Back to his roots: Franklin Stephens comes to coach Lamar County

jheeter@macon.comAugust 25, 2012 

BARNESVILLE ­--

The coach stands 25 yards away from his team with his hands on his knees and his headset firmly fastened to his bald head.

He watches the next play in isolation, focusing on the next few moves he would need to make, like any great tactician, despite this only being a practice game.

The play ends, and he moves up and down the sideline, but his eyes never leave the field. The quarterback heads to the huddle. The coach assumes the same position, hands on knees.

The coach’s temperament changes when the defense takes the field. He walks to the middle of the scrum of coaches and players who make up the Lamar County High School football team. Decked out in a T-shirt and shorts, he assumes command of the defense. His intensity heightens. A player is out of position. The coach stares right through him. The player won’t make that mistake again.

More than 50 yards away behind the end zone closest to the fieldhouse at Lamar County’s stadium, the school’s principal, Derick Austin, doesn’t stop smiling. He knows the caliber of the coach standing on the other side of the field.

Franklin Stephens, a championship football coach considered by many of his peers as one of the great high school football coaches in Georgia, is the new head coach at Lamar County, a school devoid of a football pedigree. The Trojans have won 10 games in a season twice since 1970. Stephens has won 10 games in a season four times since 2007.

“I know why he’s here,” Austin said. “Some other people may think, ‘Why is Franklin Stephens coaching football in Barnesville?’ ”

To answer that question, it must first be revealed why Stephens would leave a championship football program.

Reason to leave

Stephens turned Tucker ­-- a school in northern DeKalb County -- into one of the top programs in the state. Prior to Stephens’ arrival, Tucker won 10 or more games in 10 different seasons between 1989 and 2005. For whatever reason, the Tigers couldn’t win a state championship even though two of their coaches -- Tom McFerrin and Bill Ballard -- went on to win state championships elsewhere after leaving Tucker.

Stephens changed Tucker’s course almost immediately.

The Tigers won 13 games in 2007 before losing to Northside in a memorable semifinal game at the Georgia Dome. Stephens calls it “the meltdown” because his team squandered a 21-point halftime lead and lost on a last-minute field goal.

He didn’t have to wait long for redemption, leading the 2008 Tigers to the first state championship in program history. After losing in the state semifinals again in 2010, Stephens led Tucker to another state championship in 2011. The Tigers earned some retribution by beating Northside in Warner Robins in the semifinals.

“We had two classic games with Northside, two games that I’ll probably never stop thinking about,” Stephens said. “The first one taught us how to finish games, and it taught me how to coach games. That team was good enough to win a state championship, but we didn’t get the job done. That game helped us going forward.”

Despite the success on the field, Stephens wasn’t completely happy.

He had two issues with the DeKalb County athletics structure.

During Stephens’ time at Tucker, all DeKalb County football programs shared revenue following the season. The DeKalb County schools in the state’s highest classification -- which is based on enrollment numbers -- received the largest cut of the revenue pot, and each subsequent class received a little less than the one above it.

Tucker played 20 playoff games under Stephens, so the revenue from all of those games went back into the pot to be dispersed among the county’s other schools. Redan went 2-7-1 in 2008 -- the year Tucker won its first state championship -- but Redan received more revenue than Tucker because it was in a higher classification. Last year, Tucker beat Chamblee, Lakeside, Redan, Miller Grove and Lithonia by an average of 46 points, but the Tigers received the same revenue as the five other schools.

Stephenson, Southwest DeKalb, M.L. King and Tucker have been the teams in the county regularly making the playoffs and the ones filtering money to the rest of the county’s schools.

“It’s almost like a penalty to make the playoffs,” said former M.L. King head coach Corey Jarvis, who is now at Duluth. “You have to pay for all of the extra stuff, the travel, the meals, and then that money goes to other schools.”

Stephens said he told county administrators he didn’t mind sharing revenue during the regular season despite Tucker having one of the largest fan bases in DeKalb County. But he couldn’t understand why his team’s success resulted in the Tigers receiving less or equal money than the less successful schools in the county.

“We played 20 playoff games -- that’s two full extra seasons,” Stephens said. “I had a problem with some of the larger schools getting more than us. I’m sorry, but I thought we needed to be rewarded for that.”

Stephens’ other problem was that Tucker doesn’t have its own stadium, so the Tigers took a 25- to 30-minute drive to play their home games at Adams Stadium in north Atlanta.

Stephens led his team into a stadium shared by other schools in the county. Tucker has no championship banners hanging in the stadium. The school’s emblems aren’t painted on to the turf like at other schools that have on-campus facilities.

“It was just a shell of a stadium,” Stephens said. “There’s nothing to take pride in. Coaching at places like Burke County and Camden County, I understood the importance of a home stadium.”

Moving on

Stephens finally left Tucker earlier this year to take the job at Lamar County, but this wasn’t the first job Stephens sought.

His displeasure with the stadium issue and revenue sharing helped push Stephens to apply for some of the most prominent job openings around the state, a few of which were at schools in the southern and rural parts of Georgia that had never hired a black head coach.

Stephens heard the talk that many of the schools in south Georgia wouldn’t hire a black head coach. Colleagues of his like Jarvis and Maurice Freeman -- a former Southwest coach who now coaches at Brooks County -- had both been in the mix for the head coaching job at Valdosta, one of the most prominent high school football programs in the United States and one that has never hired a black head coach.

Jarvis, a former Mary Persons’ assistant coach, said you often hear people from these programs say, “We’re just not ready for a black head coach.”

Stephens, however, had confidence in his résumé. He has more wins (64) in his first five seasons than any other active head coach in the state. He had one state championship when he started looking for jobs and added another title this past December. Both he and his wife Renee, who is a former Marine, have doctorate degrees in education.

“I feel really good about my portfolio,” Stephens said.

Stephens went to interview after interview, sitting for one-on-one meetings and interviewing in front of large groups. He didn’t land any of the jobs. He didn’t want to name specific places he interviewed, but media reports and sources linked Stephens to openings at Coffee in south Georgia and Thomson, which is just outside of Augusta.

“I can’t definitely say why people have done what they’ve done,” Stephens said. “I think people have certain candidates in mind, and if they can work it out, they work it out. My portfolio speaks for itself.”

Stephens’ mentor and Camden County head coach Jeff Herron, who is white, said he believes a white coach with Stephens’ résumé would have landed one of the most prominent jobs around the state.

Herron, who has won four state championships and is one of the most respected coaches in the state, vouched hard for Stephens any time a school asked about him. Herron heard from the hiring committee at one school following Stephens’ interview. Herron said he was assured Stephens would get the job. The school board met, and it changed course.

“Was that what happened (with race playing a role)?” asked Herron, who declined to name the school in question. “I think so. They made a stupid decision. Frank doesn’t see color. He sees people who work hard and don’t work hard. There’s no middle ground.”

Other black coaches were discouraged by Stephens’ inability to land jobs in the rural parts of the state, according to Central head coach Jesse Hicks.

“You have a guy with a doctorate in education,” Hicks said. “He won as a high school player and was an All-American at Georgia Southern. He was great at Camden County and wins the first two titles at Tucker. He sends kids to school, runs a first-class program, is a family man and is a man of God. And he can’t get a job in south Georgia? What else does he need to do? What other conclusions can you draw other than people are still colorstruck in some parts of this state.”

Joining a friend

Coming off the second state championship, Stephens believed he would stay at Tucker another year after not landing another job during the offseason.

Things changed in February when then-Lamar County head coach Jason Strickland took over at Fitzgerald, a program rich in football history. Strickland, a former assistant coach at Charlton County and Westside, built Lamar County into a potent football program. He led the Trojans to three straight playoff appearances, including an appearance in the state quarterfinals and a school-best 12-1 record in 2011.

During Strickland’s time in Barnesville, the residents showed more support in the football program. The school system became the first in Middle Georgia to install field turf when Trojan Field was constructed near the campus after playing a few miles away at Memorial Stadium near Gordon College.

“It doesn’t get much nicer than this,” former Bleckley County head coach Sam Barrs said in November before a playoff game in Barnesville. “What a beautiful facility.”

Stephens has small-town roots. He grew up in Keysville, a small city in Burke County about 30 miles south of Augusta with fewer than 200 residents. He called himself a decent player who turned himself into a “pretty good high school lineman.” Stephens made the all-state team in 1990 as a senior at Burke County and earned a scholarship to Georgia Southern, where he was named to All-America teams as a center in both 1993 and 1994.

Stephens coached as an assistant at Burke County and then at Camden County, a large school in a military community on the Georgia coast that Stephens said retained the small town feel.

When Strickland left, Austin’s first call went out to Stephens.

The two played together at Georgia Southern, with Stephens starting out snapping to Austin, who played quarterback before moving to defense. They roomed together after their college playing days and have stayed close through the years.

Austin called Stephens and tried to sell him on the small town feel of Barnesville. He also told him about Lamar County’s rise as a football program and how a number of key players returned this year. Everything moved quickly after that, with Stephens taking the job in early March.

Stephens said he’s excited about being the only show in town. He wants to make Lamar County football a destination on Friday nights for every person who lives in Barnesville. His goal is to turn Lamar County into a team that is regularly considered one of the top football programs in its classification. That might have happened already as the Trojans are ranked No. 2 in the AP Class AA preseason football poll.

“Look, take our friendship out of it,” Austin said. “This is a guy who is a great leader and mentor for young men. He’s a championship-winning football coach, but I’m excited about his impact on these kids. If he doesn’t win a game here, he’ll be a success because he’ll turn these kids into young men. I’m guessing he’ll win some football games, though.”

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