Three months into this calendar year the number of head coaching changes among area prep football programs was relatively low compared with the typical annual turnover.
Then came mid-March, a time normally reserved for making spring practice plans but instead marked the start of a whirlwind of coaching changes locally. Over a 50-day stretch from late March through late May, eight area programs went through a head coaching change, with five of those happening so late that it prevented the teams from being able to conduct spring practice.
"The timing of it is the only bad thing. Just the fact that we're already past spring practice and play in a couple of months, so there's not as much time as you'd like to get in there and start working," said Matt Moody, the former Bradley Central offensive coordinator who was hired just last week to take over at McMinn Central. "School is already out so we'll have to do everything — learn names, evaluate players, install offense and defense — as we go and there's not much time to do all that and get ready.
"But what I learned at Bradley is you build your program on having strong relationships, so that's the most important thing for us to start doing."
Since the end of the 2020 season, 11 area programs have made head coaching changes.
The only common theme among the coaches who chose to resign later in the spring was an admission that the experience of living through a pandemic caused them to want to step away from the amount of time required for a head coach to spend overseeing a program, and spend more of that time with family.
"It's the toughest decision I've ever had to make, but the pandemic has done some things mentally to a lot of us and I just feel like it's time to hit the reset button and step away," said John Starr who stepped down at Howard after five seasons in late May.
The coaching carousel wasn't only relegated to the Chattanooga area. On May 21 there were still 14 head coaching vacancies statewide, including two — Howard and Sequatchie County — area programs that have yet to name a new head coach. The Indians are expected to make a hire as early as this week, while Howard has longtime assistant James Talley, as well as Troy Boeck who has previous head coaching experience at other programs, overseeing its offseason workouts.
No other program experienced the game of musical chairs more than Tyner, which for 30 years had been the model of coaching consistency under Wayne Turner, who guided the Rams to 27 playoff appearances and three trips to the state championship game including a title in 1997. After Turner resigned at the end of last season, Tyrus Ward took over in late February but then resigned in April and eventually joined the UTC staff.
Scott Chandler, who had stepped down at Ooltewah last season after three years there, was chosen to take over at Tyner in late May and admitted the timing would affect the process of preparing for the coming season.
"We're three weeks behind getting to know the kids, so the relationship factor is bigger than the on-field football stuff to me," Chandler said when he was hired. "But we'll get busy working with the kids right away and we'll get there."
Three teams — Brainerd, Grundy County and Ooltewah — brought back former head coaches for a second stint with their programs, where each guided those teams to playoff appearances. Rhea County's staff added two of the men — McMinn Central's Derrick Davis and Sequatchie County's Mark Wattenbarger — who decided to give up their head coaching duties to become assistants.
Two of the three teams in Marion County, a traditionally strong area for prep football success, also made changes as South Pittsburg and Whitwell each brought in alumni to take over. Rocky Stephenson, a former all-state multi-sport athlete at Whitwell, became the Tigers 11th head coach in the past 17 seasons, while Chris Jones, who had spent the previous 17 years coaching professionally in either the Canadian Football League or NFL, returned home to take the reigns at South Pittsburg.
Consistency is the foundation for any successful program and the Pirates, who have reached at least the semifinal round in 15 of the past 30 years, are proof of that as Jones became only the program's sixth head coach in the past 61 years.
"We're behind where most other teams are because we're getting such a late start," said new Brainerd coach Stanley Jackson. "Most of the teams you see that contend every year are the ones that keep the same head coach for a while and they're the ones who build strong programs. That's what we're trying to build here, that consistency so the expectation is to compete with the best teams every year."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.