Hamilton County officials say poor facilities, small coaching ranks mean few state titles for area public schools

Staff Photo by Stephen Hargis / Brainerd High School strength and conditioning coach Cortez Mosby oversees the football team's morning workouts inside their weight room.
Staff Photo by Stephen Hargis / Brainerd High School strength and conditioning coach Cortez Mosby oversees the football team's morning workouts inside their weight room.


When the high school football season began last week, the goal for the more than 300 teams across Tennessee was to make their way to Chattanooga in December, where the BlueCross Bowl state championship games are played.

But if the lack of success over the past two decades is an indication, it is highly unlikely that one of Hamilton County's 13 public school teams will reach the pinnacle of prep football and make the trip to Finley Stadium.

That's because public schools in Hamilton County simply cannot compete at the highest level.

"We're so far behind the rest of the state across the board in athletics that it's a joke," said former Soddy-Daisy High School principal and athletic director Steve Henry, who recently retired after more than three decades in education and coaching. "It all comes down to priorities. Do the people in Hamilton County really care about athletics for the kids? Right now the answer is easy. That answer is absolutely not."

A top school district administrator doesn't disagree.

Robert Sharpe, chief operations officer for Hamilton County Schools, said it is reasonable to question whether athletic needs are a priority.

"Athletics is a big piece of the whole educational picture that we have not paid enough attention to," said Sharpe, who spent 30 years in public education, including as assistant principal at Brainerd High and principal at Central High. "It's something that has been neglected."

Extracurricular activities, whether music, theater, arts or athletics, are critical to overall student development, he said.

"We have kids who come in laser-focused solely on academics, and we want to provide what's needed for them to achieve their goals," he said. "We also invest in our students interested in the performing and creative arts, so it's only fair that we should address our athletic needs so that the kids in our county can compete on the same level as those outside our county."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, a 1973 Hixson High graduate who played basketball and football and ran track in high school, said he understands the frustration over athletic facility needs. However, the local school system must first address the academic necessities that are also lacking.

"Speaking as a former athlete who appreciates the value of how being a part of a team can mold young people, the responsibility of our county schools is to make sure we're educating our kids to prepare them for future careers," Coppinger said. "It's not that the people in elected positions don't recognize the need, and nobody wants it to be an either/or situation, but you only have so much revenue to work with, so you have to prioritize which expenditures you can address.

"We want to give our local athletes every opportunity to excel on the field, but we also need to ensure they can excel in the classroom first."

The Chattanooga Times Free Press spoke with 27 Hamilton County coaches and athletic directors for this story. Across the board, they said the competitive gap between Hamilton County athletic programs and those in other districts -- particularly in football and basketball -- can be attributed to two primary issues:

-- Condition of athletic facilities.

-- Limited coaching stipends.

STATE OF PLAY

Hamilton County teams are in their longest championship drought in football and basketball since the TSSAA began its three classification system in 1976.

It has been 12 years since a county public school -- Signal Mountain in Class 2A -- won a football state championship. No county football program has played for a title in any of the state's four largest classifications since Red Bank High School in 2000.

Of the state's 21 most populated counties, only Hamblen County (Morristown) -- which has 300,000 fewer residents and just four public high schools -- has gone longer without producing a state champion in either football or basketball.

By comparison, Rutherford County (Murfreesboro), which is closest to Hamilton County in overall population and number of registered public school students but has four fewer football-playing high schools, has had 11 teams compete for state titles over the same time frame.

"I know people in Chattanooga think we're a football area, but we aren't fully invested," Signal Mountain football coach Josh Roberts said. "You go anywhere outside our county and compare the resources other schools provide for their athletic teams, and you'll see pretty quickly that we aren't really serious about athletics the way the rest of the state is."

The landscape is even bleaker in basketball, where the Brainerd boys (1992) and girls (1984) programs are the last public-school teams from the county to win state championships.

In the last 10 boys basketball seasons, county teams are a combined 5-16 when facing state-tournament competition. The numbers are far worse in girls basketball, where only two teams -- Lookout Valley (2000) and Arts & Sciences (2010), both in Class 1A -- have even reached the eight-team state tournament in the past 21 seasons.

"Basketball feels irrelevant in this town," Red Bank boys coach Nick Fike said. "People here talk about hoping to just get to the state tournament. Nobody talks about winning it. You know that once you get out of this area you'll run into schools that are a lot more serious about developing their athletes."

FACILITY WOES

In March of 2020, MGT Consulting determined that more than half of Hamilton County's school buildings, whose average age is 40 years old, were rated "fair" or "unsatisfactory."

From buildings with structural concerns to schools lacking the necessary components to support new technology, the findings reported that county schools face a $1.36 billion deficit in deferred maintenance.

That figure does not include school athletic facilities, other than gymnasiums.

But the county is chipping away at addressing school facility shortcomings -- including attention to athletic needs.

"There has been a concerted effort by Hamilton County schools to begin to address facility and athletic needs, and the proof is that the school system has spent somewhere around $20 million over the past five years for upgrades or new facilities," said Tim James, the district's new athletic director.

There have been 22 projects completed to improve facilities over the past five years, including track renovations at six schools, replacing gym floors or bleachers at five schools as well as building new football stadiums at The Howard School and Sale Creek.

"There is a commitment toward athletics, and I don't see it stalling for the future," James said. "It is understood that athletics is part of the overall education process for the students."

The task, though, is daunting, as coaches agree that upgrades to weight rooms and locker rooms, stadiums and gyms, plus mowers for field maintenance and the overall playing conditions of football/soccer fields, track surfaces and gym floors are needed.

Brainerd's athletic teams share a cramped 945-square-foot weight room with four stations to use for either bench press or squats. Most of the weights were donated by private schools after they had purchased new equipment themselves.

"We're greatly limited in what we can do with our weight program because the space is so small and we just don't have all the equipment we need," Brainerd coach Martels Carter said. Athletes work out in shifts as a result.

Although East Ridge recently opened a new 6,000-square-foot football locker room and weight facility, new head coach Chad Barger said he uses his own money to buy the gas to mow the game and practice fields twice a week because the county does not allot funds for that.

Also at East Ridge, basketball games have to be moved from the main gym -- built in 1987 -- to the old gym -- built in 1958 -- because of leaks in the roof.

"Once it starts raining just a little, I have to send a kid over to the visitors side with a towel to wipe the floor," said Pioneers boys basketball coach Tre High. "We even had to stop a district tournament game last season and move both teams and the fans to the old gym."

Locker room showers don't work, and half the time the air conditioning and heat don't work either, he said.

"So it's either freezing cold in winter or burning up during summer practices," he said. "It's embarrassing."

Hamilton is the state's only metro county that does not have a public school football field with artificial turf. Meanwhile, all 19 Knox County public schools have artificial turf and all but three of Rutherford County's 10 high schools play on the synthetic surface.

Artificial turf fields come with a price tag of more than $500,000 to install. Besides less maintenance (and therefore cost) required, artificial surfaces now come with a protective padding beneath the field to reduce the risk of concussion.

Once turf is installed, there is also no longer a limit on how much it can be used -- besides football practice and games, soccer teams, school bands, middle school and youth teams can all use them for practice without the concern of creating bare spots or ruts by killing the grass with foot traffic.

Neighboring teams in Rhea County and Sequatchie County, as well as all three schools in Bradley County, play on artificial turf. So do five of the seven local private schools, plus eight of 19 Northwest Georgia teams.

"Nine of our 13 games last year were played on artificial turf," said Rhea County football coach Mark Pemberton, whose program has had a turf field for 10 years. "Pretty much the only time we ever play on real grass anymore is when we go to a Hamilton County school."

Rhea County also opened a new indoor PE facility in June, complete with batting cages for the baseball and softball teams and a 45-yard turf field that the football and soccer teams can use during inclement weather.

"It's getting to where you have to have things like this if you're going to be competitive on the field and just to keep kids in your program," Pemberton added.

On the horizon, Tyner High School coaches and students have reason for optimism as a new middle and high school is scheduled to be completed by August 2024. The project, with a price tag of around $70 million to demolish old structures and build new ones, includes a new gymnasium and, one year after the school opens, a new football stadium complete with artificial turf.

"The successful programs outside of Hamilton County aren't taking away from academics. They're just putting more into athletics because they understand that's all part of the whole school experience," Signal Mountain's Roberts said.

Across the border, Northwest Georgia schools have benefited greatly from the state's SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax), a 1-cent sales tax approved by county voters to be used for specific capital improvement projects, including athletic facilities and other educational needs.

OUTMANNED

The second issue Hamilton County faces with its athletic programs is the lack of stipends to bolster coaching ranks.

"Kids perform better academically when teachers are able to have more individual interaction," Central football coach Curt Jones said. "The same is true for athletes. Right now, teams like us, Ooltewah and Soddy-Daisy have 80 or 90 players on the roster, but we're only allowed to have the same number of paid assistants as small schools like Lookout Valley and Sale Creek, who have half that number."

That means their athletes aren't getting much one-on-one instruction, he said.

"Honestly, it can become a safety concern," he said.

When compared to most other counties statewide, Hamilton County is an outlier in that it forbids booster clubs from helping pay coaching stipends or fund facility improvements at individual schools.

Hamilton County allows football teams to have four paid assistants -- each receiving a 15% supplement of their base teaching salary -- while basketball gets one paid assistant making an 8% supplement.

While those supplements are competitive with other counties, what creates a coaching disparity is the fact that most other school systems allow head coaches to break up the total allotment of supplements as they see fit for their staff and also allow school booster clubs to help pay for additional coaching supplements.

For example, the Rutherford County school system allows for five 12% supplements, which can be split up however the head coaches determines. The booster clubs can then fund additional coaches, which means, similar to most other counties across the state, teams in Rutherford County can afford to have from 12 to 15 paid assistants per football staff and three to four in basketball.

Kevin Creasy -- who has compiled a 96-6 overall record in seven seasons at Murfreesboro's Oakland High School, including three Class 6A state championships in the past four seasons and a 30-game winning streak heading into this fall -- employs 15 paid assistants.

"Nothing is more valuable to people than their time, so if they're going to be working on our staff, we make sure we get everyone paid," said Creasy, whose team also has had a full-time strength coach on staff since he took over.

"Booster clubs are the only way to make sure we stay competitive with our coaches' pay."

According to Hamilton County school administrators, the rationale behind the rule to ban individual booster clubs from contributing to coaching salaries and facility upgrades is to promote equality among each school's athletic programs.

"I understand the logic of the original thought," Hamilton County athletic director James said. "If School A has boosters with more money and can afford more bells and whistles, it can create an uneven playing field within the county's schools."

But local coaches -- who said they have previously had community members willing to help fund improvements -- have raised the question of whether it's fair and equitable if the rule forces kids at public schools to not have access to enhanced resources that could help in their athletic development.

"Once you get to the state playoffs, you notice a huge difference in how much more physically developed players are from other areas," said Tyner boys basketball coach E'Jay Ward, who has averaged 22 wins per season since taking over the program in 2017.

Ward has guided the Rams to four consecutive district titles and two state tournament appearances but feels overwhelmed when competing against the state's best teams.

"That's because our schools don't have the same type of facilities for kids to train in or the amount of individual coaching," he said. "I hate it for the kids because they all want to be developed so they can have a chance to compete at the highest level and even earn a college scholarship."

Said Signal Mountain's Roberts, "When you travel to other schools for a game and see their facilities, and then look across the field and see they have 12 or 15 coaches and we're only allowed to have four paid assistants, that's pretty daunting.

"You definitely feel like you're fighting a battle with one arm tied behind your back. It's not a fair fight," he noted. "I've even heard our kids talk about it after a road trip. You just sort of realize how far behind our whole county is in every way."

The last Hamilton County public schools state champion for each TSSAA sanctioned sport

Baseball: Central (1987)

Boys’ basketball: Brainerd (1992)

Girls’ basketball: Brainerd (1984)

Bowling: Soddy-Daisy (2012)

Girls’ bowling: Hixson (2006)

Boys’ cross country: Signal Mountain (2020)

Girls’ cross country: Signal Mountain (2020)

Boys’ golf: Signal Mountain (2020)

Girls’ golf: Signal Mountain (2017)

Boys’ soccer: Never

Girls’ soccer: Signal Mountain (2020)

Softball: Soddy-Daisy (2012)

Boys’ tennis: Never

Girls’ tennis: Arts & Sciences (2021)

Boys’ track: Brainerd (2007)

Girls’ track: Signal Mountain (2022)

Volleyball: Signal Mountain (2010)

Wrestling team: Hixson (2014)

Wrestling duals: Signal Mountain (2022)

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.




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