Turning the Tide
By Mac Trammell
The Fayette-Ware High School football program is not one of wealth, prestige or talent. On the contrary, it has historically been a program diagnosed with an epidemic of losses, disappointment and shame. Students avoid trying out for the football team for fear of being ridiculed at school. The program has even been deemed a “building project.”
It had been seven years since the Wildcats won a football game. The last class that witnessed the most recent Wildcats’ win had grown up, graduated and left with three more years of losing yet to come.
Fayette-Ware officials decided last summer to hire as both head football coach and athletic director (and also as a science teacher) Randal Griffith, who successfully coached at Macon Road Baptist School and Bolton High School before that. Griffith came into the culture of losing at FWHS and decided to change things.
The team’s goal last season was to win one game. Just one. The team met its goal by defeating Middle College High School 34-6 on Oct. 10. It was the team’s lone win last season, and, for at least one of its players, the first win he had ever experienced on a football field in his life.
Griffith recently explained that in order to move forward, the program had to get the monkey off its back.
“It was difficult to get kids to believe in themselves and get classmates to support them,” he said.
It also did not help that previous coaches scheduled games against teams that were greatly superior, but that would also pay the program to play them.
“I was able to make my own schedule this year,” Griffith said. “Last year, I inherited the schedule. Last year, most of our non-district opponents paid us to play them, and they were teams we could not compete with. But the school needed the money to buy essentials for the team.
“It was just disheartening to see that wins and losses weren’t as important as the money,” he continued. “When kids don’t have a whole lot of self-esteem or people that believe in them, and then you would virtually guarantee yourself a loss for $2,500…I refused to make that trade-off this year.”
Instead, Griffith has gone into the community in search of funding. He’s visited the Chamber of Commerce and local business owners, and the team’s held fundraisers. Some generous donors and the school board allowed the school to install new sod and an irrigation system onto the field. Immediately, the field went from being an eyesore to a respectable playing surface.
The community outreach has been hard, Griffith said, but he believes Fayette County truly wants to see the team succeed. It wants to see the building project finally get off the ground.
He has high hopes himself. He said he’d be disappointed if the team didn’t win at least five games this upcoming season, clearly a much taller order than last season’s goal of just one game. That one win though gave the team a hunger for victory.
“They know how to win, they know what it feels like to win,” he said. “They’re hungry for that feeling again. They bought into how hard they have to work to compete in this very tough district. They know how much stronger other teams are, they know what other teams have to work with as far as equipment, facilities, staffing, all of those things that are challenges for us. Yet they still stick it out.”
Griffith made it a point to laud the work ethic of his team, even though it does not have the resources many other programs get to enjoy.
“These kids work harder than any other kids I’ve coached,” he said. “They have so many obstacles to overcome, and yet they place such an emphasis on being the best that they can be for me or for the other coaches.”
He went on to explain the state of the program and the lack of facilities.
“The program is very poor,” he said. “They don’t have basic tackling dummies or blocking dummies, anything like that. We have to do that all ourselves. We have to improvise.”
Improvisation is nothing new to Griffith though. He’s built multiple teams up from scratch to the heights of Tennessee football power.
But long before all that, he earned his degree in biology from Samford University and went on to receive a degree in nuclear medicine at medical school. After a stint at Park Avenue Diagnostic Center, he decided to move on from medicine.
“It was just boring,” he said of the work. “It was the wrong profession for me because it was just in a dark room all day, basically by yourself, reading x-rays, looking at scans and hardly any patient interaction.”
He left the medical profession and entered the mission field. When he finished, he decided to coach and teach full time.
He coached the eighth grade team at Bolton for six years while part-timing as youth minister at Ellendale Baptist Church. He then approached the principal at Bolton, asking what it took to become a teacher. The principal responded, “you’re hired.”
So, Griffith got his masters in teaching from the University of Memphis and began to move up the coaching ranks for the Wildcats. He became the head coach of the freshman team for two years, then moved to the varsity squad where he eventually worked his way up to the offensive coordinator position. In his final season at Bolton the team went 11-2 and made it to the second round of the state tournament.
He then decided to make the move to Macon Road where he became the program’s first head coach. Since the program was newly minted, the team only fielded an eight-man squad and went 1-9 in its first season. Griffith stuck it out for seven years there. In his final year, the team went 9-0 and won a state championship. The following season it moved to 11-man football.
But at Macon Road, Griffith sensed that there were less chances for growth and responsibility, chances which he desired.
“There were no opportunities for advancement at Macon Road,” he said. “I’m getting older. I want to be an administrator. In a small school like that, there just weren’t any opportunities, if I stayed there long-term, to become an administrator. And that opportunity was here. They immediately made me the athletic director and head football coach. So I took advantage.”
He thought briefly about the switch and said, “I had everything in the world and was a defending state champion and left to come to…” he trailed off, laughing to himself.
But Griffith said he is familiar with the conditions he has encountered at Fayette-Ware.
“It’s not any different from where I came,” he said. “At Bolton, I inherited a team that was 1-9 and 0-10 before I went there, and we built that into, my last year, going into the second round of the state playoffs. We were 11-2.
“And then at Macon Road,” he continued, “we went from a team that did not exist to state champions. So, I just consider it another building project.”
Griffith seems to enjoy building projects, and Fayette-Ware is no exception. With loftier goals this season and a hard-working, dedicated team, Griffith explained what it is that he enjoys most about his “building projects.”
“I like to make a difference in people’s lives,” he concluded. “It gives me great satisfaction.”
About Graham Sweeney
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