Ten years later, Swearngin looks back on tough decision

jheeter@macon.comSeptember 9, 2011 

Ralph Swearngin walked into his home and went straight to his favorite chair.

He slumped down, exhausted from a trying week that tested him and his staff unlike any time before or any time since.

His wife tried to comfort him, telling him he made good, sound decisions.

He wasn’t so sure at the time.

Swearngin, who was less than two months into his tenure as the GHSA executive director, looked up at his wife and asked her to tell anyone who called that he wasn’t available. It was a warm September night during football season, and Swearngin and the rest of his staff were accustomed to attending games on Friday nights. But he spent that evening at home, watching the news like many others across America and reflecting on the previous few days. He went to bed early, but he slept very little.

“I don’t think I spent much time that night thinking about football,” Swearngin said.

That football-free Friday night, which is believed to be the only time in the GHSA’s modern era that no games were played on a Friday during football season, came only after a frenetic week filled with stressful decisions that Swearngin himself at the time second-guessed.

“There’s no doubt that it was the toughest week of my time with the Georgia High School Association,” Swearngin said, reflecting on the days following the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001.

Snap decisions

Swearngin and fellow members of the GHSA executive staff Joyce Kay and Gary Phillips were at the final session of a National High School Federation section meeting in Charleston, S.C., that Tuesday morning of the attacks.

Like many other Americans, the attendees found out a plane crashed into one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York City. After the second plane flew into the other tower, the conference quickly adjourned, and Swearngin quickly started getting calls from Thomaston, where the GHSA central office is located.

Information was changing by the minute, and Swearngin didn’t know how school districts would react through the day or the week.

So Swearngin climbed in a car with his wife and Phillips, and they made their way back from Charleston. The ride became a valuable brainstorming session between the director and one of his top lieutenants about potential scenarios that could unfold throughout the week.

“It was very helpful to hear someone else’s opinion and have a sounding board for ideas,” Swearngin said. “The full picture hadn’t developed. … So we were isolated and just came up with some ideas and thoughts.”

While they headed back toward Thomaston, the GHSA office was deluged with calls. People across the state wondered if volleyball and softball games were still on. Technology has come a long way in 10 years, and it wasn’t easy to find out what decisions were made locally in school districts. Swearngin said games scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday went on for the most part.

“We were all stunned, you know,” said Sam Barrs, who was the head football coach at Dublin at the time. “We all were just numb. A lot of schools canceled football practice, but the coaches hung around to look at film. We were thinking about football, but we weren’t, if that makes sense.”

The GHSA didn’t move on to football decisions until Wednesday morning when members had a better idea of what school districts were doing. About half of the state associations across the country decided to cancel football games on Sept. 14, Swearngin said. After some long meetings, the GHSA decided to allow schools to play Friday night.

Many across the state felt calling off football would disrupt the daily way of life, or as Swearngin said, “let the terrorists win.”

The GHSA did provide schools the option to play games the next Monday if both school districts agreed.

Swearngin said that decision became flawed when some school systems couldn’t agree to play or postpone the game. Some couldn’t agree when games would be made up.

“We couldn’t let some people do different things,” he said.

So early Friday morning, the GHSA decided it would postpone all games, pushing that week’s games to Nov. 16, what was scheduled to be the first week of the playoffs.

Every member of the GHSA staff grabbed a classification, and they called every school in the state. Some schools couldn’t be reached until just before noon, and one team in northwest Georgia had already loaded buses and left the school, Swearngin said.

“We had some people unhappy because we called it,” he said. “It was a super-hectic time. I remember going home, and I can’t express what those feelings were. We were all in shock through the national emergency, and then we went through that.”

Looking back

Rodney Walker never wanted to play that week.

The then-Sandy Creek head coach had zero interest in football following the attack. He was ready to play Pickens that week in a non-region game, but he really wanted the GHSA to postpone games.

Both Barrs and Walker believe Swearngin made the correct decision that week, and Swearngin agrees looking back.

“We needed some time to heal,” Barrs said. “No one could possibly stay focused with everything going on, and football players get hurt when they aren’t focused. I think it was a safety problem.”

Both Barrs’ Dublin team and Walker’s Sandy Creek team had bye weeks on Sept. 21, so it was two weeks before their teams stepped back on the field. Both coaches said they’ve never had two weeks between games in their career.

The off week turned out to harm the Patriots, who started the season 0-2. They were scheduled to play a Pickens team that eventually went winless. Instead, after two weeks off, they played Creekside in a region game. They lost to the Seminoles and never got on track the rest of the season. Sandy Creek played Pickens on Nov. 16 and beat the Dragons 41-0. If they played that game on Sept. 14, then the Patriots might have had a little momentum heading into region play.

“Playing Creekside after the off weeks didn’t help,” Walker said. “But I never thought for one second that Ralph made the wrong call. It was the right call, and I think it really (re-affirmed) everyone’s confidence that he was the right guy to be the executive director. … It is without a doubt, the strangest week I’ve been a part of as a football coach. The night without football, I guess you call it.”

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