork for new players who are willing to give it a go on the gridiron. 

With the numbers disparity of his roster, compared to other football programs in Region 8-5A, it will likely be another challenging season for the Knights on the record sheet. 

However, wins and losses isn’t why Harrell got into the game as a coach in 2005. 

So, his main priority is to be a firm, but fair, face of the Knights. 

“I have seen firsthand, as an assistant, where coaches used players and they used them just for their talents, or what they can get out of it,” Harrell said. “I’d rather be the villain now, so that when they come back in their 20’s, they say ‘thank you.’ “I don’t expect everyone to understand it. Everybody has a different goal in mind. For me, this is not about now. It is about what they can do after they leave me, five or 10 years down the road.”

Entering Year 16 as a coach, after deciding that would be his career path as a student at Georgia Southern University, Harrell has turned programs around before, but it can’t be done overnight. 

At Hephziah High, a small community near Augusta, Harrell produced back-to-back winning seasons in 2018 and 2019 before accepting the job in Oakwood. 

Now, at Johnson, he doesn’t expect any shortcuts to success. 

If you play for Harrell, you get the same person every day. 

Consistency in discipline and instilling integrity are the pillars for Harrell as he enters his second season at Johnson. 

During the summer of 2021, Harrell bolstered his coaching staff with the addition of Mike Martin, a 30-year south Georgia coaching veteran, as his defensive coordinator, who will also be the school’s head baseball coach. 

“When you talk about (Harrell), he is a man of great character,” Johnson’s offensive coordinator Gary Compton said. “He is dedicated, not just to the athlete or the wins and losses on the field. He is dedicated to the total player. Where they are going to be at in life. That’s what I like about him.”

A physical education teacher, one of Harrell’s first successes at Johnson came last year when he punished an entire class for one student’s actions. 

Later, that same student wrote a letter of gratitude to Harrell, the coach said, thanking him for everything the new coach was doing at Johnson. 

“That was priceless,” Harrell said. “I got into coaching to instill life lessons into our kids for life after high school. To prepare them for life after high school. I have to prepare them for any of those scenarios. If I am not doing that, I am not doing my job. Point blank period.”

Harrell’s own playing career came to an unfortunate end with a torn meniscus his senior season at Mays High. 

Once enrolled at Georgia Southern the following year, Harrell contemplated trying to join its football program, but opted not doing so due to the way it would interfere with his class schedule. 

After opening the season on their new synthetic playing surface, Johnson will have consecutive bye weeks to prepare for East Hall on Sept. 10. 

The Battle of Oakwood, against West Hall, has been pushed back to Oct. 29, due to issues with the completion of the new field at Spartans Stadium. 

Friday's games

Gainesville vs. John's Creek, 5:30 p.m., Corky Kell Classic

Cherokee Bluff at Johnson

West Hall at East Jackson

North Hall at Paulding County

Flowery Branch at St. Pius X

Lakeview Academy at Mount Paran Christian

Riverside Military vs. Notre Dame Prep

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