Hargis: Boyd Buchanan rebuilds rapidly with Gary Rankin as football coach

Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / In his first year at Boyd Buchanan, Tennessee prep football coaching legend Gary Rankin has the Buccaneers off to a 4-0 start while emphasizing the importance of team over individual.

Whether a turnaround was coming was never in doubt. When Boyd Buchanan made a statewide splash in February by hiring Gary Rankin — Tennessee prep football's all-time leader in wins and state championships — as coach of the Buccaneers, the only question was how quickly the effects would be felt on the field.

Despite taking over a once proud program that had suffered through four losing seasons in the past five years — with a 17-33 overall record during that span — it turns out the answer, not surprisingly, is immediately.

Not quite halfway through the regular season with Rankin overseeing things, the Bucs have already avenged a pair of 20-point losses from last year against Davidson Academy and Christian Academy of Knoxville, and Friday they'll travel across town for a key Division II-AA East Region game at Silverdale Baptist with a chance to begin a season 5-0 for the first time in seven years.

The key to the on-field improvement began with aspects that might seem insignificant, although in Rankin's disciplined formula, there's simply no such thing as an insignificant step. Or room for individualism.

During one preseason conditioning session, when multiple players showed up for workouts wearing different colored T-shirts than the team-issued blue and gray, Rankin stopped the session and, with all eyes directed at him, lectured the team on the importance of giving full attention to every detail.

"He definitely got his point across about how we're a team and even those type things matter," said senior receiver/free safety Jayden Madison. "He holds you to a different standard, and we're learning that those things can affect parts of the game like penalties and dropped passes, where you can hurt your team by a lack of focus.

"It didn't take long to understand if a meeting or practice begins at 3:30, you better not show up at 3:31. You'd better be on time, in uniform, ready to pay attention and work. We had good athletes last year, but we hurt ourselves a lot with mistakes. That's the biggest difference so far: Everybody cares about doing the little things right."

The attention to detail includes compact practice segments that last no more than 10 minutes for each drill, with no one standing around. In the hours leading up to kickoff on game days, players also know cellphones are not to be used and the locker room is expected to be as quiet as a church pew as they focus on the approaching game.

Arm or leg sleeves are also not allowed, simply because they can cause individual players to stand out from the rest of the team.

"I didn't know much about him before he came here," said receiver/defensive back Caden Johnson. "The stories I had heard didn't sound real since they were about him winning 17 state championships. But now you understand why he's won all those.

"On his first day, when he met the team, he told us, 'You're going to win now. Not later.' That stood out to me because I'm a senior and this is my last shot to win. You're willing to do whatever he says, and once we got that first win, then the next one, doing the little things to make sure we keep winning became addictive."

The on-field turnaround is following a similar set of foundational pillars as those Rankin utilized in building state championship programs at Murfreesboro Riverdale and Alcoa. Boyd Buchanan gave up an average of 44 points in six losses last year, but the current Bucs have allowed a total of 17 points through four games, including a pair of shutouts, and the run-heavy offense has helped the team average 42 points.

Seated at his desk inside the Bucs' football office earlier this week, poring over a few last-minute notes before his team made its way to the field for practice, Rankin admitted the new surroundings have reenergized him.

"I was sort of on cruise control at Alcoa and could've stayed there and continued to be really successful, but this experience — watching these kids respond to adversity and build something — has been neat for me," Rankin said. "I saw our program changing in the win at Davidson Academy. We outplayed them as the game wore on, and now we're playing good defense and our offense is protecting the defense by running the ball and taking care of the ball.

"We've come a long way already in being able to focus on the little things that help you win."

Stacked in rows on the shelves behind the legendary coach's desk are 17 glass-encased game balls, one from each of his state championship victories. His intentions at Boyd Buchanan — just how far he believes he can take the rebuilding project — are made clear by the one empty glass case on a shelf across from his desk.

"Football is the ultimate team game," Rankin said. "If players want to be different, they're probably not going to like being on our team because I'm a big believer in everyone buying into being a part of the team, and all those little things add up to decide whether you're going to be successful.

"Hopefully we'll get to put another ball in that one at some point. That would be a lot of fun to get this team to that point."

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