Gary Phillips once nurtured the greatest high school football player in state history.
That player, a Wrightsville teenager named Herschel Walker, helped lead Johnson County and its head coach, Phillips, to a state championship in 1979.
Beginning in July, Phillips will once again stand as the leader of a prominent team in Georgia prep athletics.
The GHSA executive committee unanimously approved (52-0) Phillips as the executive director effective July 1. He will become the fifth executive director in GHSA history. Current executive director Ralph Swearngin is retiring at the end of the 2013-14 school year after 13 years at the helm of the state’s ruling body for interscholastic activities.
“I’m not a guy who stresses very much, but I was anxious,” Phillips said. “You don’t ever like to be rejected.” The GHSA board of trustees selected Phillips as its choice for the position over three other candidates about 10 days ago. The board recommended Phillips to the entire executive committee at a special called meeting Wednesday at the GHSA headquarters in Thomaston. After a short presentation, every member present voted for Phillips.
“I was taken by that and very honored there was a big show of confidence,” Phillips said.
The scene was different more than a decade ago when Swearngin faced off with longtime Thomasville and Colquitt County football head coach Jim Hughes for the job. Both had to be present for the vote, which Swearngin won 33-15.
“It wasn’t a very fun process,” Swearngin said.
Phillips seemed to have the support of both coaches and administrators. After he stepped away from coaching after leading both the Johnson County and Riverwood programs, Phillips went into administration for 18 years. He left his job as principal at Fayette County in 2001 to join Swearngin in the GHSA office.
“I heard good things about him,” Swearngin said. “Then he interviewed, and he rang all of the right bells.”
Phillips has served as Swearngin’s right-hand man for the past decade, putting him in line to eventually take over the organization. All four previous executive directors (Sam Burke, Bill Fordham, Tommy Guillebeau and Swearngin) came from within the GHSA.
Swearngin said Phillips readied himself for this position through his dual background of coaching and administration. Phillips, who was also an assistant football coach at Central in the 1970s, also served on committees with the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“His strength is he’s a good common sense person,” Swearngin said. “He really believes in the value of rules and procedures. He’s always willing to listen.”
Phillips will follow Swearngin pretty closely during the next nine months to ready himself for the position. They will attend meetings together and address and make up for any “knowledge gaps” Phillips may have. The Decatur native said he has always taken mental notes on how Swearngin approaches the job and conducts daily business.
“I have the personality that tends to cause me to want to know everything I can know,” Phillips said.
A Southwest DeKalb graduate, Phillips started his coaching career at Fayette County. He went to West Rome and left with that staff to move to Central, a year after the Chargers won the state championship in 1975 under Gene Brodie. Phillips landed the head coaching job at Johnson County in 1978.
“I didn’t know where Johnson County was on a map,” Phillips said.
He went 9-4 in 1978 during Walker’s junior season. The Trojans went 14-1 in 1979, winning the Class A state title with a 35-17 win over Feldwood in the championship game.
Phillips’ performance on the field gained the respect of his peers and contemporaries, including longtime Warner Robins and Westside football coach Robert Davis.
Davis said in September that he thought Phillips deserved the job and would succeed if he was selected as executive director.
Phillips left Johnson County for Riverwood in Atlanta. The Raiders went 13-17 in his three years at the helm. He coached one more year a North Springs before going into school administration. He served as the principal at Fayette County for 15 years.