RINGGOLD, Ga. — Robert Akins can't help but snicker a bit when asked about retirement.
When you've been a head football coach for more than four decades, he figures it comes with the territory. After Ringgold went 0-10 last season, though, he heard the rumors often ... and still snickered each time.
"Every year they say I'm retiring, and to be honest, I don't know that I can see retirement right now," Akins said after a team workout this week. "Now, it may get to where I don't have a choice, but there is still so much I love about the profession that I don't want to give it up."
The 2019 Tigers were expected to make a run at a playoff berth out of GHSA Region 6-AAA, but an insane amount of injuries — 32 players missed at least one game — turned their season into one of survival. Though difficult to go through, Akins insists he and the players are better off because of it.
"I've seen this team motivated unlike most teams I've coached," he said, "and going 0-10 has a lot to do with it. If you are competitive at all, that is motivation. To me, it was gratifying because the kids who were healthy and the ones who came back played hard every snap. As a coach, you always want to know how kids are going to respond to that type of adversity."
Things got so bad that during a midseason game against Murray County, seven of the 11 offensive players on the field for the Tigers were freshmen or sophomores. The Tigers lost 17-16 in overtime.
"It was really difficult because it was out of our hands pretty much," Akins said. "We were struggling to find out who could play every week. The saying is for every sophomore you start, you have a loss, and last year we had a whole field of them."
One of the injured Tigers was quarterback/safety Kyle White, who as a sophomore was sidelined twice with injuries. His father, defensive coordinator Houston White, wasn't surprised Akins was able to keep the team together.
"It was rough in that we were going to a gunfight with a spork," Coach White said. "The thing is, when you are winning, everything is good. Now, when you lose, that's when it gets tough, but Robert stepped in and was a great leader. He was able to teach them how to persevere and keep plugging away. Those are the things you have to learn in life."
The 2019 season wasn't Akins' first winless campaign as a head coach. The first, while at Harding Academy, nearly ended his career.
It ended up being the most important season of his life.
"We were the smallest school playing in Double-A when there were only three classes in Tennessee," Akins recalled. "The kids played hard and we had some injuries, but we just couldn't break through. The last game we played in Memphis, and after we lost I was picking up the water cooler, and Greg Stewart, a player who is now a doctor in Johnson City, was waiting on me.
"I walked to the end zone and he said, 'Coach, I hope you know you changed my life. I saw you work every game harder and harder to get us ready, and I learned more about life from that than anything.' I was about to give up on coaching, but that moment showed me the influence I could have. And, to be perfectly honest, they have influenced me as much as I have them."
Even in high school, though, wins and losses are quite often the bottom line. During his time as coach at Chattanooga private school Boyd Buchanan, Akins led the Buccaneers to three straight state title games (2002-04), including a win in the second one.
He took over at Ringgold before the 2007 season and has led the Tigers to the playoffs seven times (reaching the semifinals in 2013), but despite the injury outbreak last year, there was talk in the community of change after the 0-10 finish.
Houston White was relieved nothing came of it, more so as a father than an employee.
"I care about how Robert leads Kyle as a man," he said. "Having my son play for him as a head coach ... I wouldn't choose anybody else to do it."