By Jonathan Heeter
I’ll never forget the phone call I received on Jan. 23, 2006.
On the other end was then-Washington County head football coach Rick Tomberlin, and I knew exactly what he was calling about.
We knew each other a little from my time working at The Augusta Chronicle, so I guess Tomberlin wanted to talk to a friendly voice at a newspaper that had three different high school sports reporters that year.
Tomberlin was already out in the open as a finalist for the Valdosta coaching job. I knew the decision was to be made soon, and when he called me, I knew he’d taken the job.
We talked for a few minutes. He told me that Valdosta was his dream job, that it was the only job that could pull him away from the empire he’d created at Washington County. He compared Valdosta to Notre Dame, implying that when a job like that was offered, a coach didn’t turn it down. We also spoke briefly about the pitfalls and the pressure of the job, how two successful coaches had unceremoniously been fired from the job.
Tomberlin told me he had to try because he’d always wonder what he could have accomplished at Valdosta if it didn’t go.
Valdosta didn’t give him much of an opportunity to show what he could do.
Tomberlin was told Monday that his contract would not be renewed following the season. He was given the choice to quit now or be let go after the season. He certainly isn’t a quitter, so Tomberlin decided to stay until season’s end.
I can’t say I was surprised by Valdosta’s decision. The boosters and the some of the fans at Valdosta have shown for the better part of a decade to be a clueless bunch.
They fired Mike O’Brien, a former Nick Hyder assistant, who won a state championship, lost another and went 70-20-1 in seven seasons at the helm. He has gone on to have two eight-win seasons — including a surprise trip to the Class AAAAA quarterfinals last season — at Woodstock, a school that won 15 games in the six years the school was open before O’Brien got there. Woodstock, by the way, is 5-1 this season.
Valdosta then unveiled its ludicrous “national coaching search” — it’s high school football, guys — and plucked Rick Darlington from Apopka, Fla. Darlington won 23 games in three years and played for a state title in his first year. But he was canned after a 7-5 season, and he is now undefeated back at Apopka.
Tomberlin is just the most recent casualty of Valdosta’s championship greed.
The most egregious aspect of the situation isn’t that Valdosta continues to fire quality coaches. It’s that those folks think another Wright Bazemore or Hyder will walk through the door.
Valdosta isn’t Valdosta anymore.
Two south Georgia programs have surpassed Valdosta in recent years. One is Camden County, which has won two state titles since 2003. The other is, of course, Valdosta’s rival Lowndes.
Lowndes is clearly the best program in Valdosta from any perspective. The Vikings have won three state championships since 2004 under Randy McPherson. The program is showing no signs of decline, and it’s coming off a 57-15 drubbing of Valdosta last week. Lowndes has won 10 of the past 13 meetings in the series.
Those boosters don’t understand that every program has ebbs and flows in talent. Valdosta just avoided those pitfalls for an extremely long time because of two great coaches and a rival that hadn’t reached its potential until Milt Miller and McPherson arrived. Also, there are two to four times as many high schools in the state as there were when Valdosta was outworking everyone else. Atlanta-area football has become a legitimate threat.
Tomberlin is a very good coach, and he would have won eventually. But I’m not sure any coach could recapture the control right now from Lowndes in that rivalry.
Tomberlin protege and current Washington County head coach Joel Ingram said Thursday that he could see Tomberlin continuing to coach, working with Bigger Faster Stronger or serving as a liaison to high school coaches at a college.
“I just feel in my gut that he’s not done coaching,” Ingram said.
While it’s unfortunate Tomberlin was fired, the timing could work out great for him.
Houston County’s newest high school — Veterans — opens next year and will be seeking a football coach. The new high school — which I’m actively campaigning to be nicknamed the Jets — could do a lot worse than going after Tomberlin, who won three state titles in four years at Washington County. If he wants the job, Tomberlin would turn Veterans into a respectable program as fast as anyone around. Maybe that’s another phone call I’ll get next January.
Contact Jonathan Heeter at 744-4400 or firstname.lastname@example.org