Class AAA playoffs
Who: Flowery Branch at Gainesville
Where: Bobby Gruhn Field
On radio: 550-AM, 1240-AM
Bruce Miller and Lee Shaw have quite a lot in common even though they’ll be standing on opposite sidelines for Friday’s Class AAA state semifinal game at Bobby Gruhn Field.
Miller, the coach at Gainesville High, and Shaw, Flowery Branch’s coach, have traveled a long road that has passed through numerous schools and, in turn, each has gained from past experiences leading into this first state semifinal game between two Hall County programs.
Both coaches are in their eighth year at their respective schools. And both are making the second state semifinal appearance with their current program: Miller in 2002 with Gainesville against Screven County, and Shaw led the Falcons to the final four last season against LaGrange.
This season Miller and the top-ranked Red Elephants (13-0) have three home playoff wins. Flowery Branch (10-3) has pulled off three road upsets against higher-seeded teams to claim a spot in the state semifinals.
As a result, it is a guarantee that one coach will lead his program to victory and try to become the first Hall County school to win a state title as part of the GHSA.
“This game is going to be huge,” Miller said. “It is going to be the only game in town.”
“As a coach, you want these seniors to have the best year of their life,” Shaw said. “That drives me to be the best coach I can be for them and hopefully makes them the best players they can become.”
Miller, in his 36th season of coaching, has a 151-96 career record as a head coach, and now has five Region 7-AAA titles at his current post. After a lull in Gainesville’s football program before Miller’s arrival, he found immediate success with back-to-back region titles and has averaged 10 wins per year over the past eight seasons.
Meanwhile, Shaw, the only coach in Flowery Branch school history, has molded the Falcons into a program with statewide relevance and a 58-36 record over the past eight seasons.
Shaw is without a region title at Flowery Branch but more than makes up for that with back-to-back appearances in the state semifinals.
His career coaching record is 71-73, which includes five seasons (1995-99) as head coach at White County High.
The similarities between these two accomplished coaches are quite clear when you take a step back and look at the paths traveled to current success.
Both knew at a young age they wanted to be a coach: Miller decided at age 6 it was the profession he wanted to follow, while Shaw decided in high school he also wanted to be a leader on the football field after his playing days at Rabun County High and Western Carolina University were complete.
“I felt like it was a calling to become a coach — a spiritual calling,” Shaw said.
Meanwhile, Miller took advantage of his athletic success to land a scholarship to play at Mars Hill College (N.C.) and become the first person in his family to attend college.
The son of a construction worker, Miller said he took the values of hard work from his father and molded that with the influence of people like his mild-mannered high school coach Bill West at South Stanley High in Norwood, N.C.
“I remember a pre-game meal in high school and coach came up to me and said, ‘I heard you want to be a high school coach,’” Miller said. “Then he said, ‘you’ll make a good one.’”
Both Miller and Shaw had to cut their teeth gaining experience along the way to learn the craft of coaching and organizing a successful program.
They agree that the learning experiences along the way made it easier to appreciate the good times like their current programs are experiencing.
As for Miller, he never had any desire to come coach in Georgia after graduating from college. He always thought he would be able to land a job and stay near to his hometown in western North Carolina.
However, when a opening came at Sequoyah High, then a school in Dekalb County, he knew it would be a good place to gain some valuable experience in the profession and learn to be the CEO of a high school football outfit.
Since then, he’s coached at Brookwood, Cass, and North Forsyth. In the four decades since starting in the profession, Miller says the main thing about coaches is respecting the impact they have on the lives of the players they coach.
“People have no idea how many hats a coach wears,” Miller said. “On top of all the coaching responsibilities, you also have to teach.
“But it is so rewarding to see young people grow up and mature into adults.”
Meanwhile, Shaw shuffled around for a few years after his playing career at Western Carolina concluded, where he was a wide receiver and kick returner. He moved back home to Georgia and served as an assistant at Rabun County in 1993 and Stephens County in 1994 under Jay Russell — the son of the famed former Georgia and Georgia Southern coach Erk Russell.
After five years as head coach at White County High, he returned as an assistant at Rabun County in 2000 and 2001 under then-Wildcats coach Sonny Smart.
Some of the biggest impacts on his career have been his hard-nosed high school coach Arvel Holmes from Rabun County High — who he keeps a framed picture of in his office to this day, his college coach Bob Waters, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease and taught him lessons in dignity, and the brief period spent as a student at 16th Street Middle School in the inner city of St. Petersburg, Fla., and learning what it is like to be the new person and trying to be accepted.
Just like Miller, Shaw says the wins are nice, but has learned coaching is more about the relationships built with the members of the program.
“The job as a coach never stops,” Shaw said. “Players draw on you to be an example in their lives.
“I love coaching football but it is not about the games, it is about the guys in the locker room.”
Now Shaw and Miller both sit in the same position, trying to lead their team to victory Friday and into the state title game next Saturday at the Georgia Dome.