The jokes are no longer made. The message board trash talking has subsided. It appears that the rest of the state finally respects Hall County football.
After decades of playoff mediocrity that included several one-and-dones, Hall County has become a hot bed for talent, quality coaching and deep runs once the postseason arrives.
"Football in Hall County in the 1990s was as soft as you’d find in any significant area of the state," said Todd Holcomb, who covered high school football for the AJC from 2001-09 but has covered games for decades. "Because of that, even into the current decade, there was a sense of skepticism about Hall teams until Flowery Branch last year.
"That (28-0) win in LaGrange brought a lot of respect."
While the rest of the state was just figuring out that teams from Hall County could play football, coaches from around the area have noticed an upward trend since Gainesville reached the state semifinals in 2002.
Prior to that year, West Hall was the most recent team to reach the second round, which it did in 2000.
"When I first got here eight years ago, it has gotten way better," West Hall coach Mike Newton said of the level of play. "The talent has gotten better and the region has gotten a lot tougher."
And it all starts with the coaches.
"I think the football programs in North Georgia, specifically Hall County and Gainesville have made a deliberate attempt to hire really good coaches," Chestatee coach Stan Luttrell said.
That trend started in 2001 with the hiring of Bob Christmas at North Hall. It continued the next year when Gainesville hired Bruce Miller, and Chestatee and Flowery Branch started football programs.
"Christmas, Miller and (Flowery Branch coach) Lee Shaw have all been around awhile and know what they’re doing," Holcomb said.
He’s right, as the three coaches have gone a combined 118-30 since 2005. And all were responsible for either turning around a program or starting one from scratch.
Prior to Christmas’ arrival, the Trojans had losing seasons in eight of the previous 10 years, including an 0-10 season in 2000. Since his arrival, Christmas, who won a state title as a coach in Virginia, has led North Hall to seven straight winning seasons, including a trip to the state semifinals in 2007.
Miller was a little more fortunate, taking over a Gainesville program that reached the playoffs several times but hadn’t advanced past the first round since 1986.
Shaw had the most difficult task of all three, taking a new program that went 6-24 in its first three seasons to 42-9 since 2005 and a state runner-up finish last year.
All three could vie for a state title this year.
"Flowery Branch and Gainesville are big-time teams that could win state," Holcomb said. "And another one, North Hall, I think is very underrated."
The rationale behind that prediction is simple: Those three teams have arguably the most talent in the area, with Gainesville containing three players (Blake Sims, Tai-ler Jones and Daunte Carr) that have already committed to Division-I schools Flowery Branch with a quarterback (Connor Shaw) verbally committed to South Carolina, and North Hall stabilizing its line with the play of Wake Forrest verbal commit Daniel Blitch.
"We develop players starting at sixth grade," Christmas said. "Our philosophy here is that we’re going to develop what we got and I think coaches are doing a better job with that."
Not only are quality players getting developed at an early age, but Hall County football teams are getting better due to the influx of talent that comes with the growth of the county.
"When counties experience a heavy population growth, that’s not always good for football," Holcomb said. "But in Hall, the football has gotten better as the population has increased. I’m not sure why that is, but I notice it."
Luttrell has his theory.
"Kids that come from out of this area are going to come where good football is," he said. "There’s no doubt that 7-AAA is good football now."
Region 7-AAA may be good now, but how does it compare to the rest of the state?
"I’m sure there’s more speed in South Georgia," Miller said. "But as far as fundamentals and coaching, this region has got to be as tough as any."
His rival coach agrees.
"They probably have more raw athletes," said Christmas, who coached at Region 1-AAAAA’s Bainbridge before moving to North Hall. "I don’t know how it is now, but eight or nine years ago I felt like up here they did a better job of developing players."
And now, those players and coaches are set to begin another chapter in showing the rest of the state how well they have developed.
"I think we’re getting to the point where everybody knows how good these teams are that make the playoffs in 7-AAA," Luttrell said. "In this region, if you make the playoffs you will have the opportunity to make a run. All four teams have a chance to win in the first round and once you get out of the first round anything can happen."
Flowery Branch proved that last year, North Hall proved that in 2007, and although the season has yet to start, with the caliber of football being played in Hall County now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if another team proves that this year.