Wayne Vickery didn’t know what to expect when Gainesville High School made the jump from Class AAA to AAAAA in the fall of 2012. The Gainesville athletic director wondered if the school’s sports programs might struggle, at least initially, by moving up more than one classification at once.
Those worries were put to rest almost immediately.
In their inaugural season in Class AAAAA, the Red Elephants won their first football state championship since 1925, reached the boys basketball state title game a few months later and finished off the school year with a state crown in boys golf.
Gainesville followed that success with another strong all-around showing during the 2013-14 school year, when the football and baseball teams advanced to the state semifinals and narrowly fell short of reaching their respective championship games.
“Gainesville has changed over the last 30-some years,” Vickery said, “but whenever I think the old ship is fixing to sink, we somehow or another stabilize and we kind of bounce back.”
The Red Elephants will face new challenges as they enter their third year in one of the state’s two largest classifications, including a gaping hole left by record-setting quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is now at Clemson.
The Times sports editor Jared Putnam sat down with Vickery to talk about the Red Elephants’ recent past and what he sees for the school’s athletic programs in the near future, in the first of a series of question-and-answer sessions with area athletic directors.
What was your take on Gainesville’s athletic success as a whole last season?
“I pinched myself for the last two years when we went from (Class) AAA to AAAAA. To jump one classification, I don’t think, was a big deal, but Gainesville High School jumped two classifications.
“I thought the competition would just be dramatically different, and it hasn’t been. I say that and we’ll get murdered next year in everything we play, but I would say our spring sports is top three or four in the state.
“(Two seasons ago) the football team won it (all), the basketball team played for the state championship, baseball team went deep, and that was our first year in AAAAA and we finished in the top five in the Director’s Cup. This past year I thought we’d be down. ... I think we finished eighth in Director’s Cup this past year.
“You know, two years in a row, finishing in the top 10 in Director’s Cup and jump two classifications, I just think it’s phenomenal.”
You lost some great athletes in the 2014 senior class, including the most glaring one: Deshaun Watson. Do you feel like expectations have to be adjusted for any of the Gainesville sports programs next season?
“They’re never going to break those records that Deshaun set in my or your lifetime. Maybe your kids’ lifetime.
“No. 1, Deshaun started as a freshman his first game of his life, and we throw it 40 or 50 times. I don’t foresee that being broken in the next 100 years.
“But I think you’ve got to look back at the history of Gainesville High School athletics in the last 30 years. It’s just kind of like we reload. We never rebuild, we just reload. Prime example, you talking about (former Gainesville quarterback) Blake Sims leaving; Deshaun Watson comes in. ... Something tells me we’re just going to reload and go on.
“Deshaun Watson is a big loss for Gainesville High School. Jim Pavao, our (former) defensive coordinator (now head coach at Fannin County High), I think, is a big loss. It’s going to be interesting. We aren’t going to beat people 40 and 50 to nothing anymore. The games are going to be more interesting.”
A lot of area programs will see some pretty dramatic changes in their region or classification in this most recent Georgia High School Association realignment. You guys kept almost the exact same region you’ve had the past two years, while also adding Lanier. Is that something you were happy with, or were you hoping for more of a change?
“I’m looking at it from an athletic director’s viewpoint. I’m looking at it from the financial side. Football, absolutely supports everything else. This coming year, our home football schedule is probably the worst it’s been in 100 years. The teams that are coming to City Park to play, those teams are not going to bring a lot of people.
“I hope I’m wrong. I hope Jared Putnam can come back and tell me in January, ‘Coach, you were wrong. The Salems and Heritages and Clarke (Centrals) and Cedar (Shoals), they (brought) a lot of people. I’m basing this on 35 years of watching high school football. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.
“I think the parity is going to be a lot closer this year than it’s been in years past. I still think the top couple of teams in the region are going to be Flowery Branch and Gainesville.”
Do you feel like it’s been tough to maintain the quality of rivalries with the other Hall County schools since everyone is spread across so many classifications now?
“Looking at it from a basketball standpoint, I think Lanierland means a little more now than it used to. Used to be, you’d play everybody three or four times a year, maybe five times a year. Now you may only see these people one time a year.
“Hopefully we can get back to playing North Hall again in football. No. 1, they bring a tremendous (amount) of people.
“I love big crowds, not just from a financial standpoint, but just from being there at City Park, the atmosphere. When Gainesville and Flowery Branch plays, or Gainesville and North Hall plays, the atmosphere ... you can cut it with a knife. I miss that part. When the visitor stands are only 1/3 full, it’s just different.”
What would you say is the biggest challenge for Gainesville athletics right now?
“My biggest challenge now is getting people into seats. Basketball attendance is off, and I think it’s off everywhere in high school. I can remember when Gainesville played East Hall, the fire marshals would make us shut the doors.
“Our attendance in basketball has just dwindled. To get in is five bucks. That’s not a lot of money when you have to pay $10 or $12 to go to a movie. I’m going to encourage our basketball coaches to talk to the Lions Club, the Kiwanis Club.
“We play in a magnificent auditorium. I’m a little prejudiced, but I think it’s one of the nicest ones around. We need to be coming close to filling that thing up and it just hasn’t happened.”
You obviously had a lot of success as a baseball head coach, winning five state titles. Do you ever miss coaching?
“I’ve not been to one single baseball practice since I left (the job). I do go to the games. The only time I miss it is when it’s 80 degrees or better and playoff time. That wind coming off Lake Lanier in February and March and early April is not very much fun.
“(Gainesville baseball coach) Jeremy (Kemp) came in there and kind of just stayed right there where we were. We return seven or eight starters next year and I think we’ll be pretty good. I think we played a couple more rounds than I thought we were capable of this year.”
Is there anyone who’s been a big influence on your career or anyone you patterned your leadership style after?
“An old baseball coach here in town, he used to be a baseball coach at Gainesville High, his name is Don Brewer. He was a Legion baseball coach here for years. He probably taught me more about the game of baseball and how to manage baseball than anybody I know of.
“I think I surrounded myself with great coaches, and great players make great coaches. I know we won five state championships and I’m in about four or five Hall of Fames, but you don’t get put in the Hall of Fame without great players.
“I had Cris Carpenter as my pitching coach. I had a guy named Mike Pruitt (now head coach at West Forsyth High) as an assistant coach here for years and years.
“And, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions. I don’t think you ever get too old to learn. If I didn’t have the answer to something, No. 1 I’d see if I could hire someone (who knew), or if I didn’t I’d just pick their brain.
“I wasn’t afraid to admit that I wasn’t a very good baseball coach. I could get them to the games and I think I’ve got great people skills, but the old story is, you don’t win the Kentucky Derby with a bunch of mules, you win with thoroughbreds. I’ve been blessed in my 20 years to have great players, and Gainesville High school has been blessed to have great players.”
This is a school with a lot of history, tradition and success. How much pressure is there to succeed, especially in programs like football, basketball and baseball?
“I don’t think there’s any pressure to succeed. I think the expectations are high. I don’t want to see any second-place trophies in my trophy case. Nobody remembers who finishes second. I think the expectation is very high. We pay our coaches very well.
“You’ve always got a list in your desk somewhere of who you’d hire if so-and-so leaves. I think I’ve done a pretty good job with that.
“I hired Bruce Miller in a snowstorm. I was National Coach of the Year in 2002, sitting on a tarmac at Hartsfield International (Airport in Atlanta). I knew North Forsyth was fixing to be up in a region with Tucker and Marist.
“We sat on the tarmac about seven hours. ... I kept trying and trying and finally got him and said, ‘Bruce, come for an interview,’ and everything else is just history.
“I think Benjie Wood is a fantastic basketball coach. I put another feather in my cap when I hired him. I just hired Roger Parham as the softball coach from Mill Creek. He’s hit the ground running and probably done more in three weeks than I’ve done in 10 years.
“Merriane Dyer, who just left as our school superintendent, was very supportive along with the board of education (to say) go get who you need. Being one high school in one system, I think, makes this job easier. “
What are the biggest issues facing high school athletics in general in the next few years?
“I think finances. Prices keep going up and up and up. How are we going to continue to finance this? I don’t think our coaches go without anything. We may not look the best team in the world, but we get about most anything we want.
“I see (finances) being a problem if we don’t fix the attendance basketball-wise. We’ve got to get more people coming in those gym doors. There’s more games in town right now (than ever). There’s seven (public high schools in Hall County), and if you’ve got seven high schools playing on Tuesday night, three or four of them may be playing at home.
“I know all these people that read this newspaper (will say), ‘Well, Vickery’s just looking at trying to make a dollar.’ Well, I tell people all the time that I’d charge my grandmother to get in if I had to.
“We don’t charge our kids to play, they just show up and play. You hear all these stories about all these different schools where you have to pay so much to play. I don’t know if that can continue.
“We could not survive if it was not for the Gainesville Athletic Club. We have one umbrella booster club. That’s people who haven’t had kids come through in 20 or 30 years who still buy ads in our football program, still buy a membership. They hardly turn us down on anything.”
Is there anything in particular you want to see Gainesville athletics accomplish in the near future?
“I’d like to see us win a Director’s Cup. I don’t know if that’s possible. We’ve been getting close.
"When it’s soccer season, I’m a soccer fan. I want all our programs to succeed. I think with the exception of a couple of them out there, we’re doing above average.”