RINGGOLD, Ga. - How does a football program go from complete obscurity on a state level to perhaps the year's biggest story? It's a question Robert Akins has been asked a lot over the past week, and though the veteran coach of nearly four decades has a few ideas, he's been around long enough to know there is no magic formula.
Until Ringgold's magical run to tonight's GHSA Class AAA semifinal game at Washington County, the Tigers were known on a state level as that "tornado team" that was displaced for a year after its stadium was destroyed in 2011. The Georgia High School Football Historians list the Catoosa County school as having first played football in 1934 and having played annually since 1949.
Numbers can be twisted to say a lot of things, but these figures don't lie: The Tigers have posted winning seasons in 20 of 63 years, and they have had 16 seasons with two or fewer wins. Before earning 11 wins this year, the most successful Ringgold team was Don Patterson's 9-2 1989 team that lost on a late field goal to Cedartown in the first round of the playoffs.
The most obvious ingredient in 2013 is talent. The Tigers are blessed with star power in senior quarterback Slade Dale, who has eclipsed the 3,000-yard total-offense mark this year, and terrific complements in guys such as Kile Sholl, D.L. Goins, Christian Plott and Zach Morris.
"It's been a perfect storm," said Sholl's father, Ringgold Middle School principal Mike Sholl. "I'll be honest, when my son was in the seventh grade and the current seniors were in the eighth grade I felt this could be a special year. Now, I never thought they would do what they've done, but when Slade moved in halfway through his eighth-grade year, you could tell we had something special. We've always had good linemen here, but now we had some special athletes."
Akins, in his seventh season at Ringgold, agrees that talent is the biggest key but said a change in attitude is the intangible that has made the difference from a good team to one that's made school history.
"There was so much negativity associated with the program when I came in, and we're not talking just outside the school," Akins said. "When I would talk about winning a region championship and having playoff success, some of my football players would snicker, and I thought that was strange. How could it happen if the kids didn't believe it was possible?"
The coach calls the attitude turnaround a direct result of earning the most valuable teaching intangible: trust.
"You can tell the kids all day what they need to do to get to this point,," Akins said, "but eventually they have to trust you enough to believe it and follow your lead. We've had a vision since I came here of what the program could be, but, believe me, it wasn't my coaching that got us to this point. The perseverance and hard work of everyone involved helped see it through."
While Akins downplays the X's and O's aspect, others aren't quite so dismissive. While Ringgold has had excellent head coaches in such men as Lamar Brown, Sean Gray and the legendary Patterson, Akins has put together a staff with, as he calls it, one vision. The results have been, according to a longtime Tiger, very noticeable.
"This is a real good staff, and I think it's the first one that has just football coaches on it," said David Crownover, a current baseball assistant coach who also has coached football in his 23 years at the school. "That's a big deal because we've always had two or three coaches who were coaches in another sport, and you can't devote all your time to football if you're having to also coaching something else.
"Robert has had success before he came here, and the kids know that. He has brought out the confidence in them and gotten them over the hump. Sometimes that's the hardest thing to do."
As for the players, there will come a day when they get to celebrate what they've accomplished, but to a man they say the job isn't finished.
"We're happy to be where we are," said Dale, a University of Georgia baseball signee who will play his last football game either tonight or next week in the Georgia Dome, "but we've got a football game to win. That's all we care about right now. The rest of the stuff can wait."
The community is enjoying its first taste of playoff success, though, like the team, it's a learning process.
"It's funny," Mike Sholl said, "I was driving in front of Ingle's the other day and there is a sign on their marquee that says, 'Go Tigers.' We've never seen things like that here. These kids are rock stars in Ringgold right now, but they really don't seem to care about the personal glory. I've had people coming up to me that I haven't seen in 10 years congratulating me on my son's play, and it's such a neat thing to see how much everybody loves this team.
"I told Kile that someday he'll realize how special this season is. The rest of us already know."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296.