While following high school football as a kid in Northeast Georgia and eventually playing the sport at Habersham Central High, Heath Webb couldn’t help but keep a close eye on the Gainesville program.
“There was always a sense about that team and program and stadium,” he said, “that just kind of sticks with you.”
Now Webb gets to be a part of it all.
Webb will take over as head coach of the Red Elephants, pending approval from the Gainesville City School System at its board meeting Tuesday. He spent the last four years in the same role at Winder-Barrow, where he rebuilt the Bulldoggs into a perennial playoff contender.
The Red Elephants job was one of just a few openings attractive enough to lure Webb away from Winder-Barrow, he said.
“It’s such an awesome opportunity,” Webb said. “(Gainesville has) great tradition, awesome facilities. … The tradition and the way the community rallies behind it is just incredible, and then there are always talented players there. Those things kind of put it at the top of my list.”
He has a 43-42 career record split between four-year stints at a brand new school and a program that had fallen on hard times.
The latter was Winder-Barrow, which hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2003 and hadn’t won a playoff game since 1993 before Webb arrived in 2014. Webb compiled a 26-19 record with the Bulldoggs, who share Region 8-6A with Gainesville, and qualified for the state tournament in each season with the team.
Winder-Barrow also ended its playoff victory drought under his watch, winning its first-round postseason game during last year’s 9-3 campaign.
Prior to his time in Winder, Webb molded the football program at North Paulding, which went 17-23 with him at the helm from 2008-11.
His body of work caught the attention of first-year Red Elephants athletic director Adam Lindsey, who said he had an “up-close view” of Webb’s work at Winder-Barrow while serving as athletic director for nearby Jackson County.
“The guy has a plan and process for everything,” Lindsey said. “Seeing his proven record of building programs or rebuilding them into contenders, you look at it and say, ‘With the athletes and support here at Gainesville, you feel like he can do amazing things.’”
Still, Webb has a tough act to follow.
He replaces longtime coach Bruce Miller, who brought the Red Elephants their only GHSA state championship in 2012 and lost another on the final play of the game in 2009. His teams reached five state semifinal games while making the playoffs each of his 16 seasons.
Webb said he doesn’t feel much pressure following a legend like Miller, who retired from Gainesville on Jan. 16 due to the need for “new blood” in the program before becoming an assistant coach at Lakeview Academy two weeks later.
“I’m just going to go out there and do my job and put my own stamp on the program,” Webb said. “I’m going to bring my own approach to the team and to the program and the way we do things.
“Bruce has done amazing job there, clearly. I’m not going to try to match it or emulate it; I’m just going to be myself and let my own work show for itself.”
That mindset worked wonders at Winder-Barrow, where Webb moved after spending 2012 as receivers coach at Flowery Branch and the following year coaching quarterbacks at Peachtree Ridge.
He said he relied on three things to dig the Bulldoggs out of their decade-long rut: a great coaching staff, passion for the job and hard work. Yet Webb insisted there’s no “secret recipe” to the transformations he oversaw at Winder-Barrow and North Paulding.
“You just roll your sleeves up and go to work, work harder than anybody else,” he said. “If you have a team that is willing to work hard everyday, good things just seem to happen.”
Webb’s next phase of work will start Feb. 26, Lindsey said, if the board approves his recommendation.
With spring practice just three months away, the new Red Elephants coach must quickly assemble a staff. Webb said he plans to interview all of Gainesville’s current coaches to see if they share his vision for the program, and there are a few vacancies he needs to fill.
“There’s the possibility of having a blended staff, if you will,” Webb said. “Some old and some new.”
One thing’s certain, though — Webb won’t have to move his family to accommodate his new position. Even while coaching elsewhere, Webb has lived in Gainesville, an equal distance between his stomping grounds of Habersham County and his wife’s hometown of Dahlonega.
“That was a big part of (taking the job),” Webb said. “ … (Gainesville) has always been a nice in-between. It’s where we wanted to live. The fact that the job came open, it just worked out perfectly.”
For the Northeast Georgia native who grew up revering the Red Elephants program, almost everything about his new job is perfect.