Alma Mater Magic

By Christina Davenport/Photography by Rich Smith

Featured Photo by Nathalie Dupre

When it comes to football, there are many paths to success. To get there, coaches can utilize a myriad of tools, one of which is an unwavering belief that your program has what it takes to be the best. Here, we’ve talked to 12 head coaches who are now heading up the very programs they were once a part of. School spirit runs deep, and the drive to give back to their communities is unparalleled. Read on to learn how these men are pouring into their players and what motivates them to step onto the gridiron with both grit and grace week after week.

Coach GroceCoach Groce in High School

Josh Groce

Gordon Lee High School

(Top) Photo by Trevor Long

Entering into his fifth year as head coach, Josh Groce is hoping to provide his players with something he never had as a Gordon Lee High School football player – consistency. During the four years that Groce was playing as a running back and defensive back in the late 90s, he had three separate head coaches. Now he’s entering a new season and is more focused than ever on having his staff operate as a well-oiled machine so that players can focus on improving their game.

“The biggest thing I have tried to do in the four seasons I have been here is to keep the same coaching staff together. I think it’s huge to have continuity in the staff,” says Groce. “What I love most is seeing a group of players become a team. The challenges always change in finding ways to help them gel and become a team. Every year there is a different dynamic, but it is our job as coaches to navigate through them.”

The solid foundation that Groce has laid in regard to his coaching staff means players can focus on executing the changing game of football. Looking to the future, Groce is concentrated on evolving schematically in order to keep up with the best. To get there, it all comes down to hard work.

“I never was the biggest, strongest, or fastest. I relied heavily on my work ethic,” recalls Groce. “I have a high expectation for our team’s ability to work hard, not just during the regular season but also in the off-season.”

In addition to fostering a top-notch work ethic and providing stability, Groce hopes that every player that passes through Gordon Lee’s football program has had their life – not just their ability to play football – changed in some way.

“I want players to leave knowing that I cared about them as a person, not just a player,” adds Groce. “Given that I graduated from Gordon Lee, it’s also neat whenever I have the opportunity to coach a former teammate’s son. It can sometimes bring some unforeseen challenges, but for the most part, it’s a really exciting and rewarding experience to be a head coach at your alma mater.”

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Coach PostonCoach Poston in High School

Jeff Poston

Dade County High School

When Jeff Poston reflects back on his most fond memory as head coach for Dade County High School, there is one moment in time that stands out.

“Hands down it was beating South Pittsburg in 2021. They had a good team and went on to win state that year. I challenged the kids to focus on us and ignore what everyone else had to say about the game,” reflects Poston. “We came away with a five-point win at home in front of our fans. That memory will always be special to me because it helped propel us to a region runner-up finish and our first playoff berth.”

But wins like the one against South Pittsburg don’t come without focus and determination. When Poston, who is now entering his fourth season as head coach, was playing for Dade County in the late 80s and early 90s, one of the biggest lessons he learned was how to deal with adversity, and he hopes that his players are able to gain a similar experience during their time at Dade County.   

“I love being able to push people toward their true capabilities,” adds Poston. “I define success as the continued effort to get better. That’s what I want the kids who play here to take away from their time as a Wolverine. They should never settle, and they should never let other people set their ceiling in life.”

Poston sets out each day aiming to help his players become the best versions of themselves. Poston himself has been surrounded by an amazing group of mentors and support staff during his time as both a player and a coach, and he’s now hoping to be that person for others in his life.

“I’m working on getting better at communicating expectations, but mostly I hope that when players leave, they remember me as being someone that really cared about them and wanted to see them succeed,” says Poston.

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Coach StoneCoach Stone in High School

Wes Stone

South Pittsburg High School

As one of the winningest teams in the area, South Pittsburg has quite the reputation when it comes to football, but the Pirates’ successes haven’t come without hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Head coach Wes Stone was a center and defensive end for the team in the early 90s and knows first-hand what it takes to be the best.

“As a player, I learned a lesson of how it felt to come up just short of a state championship in 1993, but having to work harder the next year in order to win a state championship,” says Stone. “Every lesson you learn is not always about today. I use this lesson often with our kids to illustrate the need to work harder than the day before.”

As he reflects on his coaching career, one of Stone’s most fond memories is being part of yet another championship run. In 2021, the Pirates were pegged as underdogs to the McKenzie Rebels but went on to beat them by three points in the Class 1A State Championship.

“Overcoming what that team had to overcome with Coach Jones leaving after one game, the program being shut down for three weeks due to Covid, and me being an interim coach won’t ever be forgotten,” adds Stone.

Stone, who is now in his second official season as head coach, is able to lean on a wealth of experience to continue leading a high-caliber team. Add to that the unwavering support of not just the school but the entire community, and it’s no wonder South Pittsburg is able to make regular playoff appearances.

While the players that come and go from the football program at South Pittsburg will undoubtedly remember the big wins, Stone hopes they walk away with something more.

“It’s great when our players get to become part of a brotherhood that lasts a lifetime and then graduate and go on to become great men and contributors to our community,” says Stone. “I hope they remember that I love them and that I am always here for them throughout their lives.”

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Coach ManningCoach Manning in High School

James Manning

Ooltewah High School

Roughly a decade after James Manning graced the gridiron as Ooltewah’s quarterback and safety, he returned to lead the Owls in the capacity of head coach. For Manning, this role is more than the opportunity to win some games and build a notable program, it’s an opportunity to pour into a community that gave him so much as he was growing up.

Now in his third year as head coach, Manning will be the first to admit that he doesn’t carry the tenure of other coaches in the area but his presence brings a freshness to Ooltewah’s program that is able to create some buy-in.

“I think that it helps that I am not too far removed from the program and school. Many of my teachers from high school are now my colleagues. I believe we have their full support, which is important when you are rebuilding,” says Manning. “The challenging part about being an alumni in the big chair is that all the bad things seem to weigh more.”

Regardless of the challenges, Manning approaches his duty as head coach with grace, enthusiasm, and most importantly, compassion. He believes that every player, regardless of skillset, should have the opportunity to be part of something bigger, and that mentality has gone a long way in setting a new type of culture for the Owls.

“I hope that every kid that comes out of this program knows that with every hard conversation, with every tough choice we present them with, we are doing it because we want to help make them better men, husbands, and fathers, and I hope that they know I love them very much,” says Manning. “If we coach these kids the right way and love them the right way and if I coach long enough for them to want to send their kids to me, that will be a big win in my book.”

While Manning and the rest of the staff at Ooltewah have a strong culture of caring for and supporting their players and one another, he’s looking forward to that paying off on the scoreboard. “Our kids ended last year with a different mentality, and they are hungry for a change,” he says.

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Coach RiversCoach Rivers in High School

Nichlas Rivers III

Hixson High School

The locker room at Hixson High School is full of anticipation as the 2023 football season approaches. New on the scene is Nichlas Rivers III who is entering his first year as a head coach eager to leave the same impression on his players that his coaches had on him when he played for the Hixson Wildcats from 1999 to 2002.

Once a linebacker, running back, and tight end for the program, Rivers has focused the last few months on reigniting a sense of pride in his players.

“When I was a player, there was more of a sense of pride about the program. It is starting to feel that way again here now. I want our players to walk around proud to be associated with high-character football,” says Rivers. “My high school coaches were tough but fair. They had expectations for and held us accountable for our play and our character. I am holding our players accountable just like when I played. This approach helps create great men after their playing days are over.”

While his players are working to strengthen their skills and character, Rivers is also learning the lay of the land as a coach, but he’s the first to note that he has a great support system.

“I learned as an athlete to take ownership and responsibility for my decisions, and that lesson is serving me well as a coach so far. I try not to make excuses, but rather look for solutions,” says Rivers. “Moving forward my biggest challenges will be the little things behind the scenes, but I feel I have surrounded myself with veteran coaches that will help with any challenges that arise.”

In addition to the support of his coaching staff, Rivers has also received a warm welcome from the community and all of the players on this year’s roster.

“My most fond memory thus far has been the day I was introduced to the team. Finding out that these young men wanted me to be their coach was a humbling experience, and it was nice to feel wanted,” says Rivers. “I know every player will not be all-state, but their experience can still be great. I hope they remember the life lessons that football teaches and know that they have a place they can call home, a place where they are cared for.”

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Coach PritchettCoach Pritchett in High School

Craig Pritchett

Ridgeland High School

When Craig Pritchett reflects on the future of the Ridgeland High School football team, he is full of optimism. Pritchett played as a linebacker and offensive guard for the Ridgeland Panthers in the late 90s and was fortunate enough to be a member of a playoff team each year he was in high school. While the Panthers are not currently leading the pack when it comes to district finishes, Pritchett can feel the tide turning and knows that it’s just a matter of time until they are a playoff program once again.

“We’re in a different era of football. The program has changed with the times and is looking to get back to its winning ways,” says Pritchett. “We are working to establish a culture built on believing in something greater and get back to the physical brand of football Ridgeland has been known for in the past.”

In the off-season, Pritchett has been focused on improving the overall physicality of his players and ramping up not only power but also strength and speed. In contrast to the coaching staff when he was in high school, Pritchett notes that his current staff is relatively young, but they bring with them an energy that is being matched by the players.

“Ridgeland is full of kids that have overcome a lot of adversity and are really resilient. We are looking to tap into and unleash that power,” he says.

In his second year as head coach, Pritchett has just as much school pride today as he did when he was attending Ridgeland, and that very pride continues to give him the gumption to show up day in and day out for those that depend on him.

“I cherish the relationships that I am able to build with other coaches, players, and students, but finding the time to balance all the things that come with being a head coach can be a huge challenge,” says Pritchett. “That being said, I have a lot of pride in Ridgeland High School, and it’s easier for me to do the extra things that are needed right now because I see the program getting back on its feet and being one of the premier places to play in the area.”

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Coach PotterCoach Potter in High School

Ralph Potter

McCallie School

The Potter name is synonymous with McCallie football. Head coach Ralph Potter has been at the helm for 22 years and even served as the team’s quarterback and free safety when he attended the school in the late 70s and early 80s. But the long-lasting football legacy doesn’t stop there. Potter’s father, Pete, also coached the McCallie team from 1973 to 1993 and was Potter’s head coach during his stint as a player.

“When you’ve been at the same place for 50 years, life starts to get a richness to it,” says Potter. “I think part of why we have been so successful is because McCallie as a school mirrors the philosophy that my dad and I have had for the football program.”

Given the lengthy history with the school, Potter is more than qualified to help McCallie’s young men learn the game and a few extra life lessons along the way. Over the years, Potter notes that the game of football has gotten more complex, but that training programs have answered the call. Not only has training itself improved, but ancillary elements such as medical resources and support staff have also grown leaps and bounds and continue to play a large role in McCallie’s successes.

When reflecting on the more than two decades as head coach, Potter cites the relationships he’s built and a love for the game that he’s been able to foster as some of his proudest moments.

“I love the relationships that I have been able to create as a result of my job. I also really love the pure coaching part – the process of having an idea in your mind and then placing it into the minds of players so they embody your concept,” he says. “The challenge has been to constantly change and adjust everything in the program. You really have to pay attention.”

For Potter, there are always opportunities for improvement. As a coach, he is consistently working on his weaknesses while playing to his strengths and encourages his players to do the same.

“Our objective is to win a state championship every year,” says Potter. “In committing to that, each player and coach must learn to give up himself out of love to accomplish our objective. It is in this giving that our deeper purpose can be reached.”

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Coach FloydCoach Floyd in High School

Damon Floyd

Bradley Central High School

For Damon Floyd, coaching the Bradley Central Bears is just as much about preparing players for life after high school as it is winning games. Floyd played for the Bears himself as a running back and defensive back in the mid-90s, and while some things have changed, he notes that the dedication to the program has been unwavering all this time.

“When I was in high school our coaching staff was really intelligent and embodied hardnose discipline,” says Floyd. “Today we aim to instill that same level of discipline, and the individuals I have coaching by my side are hardworking men of character.”

In addition to teaching practical skills of the game and serving as role models, Floyd and the other Bradley Central coaches hope that every player leaving their program will remember to always practice what they preach and leave high school knowing how to hold themselves accountable.

“Our goal as a team is to win every rep whether that’s on the field, in the classroom, or in the weight room,” says Floyd. “There is always adversity after a player goes through our program, and we just hope that their time on the team means they are more equipped to handle it.”

When asked about why he loves to coach, Floyd says that it’s incredibly rewarding to be a part of a team and to have the opportunity to continually build relationships with his players and others in the community. “The hard part? Well, that would be the budget. It’s one of our biggest challenges as a program,” he says.

Floyd does feel that having familiarity with the school gives him a leg up, however. Being an alumnus of Bradley Central means that he sets out every day to continue the rich tradition and school pride that came before him, and that is what gives him the energy to tackle challenges head-on.

“At Bradley Central, we try to focus on ourselves and not be concerned with other programs,” adds Floyd. “Each year we just try to improve on every aspect of our own program and results will follow.”

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Coach CarpenterCoach Carpenter in High School

Kit Carpenter

Dalton High School

For Kit Carpenter, leading the Dalton Catamounts isn’t about reinventing the wheel or rehauling the program. In fact, Carpenter’s goal is quite the opposite. As a linebacker for Dalton in the late 80s and early 90s, he remembers first and foremost who his coaches were as people and the impact they had on him and his teammates.

“When I played, the coaching staff was about relationships,” he explains. “They had a great knowledge of the game, but they could get the best out of us because of our relationships. We are working to continue that same style of coaching with our current staff.”

Now in his third year as head coach, Carpenter is focusing on showing up for his players and perpetuating the lessons football taught him as a young man – discipline, accountability, sacrifice, commitment, and heart. While these core values of the Dalton program have been unwavering for decades, Carpenter does note the game looks a little different than it once did.

“The rules that govern practice have changed a great deal, and that has taken away from some of the traditions, such as camp, that we have enjoyed over the years,” he says.

But for every tradition that has changed, there is one that has remained the same, and that gives Carpenter a leg up. “Having familiarity with the traditions and expectations has impacted me because I have the same expectations that have always been a part of Dalton football, regardless of the situation.”

This consistency in culture, coaching, and expectations lets Dalton’s players focus less on the inner workings of team life and more on executing the challenge at hand.

When asked what he loves most about coaching, Carpenter emphasizes how rewarding it can be to help guide young players.

“These days, one of our top challenges is developing young men into football players while they have so many distractions going on around them, but to see them grow is the definition of success for me,” says Carpenter. “I really love being involved with the game, and there’s no better feeling than to see the look in our kids’ eyes when they are successful.”

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Coach StephensonCoach Stephenson in High School

Rocky Stephenson

Whitwell High School

If you were to ask Rocky Stephenson about his coaching style, he’d likely tell you that it’s a culmination of everyone who has influenced his life over the years.

“I have worked with and played for a lot of good coaches, and I have taken something from all of them,” says Stephenson, Whitwell High School’s head football coach for three years running. “One trait that they have all shared was the ability to work through adversity.”

Not only does Stephenson aim to work through challenges and adversity that he faces as a head coach; he tries to instill a similar skill set in his players as well.

Stephenson was a Whitwell Tiger himself in the late 80s and served his team as a running back and corner. While he notes the Whitwell brand of football hasn’t changed much throughout the years, the rules governing the game have. Even then, Stephenson says the key to success has been and always will be hard work.

“There are no shortcuts to success. Football has taught me to set a goal and work hard to reach it,” he adds. “I hope that our players learn to never give up, and I want to see them succeed in all aspects of life including in the classroom and in athletics.”

In order to help players reach their full potential both on the field and off, Stephenson has surrounded himself with a tight-knit coaching staff. These coaches are varied in their approach but they all care deeply for the kids – something that is one of Stephenson’s chief motivators for being a head coach.

“I enjoy being a leader and teaching life lessons that impact people in a positive way,” says Stephenson. “I hope the kids that play for me feel as though I always treated them with respect and know that I care about them.”

While Stephenson undoubtedly enjoys being able to positively impact players and even fellow coaches, he is quick to admit that his love for the game is just as strong.

“There’s nothing quite like the excitement I feel on a game day,” he says. “I just try to enjoy each and every opportunity I get to run out on the field with my players on Friday nights.”

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Coach GatewoodCoach Gatewood in High School

Ted Gatewood

Red Bank High School

Every time Ted Gatewood steps out on the field as Red Bank High School’s head football coach, it is somewhat of a familiar experience. Gatewood played football himself at Red Bank from 1981 to 1983 and was on the roster as a center, defensive tackle, and long snapper. But he isn’t alone in this feat. Gatewood enters the 2023 season coaching alongside four other alumni, as well as other talented coaches.

“Red Bank football has changed very little since I was a player here. The expectations have been kept intact throughout the years by the coaches that have been at the helm,” says Gatewood. “My head coach, Coach Weathers, established our program as one that is fundamentally sound on defense and always comes to compete, and I think we’ve continued that.”

To prepare his players to show up week after week, Gatewood has a holistic approach focusing on both the individual and the team rather than one or the other.  “I think what I love most about coaching is having the opportunity to see the development and progress each individual is able to make while working to achieve a larger, common goal,” says Gatewood.

A sense of teamwork is one of the most important life lessons football has to offer, but he notes that his players are able to glean so much more from their Red Bank experience. Being a part of a larger team also teaches players how to control emotions, set goals, address adversity, and build relationships – something Gatewood is now experiencing the benefits of firsthand.

“Being at Red Bank and living in the community has been such a blessing,” he says. “Having grown up here and knowing the pride that former players and coaches have instilled in the school, the program, and the community adds extra incentive in preparing our team each year.”

While the players are hard at work preparing for the upcoming season, Gatewood too is doing a little introspection.

“As a coach, I feel that I need to do a better job of valuing the moments we have to make positive impacts on the young lives that we are entrusted with. We need to emphasize the small successes,” he says. “My hope has always been that players understand that I care about them as human beings and that their experiences are going to help them develop in their life journey.”

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Coach MaffettCoach Maffett in High School

Dedric Maffett

The Howard School

Dedric Maffett will be the first to tell you the game of football looks a lot different than it once did. A tight end, linebacker, and kicker for the Howard Hustlin’ Tigers in the early 90s, Maffett says that technology has had an impact on football programs across the nation – both good and bad.

“Technology has been helpful for the game but a hurtful challenge to participation. It has assisted with being recruited and how teams exchange film,” he says. “On the other hand, the transfer portal has made it difficult to acquire athletic scholarships, and kids have so many competing priorities.”

One thing that hasn’t changed however is the goal to teach students skills that go beyond the field and can be used to overcome other adversities in life.

“When I was in school coaches were loyal to the sport, players, and school. They coached and mentored, while focusing on teaching both life and football skills,” says Maffett. “We actually do the same and concentrate on developing kids on the field while preparing them for life. Our desire is for our kids to be college graduates, great husbands, fathers, and productive citizens in our community.”

It is Maffett’s hope that not only will his players give back to the community long after they’ve graduated, but he also hopes that the community will continue to show up and support his players as they take to the field every Friday night.

“When you coach high schoolers you have to remember that they are still kids that can make some poor decisions. Still, they deserve to have support and reassurance that they will be encouraged and loved no matter if they win or lose,” adds Maffett. “I would like to see more people in the stands at our games.  These kids could be doing anything else, but they have chosen to represent The Howard School.”

Looking back on his favorite moment from being head coach, Maffett really enjoys watching his players reach their full potential. Earlier this year, three Howard players received scholarships, and Maffett hopes for that to become a regular occurrence.

“Coaching here means a lot to me! I want to be an advocate for my players and students when they do not have a voice,” says Maffett. “I hope my players leave the program thinking that I was firm but fair and knowing they could trust and depend on me for anything. Ultimately, I hope they know that I cared about their future…and remember the funny things I said.”

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