CALHOUN, Ga. — When asked the secret to building a high school football dynasty, Hal Lamb can't help but chuckle a bit.
There was a time, the Calhoun coach remembers, when he was just fortunate to have a job. Few remember that Lamb was hired at Calhoun after achieving a 5-15 record in his first head job at Upson-Lee High School and that his first Calhoun team went 2-8.
"It wasn't always like this," said a smiling Lamb, whose team is in the Class AA championship game for the fifth consecutive season and today can become only the eighth school in Georgia history to complete back-to-back 15-0 seasons. "I've been very fortunate to have had such success."
Lamb refuses to use the "D" word, yet this is a dynasty he's built. Since that first season in 1999 his teams have gone 141-20, winning the state championship last year after earning four runner-up trophies. The Yellow Jackets' consecutive region winning streak stretches for six seasons.
If not for the ultimate Georgia dynasty, Buford High, Calhoun would be working on 72 consecutive wins. Buford, which the Jackets finally defeated in last year's title game, has handed Calhoun its last three losses -- the program's only defeats since the third game of the 2008 season.
There have been runs of greatness in the northwest Georgia area, most notably from Dalton and Rossville, but nothing like this.
So how did Lamb go from struggling young coach to this? It's a story of a husband and father who put his family first and who had a plan and the patience to see it through. It's also very much a "being in the right place at the right time" story.
Lamb, who played for his father Ray at Commerce High School, started thinking about Calhoun when he was an assistant coach at Cartersville in the early 1990s. It wasn't the potential of the football program that caught his attention.
"Honestly, I thought Calhoun would be a great place to raise my kids, somewhere they could get a great education and play all the sports in winning programs," Lamb said. "I told myself if that job ever came open I was going to apply for it. I felt it had the potential be a good program, but I probably didn't see this much success."
Calhoun had its share of football success before Lamb's arrival, including a three-year run under Johnny Gulledge in which it won 25 games. However, there also were seven losing seasons in the 12 years before Lamb took over.
The turnaround, which included a playoff berth in year two, did not begin with fancy schemes or fiery motivational speeches. It started by building relationships.
"I learned a lot from my dad on how to treat young men and about respect," Lamb said. "You have to get to know them and show them you care about more than just winning games. I also wanted to get to know the people in the community, starting with the middle school. To win, we had to start developing players before they got to us."
Lamb also built a talented coaching staff that has stayed mostly intact, giving the program rare stability. Guys such as line coach Dain Clark, offensive coordinator Mike Davis and defensive coordinator Ricky Ross share Lamb's focus on building relationships and have kept an open mind when it comes to adapting.
"Coach Lamb is always willing to change if it helps the team," said Davis, who teamed with Lamb to change the team's offense from the wing-T to its current high-powered spread in 2007. "We've been blessed here to also have kids that have been willing to do whatever we've asked of them. That comes with trust."
As the relationships were built, the physical work got serious. Every football team has summer workouts, but Lamb demanded more of his players than the usual.
"We knew the only way we were going to get better was to develop our players, and that process took three or four years," he said. "Those summer workouts were the single biggest reason we started winning, and while we wanted the kids to still be kids and enjoy their summer, we wanted them to give it their all when they came for the workouts."
Along with the strength and conditioning work, Calhoun players -- most not blessed with pure athletic ability -- did extensive speed training. Once training camp opened, Lamb's staff jumped right in with college-like practices, with every detail planned out and every player involved.
"People wouldn't believe our practices," said quarterback Taylor Lamb, the coach's nephew. "We don't go any longer than most teams, but we get more accomplished. I can't say enough about this coaching staff, and I can't imagine there is a better one anywhere."
As all coaches agree, success attracts those wanting to win. Calhoun went from having 40 or so players on the roster in Lamb's first year to 125 this season. Some have come from families that have moved into the Calhoun community, but most are boys who have grown up wanting to be Yellow Jackets.
There now is a standard of excellence associated with the program that permeates even into the recreational leagues.
"Our kids come into the program knowing what to expect," Hal Lamb said. "And, for the most part, they are willing to wait their time, which can be a difficult thing. Each class that comes up now doesn't want to be the one that has a bad year."
Though Lamb doesn't give himself too much credit for his program's lofty status, others are quick to praise. Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis, whose program will join Lamb's in the Georgia Dome today, said the Calhoun program is the standard by which all should strive to emulate.
"He's got Calhoun where every program wants to be," Mariakis said. "Most people don't know how hard it is to get to the championship game once, but to do it five years in a row is incredible. What I see in Hal is the same thing we've tried to do here.
"I once thought I had to have the best X's and O's guys around, but I learned we're not coaching X's and O's. We're coaching young men, and I know what Hal stands for and what he teaches those kids on and off the field. He's earned that level of respect from his players that means everything, and now they will do anything for him. That's all any coach could ever hope for."
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...