About this series
Throughout the summer, The Times will conduct a series of interviews with each of the area’s 20 high school football coaches.
Tuesday: Habersham Central’s Stuart Cunningham
July 5: Johnson’s Jason Roquemore
July 10: Jefferson’s T. McFerrin
July 12: Lakeview’s Matthew Gruhn
July 17: Jackson County’s Benji Harrison
July 19: North Hall’s Bob Christmas
July 24: Towns County’s Kyle Langford
July 26: Riverside’s Gary Downs
July 31: Union County’s Brian Allison
Aug. 2: West Hall’s Tony Lotti
Aug. 7: White County’s Bill Ballard
Aug. 9: Lumpkin County’s Tommy Jones
Dawson County football coach Jeff Lee has played at nearly every level of the sport, from high school to his days as a replacement player during the NFL player’s strike in 1987.
It’s a long history which, along the way, helped him pick up the skills needed to succeed as a high school coach.
After back-to-back three-loss seasons in 2004-2005 at Dawson County, success in the wins column has been a little bit harder to come by lately.
But a 5-5 season in 2011, the team’s first non-losing season since 2005, has Lee and his players looking forward to the upcoming season.
The Times caught up with Lee over the weekend to discuss Dawson County and his days as a player.
Question: Last year, you guys broke even at 5-5. Obviously, there’s still room for improvement, but it was the best season by record in a few years. Do you expect that progress to continue into 2012?
Answer: We feel like we made a big step last season. A lot of folks look at the 5-5 record, but in four of the losses, we either led at the half or led with about a minute left in the game. The only subregion game we lost was against Banks County, and then the play-in game against Jefferson we had the lead in the third quarter again. But it was a big improvement, and the kids realize that. That’s big.
Q: What will you guys need to do to continue that progress?
A: The biggest thing is to expand on what we’ve been doing. It’s our third year in that offense, and we can expand on it a little because we’ve got a senior quarterback, a senior running back, and we definitely know we’re already better based on what we did in the spring.
Q: What’s the challenge in trying to take a struggling team to the next level?
A: We feel very fortunate this year that we have 22 seniors that have played a lot of football for us. When you play a lot of freshmen like we did a few years ago, you’ll lose some games. But we’ve improved steadily. Now, we just have to learn how to overcome some of those things and close out the wins. It really is just trying to get kids to understand the important things. It’s all a step-by-step process. We have to win this drill, win this practice, win all the little things. Then we can concentrate on winning the games.
Q: Let’s change gears a little bit. You’ve had a pretty extensive history in football. Tell me about that. Where all have you played?
A: I’ve been very blessed. God has taken care of me as far as playing goes. He answered every prayer I could have asked. I played at Dodge County High, and then had a scholarship to Livingston College. I had a great spring there and had planned to go back, but Erk Russell was starting a program at Georgia Southern. That was in the state, so I went down to see Coach Russell. He said everyone was going to be a walk-on, so I had to make sure this is really what I wanted. But I knew I wanted it. I went down there and had a four-year career. Then I signed with the Orlando Renegades in the USFL. I played with Tampa in that league as well. I moved on to coach high school ball after that, and then when they had the ’87 player’s strike in the NFL, I was lucky enough to get to play for the Atlanta Falcons.
Q: Playing for Erk Russell is a pretty big deal around these parts. What was that like?
A: The way he carried himself is not what you’d typically see in modern-day football. He was probably the only guy in the nation then that could have gotten that program going at Georgia Southern. He just had the personality, and it translated to the football field. He was a father figure for a lot of us.
Q: Looking back at an interview you did a while ago, I see that you were a bench warmer for the first three years in high school before you got to play. What kind of perseverance did that take for you to stick with it?
A: I wasn’t big enough in the ninth grade. I was going to get the chance to start that last game of the season, but the game was canceled. And I played a little in a few other games along the way in mop-up situations. But I was lucky enough to have some coaches that were real good Christian men that believed in me and wanted to give me a chance to make it to college ball.
Q: How did that affect your career going forward as a coach?
A: I think what I’ve done is go back and take bits and pieces from my high school coaches, coaches that I’ve worked with, coaches that I played for in college. Even one (from whom) I learned what not to do. Having coaches that believe in you and push you is a really big thing for a player. Now, I can always tell my players that story and, hopefully, let them know that things aren’t going to come easy. Work for it, and you can get there in the end.
Q: What about as a player?
A: I learned that the one thing you can control is your attitude. How hard are you going to work? How much are you going to put into it? A lot of games are won because of how much you’re willing to work. That’s one thing I always knew growing up. He might be better or bigger than me, but he isn’t going to work harder than me.