Tyler Whitlock is accustomed to being the first one among his players and fellow coaches at the gym.
But only two days into his tenure as Johnson High’s boys basketball coach, the Knights are making it hard for Whitlock to maintain that standard.
“These kids are very hungry,” he said. “There’s more here than most people know as far as players. I’m the type of guy that likes to get here early, but these kids are beating me, and I have to beg them to go home. They want it really bad; it’s just a matter of time before it shows itself on the court.”
That’s a promising sign for Whitlock, who was announced as Johnson’s new coach last Friday. The White County native aims to breathe life into a program that has suffered through two straight losing seasons after a 29-0 start and state quarterfinal appearance in 2015.
“There’s a great tradition here for basketball,” Whitlock said. “I love seeing the kids, the parents and the community get excited and rejuvenated about basketball once again. You can’t win every game, but you just want the kids playing hard and having fun.”
Whitlock brings 10 years of coaching experience to Johnson, mostly recently serving as an assistant to Frederick Hurt at West Forsyth High last season.
Hurt actually steered Whitlock toward the Johnson job, which came open May 30 when former Knights coach Tim Slater resigned following two years at the school. Whitlock jumped at the chance to return to Hall County, where he spent the first seven years of his career coaching under Todd Cottrell at Flowery Branch and Gainesville.
“It was pretty late in the year, but I thought it was a great opportunity,” he said. “I love the community, and Hall County has a great school system. I had also heard really good things about the administration here. I thought it would be wise to apply for the job.”
As a result, Whitlock landed the second head coaching gig of his young career. His first go-round in charge of a program was with the White County girls team for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
He played there in the early 2000s under Cottrell, who said Whitlock was an all-region selection and a key contributor on those Warriors teams. The White County graduate went on to play college basketball for one year at Piedmont and two more at the University of North Georgia.
Whitlock joined Cottrell’s Flowery Branch staff for the 2008 season then followed him to Gainesville, where he was a varsity assistant and middle school coach.
“I’ve known him and his family for a long time,” Cottrell said. “He’s a quality person and a quality man from a great family. He genuinely cares about his players and their total development. He’s just a really good, giving man. I’m really excited for him, and I think he’ll do a great job.”
The Knights, however, will face somewhat of an uphill battle in Whitlock’s debut season.
Johnson sits in the brutal Region 8-5A, which is also home to Buford and Cedar Shoals — last season’s Class 5A champion and runner-up, respectively. Against such competition last year, the Knights went 9-17 with a 2-10 mark in region play, which put them in last place.
While Whitlock embraces the region’s harsh challenges, he said he’s focused on cultivating his team’s identity instead of worrying about anybody else.
That process is already underway in the form of summer workouts. Johnson is set to play a few scrimmages today in Winder before heading to Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, for a weekend camp.
“I’m really enjoying it,” Whitlock said. “The kids are really awesome. They’re buying in and working extra hard. They seem excited about the game and willing to do what we ask of them. I’m just ready to get going.”
Even if it means he has to get to the gym a little earlier than usual.