FORT VALLEY — It has taken Chad Campbell 17 years to reach this head-coaching plateau.
Just four days separate him from taking his first group of players out of a Georgia Dome tunnel and onto the stadium’s turf for a state championship game.
Sure, this may be the first time as a head coach that he has led a collection of players into a game of this importance, but thanks to some of his closest coaching allies, he has seen a contest of this magnitude before.
“I mean, I never thought I could even dream of coaching a state championship game. How many people ever get the opportunity to do that?” Campbell said earlier this week. “I’ve been blessed to now play for five state championships as a coach.”
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As an assistant for the Peach County program he now leads, Campbell once helped place the Trojans into a string of title games, including two Peach County fans won’t long forget.
In 2005 and 2006, under then-head coach Rance Gillespie, Campbell was a key piece to helping the Trojans march to back-to-back championships.
That doesn’t even mention the victory he witnessed in the GHSA Class AA final in 2004, when he took in the moment as a casual observer, supporting his brother Lee Campbell in Hawkinsville’s latest title run.
“It was just nice to be there and be a part of it with him,” Chad Campbell said.
He was able to see that game because Peach County had been put out of the playoffs before that game.
With Hawkinsville looking at postseason play from the outside this season, Lee Campbell has been right there at every Peach County playoff game this year, and he’ll be there again Saturday when the Trojans take on Gainesville for the Class AAA title.
Lee Campbell has made it to one practice each week during the playoffs, alternating superstitiously between Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“If it happens, that’s something we can talk about,” Chad Campbell said of a potential win. “I don’t know how many brothers in the state of Georgia have state championships.
“So it’s something that would mean a lot, and he’ll be right there to share it with me.”
Lee Campbell said, “I’m just so proud of him. He stuck it out in one place, paid his dues. Then he had to replace a guy like Rance (Gillespie). I know he has worked so hard for this.”
But Chad Campbell stresses that the potential milestone means nothing to him. He said he understands what a win will mean for all those he has coached for.
“It’s about the (players) and the community,” he said. “I could care less about my stuff.”
Chad Campbell has served under other memorable Peach County personalities: Gillespie and current Mary Persons head coach Rodney Walker.
Following the Trojans’ last state title in 2006, Gillespie left Peach County to take a job as a college assistant at Georgia Southern. Knowing that his day of departure would eventually come, Gillespie had long been weaning Campbell into taking over the program.
“The longer he stayed here, the more he got me prepared for being a head coach,” Campbell said. “He’d put more things on me than he’d put on himself. And he got to the point where he could trust and confide in me and kind of taught me more things about what I needed to be a head coach.”
One of the most important things he learned from Gillespie and Walker was being prepared for every aspect of the job, he said. Whether it was practice, games or even the outside influences head coaches have to worry about, always have an idea how to react to everything, both preached.
“Planning and organization, Rance is a stickler for being organized and planning everything out,” Campbell said. “It’s having things prepared and having things broke down and scripted out. That’s the only way to do it.
“I wouldn’t know what to do if we didn’t film practice or if we didn’t script it out a day before. I learned that a long time ago from Coach Walker. You ain’t never going on that grass without knowing what you’re going to teach that day.”
Although Gillespie, Walker and former Peach County head coach Alan Rodemaker were always positive coaching influences, Campbell was also able to turn to his brother.
“He just said be yourself,” Chad Campbell said of Lee Campbell.
Impressing the importance of knowing a head coach’s role leading most aspects of a team, Lee Campbell wanted his younger brother to understand that he had to treat each of his assistants the way he wanted to be treated when he was one.
“I’ve enjoyed it tremendously,” Chad Campbell said of being head coach the past three years. “There’s more headaches and more things about it on that end that you have to deal with. But any time you run anything as a head coach or an organization, that all comes along with it.”
Offensive coordinator Todd Cooper, a former offensive line coach during the Gillespie regime, said he has witnessed no drop off in the way the team has been run since Gillespie’s departure.
“Chad is just like Rance in that, if there’s somewhere you want to go to be a better coach, be it a clinic or a college or somewhere, he’ll give you the resources to do so,” Cooper said. “He wants you to be a better coach.”
To hear Campbell tell it, apparently, so did the men who influenced him.
“I’ve learned bits and pieces from everybody,” he said, “and that makes my own self.”
Title game debuts
Head coaches making their first championship game appearance
Coach Career record Closest prior to 2009
Chad Campbell, Peach County 30-6 (3rd season) First round (2007, 2008)
Donald Chumley, Savannah Christian 49-11 (5th season) Second round (2007, 2008)
Bruce Miller, Gainesville 152-96 (22nd year) Semifinals (2001, 2002)
Leroy Ryals, Clarke Central 34-12-1 (4th season) First round (2006-2008)
Chip Walker, Sandy Creek 45-15 (5th season) Second round (2007, 2008)