I spoke with East Hall football coach Bryan Gray on Sunday about what his secret is to rebuilding a program that was near the basement in the state. How do you introduce talking about playoffs into the vocabulary of players that didn’t have much experience winning?
I was slightly surprised and found it a bit refreshing that Gray’s approach to building a winner with the Vikings (3-3, 2-0 Region 8A-AA) has less to do with X’s and O’s than what transpires off the field.
“You can’t measure your successes by wins and losses,” Gray said. “What I value the most is the positive growth of these young men and preparing them for life after high school.”
He points to the fact that none of his players have dropped out, and have all been qualified for college or technical school.
Sure, East Hall wants to get to the postseason. It’s the ultimate reward for all the months that go into grinding it out on the practice field when they could be doing countless other things — some constructive and some counterproductive — with their hours away from campus.
Gray’s formula for building a contender simply comes down to patience. For a little background, when Gray took over the program following Tim Marchman’s final season in 2006, the Vikings were graduating some talented athletes and about to go into a rebuilding mode.
At the same time, Gray had to encourage the community that football was worth just the same time investment as East Hall’s most prominent athletic program: basketball.
When Gray got started, he knew it was going to be a four-to five-year process to get the program on its feet to thrive in the future. Well, his timetable has turned out to be pretty accurate.
After three consecutive one-win seasons, East Hall now finds itself in the position where it has a 3-3 overall record and a pair of wins to open the subregion schedule. It wouldn’t be far fetched for the Vikings to get back in the playoffs this season for the first time since they traveled to Augusta in 2005 to face Laney.
One of the biggest challenges Gray addressed in building a winner is the space between a player’s ears. They have to believe they can win. Even though East Hall didn’t play a great game last Friday against Union County, Gray said it played well enough in the end to come out on top.
Gray says the resurgence of the football program goes back to the hard work of his seven seniors that were on board with his coaching staff the spring of their eighth grade year: Chris Ingram, Chad Craven, B.J. Skelton, Chaz Cheeks, Keon Jackson, Sterling Bailey and Ariel Negron. In a day and time when instant gratification and results are paramount, Gray said those seven players stayed in the fight and continued to believe that East Hall could be a winner.
“Those seven had every reason to hang it up or go somewhere else,” Gray said. “But they have a great sense of pride in this program.”
Of course, he’s not blinded to the fact that it doesn’t hurt to have a US Army All-American, Bailey, on one side of the defensive line and Cheeks, a Georgia Tech commit, on the other end.
However, Gray says the biggest goal was to build a junior football program for the school to teach the game and have a big group eager to step on the field when they get to high school. That phase of the project has been a tremendous success, according to Gray, with a junior program that continues to grow through the ranks, even in tough economic times.
I think what makes Gray so endearing to this program is his personality. Behind the deep, distinguished voice is a man who believes it is his personal mission to take kids from all sorts of backgrounds and teach them the lessons it takes to succeed in life.
The fact that they’re winning football games now is just the icing on the cake.
Bill Murphy is a sports writer for The Times. You can follow him at twitter.com/gtimesbmurphy.