High school football practice is under way today, and what an intriguing bunch of coaches we have.
Call it the most intriguing bunch in years in Calhoun County.
There’s Piedmont’s Steve Smith, the reigning Class 3A coach of the year, and Oxford’s John Grass, the one-time 6A coach of the year.
Proven winners such as White Plains’ Heath Harmon, Wellborn’s Jeff Smith and Jacksonville’s Roland Houston are breathing new life into their programs.
Frank Tucker, a longtime assistant under the late Larry Ginn, is keeping Alexandria relevant.
Jeff Davis and Pleasant Valley had a tough go in 2009, but he’s taken them to the playoffs in consecutive years.
Several schools in the county have changed coaches in the past five years, the latest new faces being Anniston’s Eddie Bullock, Ohatchee’s Jason Howard and Weaver’s Daryl Hamby.
Bullock and Howard fit a growing trend of schools hiring their graduates, though Bullock hardly got any home cooking.
And here’s where we pick up intriguing coach No. 1.
1. Eddie Bullock
Bullock has a year to prove himself.
He spent 10 years as an assistant and five as a coordinator and was a finalist after a month-long search, but he has a year to prove himself.
Three members of the Anniston School Board thought it important to make the point, so they hinged their votes on tagging Bullock an interim — with a one-year deal.
Give a shout-out to the department of redundancy department, and give Bullock the challenge of a lifetime.
He takes over for Alex Wilson, a coach who was pink-slipped just shy of tenure despite his popularity with players and parents.
Bullock took over after Rodney Bivens — a championship coach from Anniston’s past — ended his bid for a return. He couldn’t swing certifications for him and his hand-picked assistants.
Bullock inherits a team many see as a Class 4A, Region 6 contender, so he faces immediate expectations.
Assuming he can get assistants he wants and enough of them, he’ll still have school board members lording over every growing pain.
Cue up the quote from Bullock’s almost promotion in June — “‘Interim’ means that you are still looking for the best until the best is proven,” school board member Mary Harrington said.
Talk to Bullock, and you hear a coach who loves his school and will gladly play the hand dealt him. It’ll be intriguing to see who holds the cards after this season.
2. John Grass
Grass was dealt a difficult hand himself at Oxford.
The Yellow Jackets have not won a playoff game since 2004. That includes first-round exits in Grass’ first two years.
Oxford fans want a place with the Hoovers and Prattvilles of the Class 6A universe. That’s why they hired Grass — then the reigning 6A coach of the year — away from Spain Park in the Hoover School System.
That followed Hoover High School’s hiring Josh Niblett away from Oxford.
By now, we all know what Oxford was willing to pay to play this high-stakes game, and a $105,000-per-year tag weighs on Grass.
Then consider Oxford’s circumstances when he was hired. The Yellow Jackets had just gone unbeaten through the 2007 regular season under Niblett, but an ineligible player kept them out of the playoffs.
That left the possibilities wide open. Fans will fill in their own blanks, and their answers probably don’t match up well with Grass’ playoff results so far.
But what really would have happened, had the Yellow Jackets played on in 2007? Could losses the past two years give a clue?
One wonders how Oxford’s depth compares to what’s required to go deep in the 6A playoffs. Remember, the Jackets were the home team in 2008 and 2009, meaning they were among the top two qualifiers from Class 6A, Region 7.
Bob Jones and Decatur, lower qualifiers from the region Oxford crossed, won those games.
In 2008, the other region outlasted Oxford’s region. In 2009, Gadsden City got Oxford’s region to the semifinals — then lost to Hoover, 35-0.
Oxford has talent. Some rising juniors have drawn major college offers, but 6A football requires a lot of talent to go deep in the playoffs. Can Grass develop that kind of depth?
Does it exist at Oxford, and how understanding will Yellow Jackets backers be?
3. Jason Howard
Howard has boundless good will at Ohatchee. He has the same surge of enthusiasm from his fans that Wellborn fans gave Smith a year ago, but there’s more to this story.
Since his hiring in March, Howard has assembled a roster more than double the size of last year’s Tribe.
The guy who made Spring Garden a winner in football also assembled quite a staff, retaining former Saks coach Glenn Toney and son Randall Toney and hiring Will Ginn and David Beegle.
Add a favorable realignment, and one sees the creek rising quickly.