Barney Hester and Greg Moore didn’t have history in mind during a conversation that took place about 18 months ago.
Hester, who was going to a new program, was looking to line up opponents when the next scheduling opportunity came around. He knew Moore well, and he wanted to talk to the longtime FPD head coach.
“Immediately, when I came over, I talked to Coach Moore, and told him that, ‘Next scheduling period, I’d love to see us schedule,’ ” said Hester, now in his second season as Howard’s head coach after a lengthy run at Tattnall Square. “I thought it would create some interest and some excitement, a good gate and start a good tradition playing each other. That was something we talked about.”
With just a three-mile drive between the schools, there’s a good chance that a rivalry could develop. But, by accident or otherwise, their first meeting just might be the most meaningful football game played in Macon in nearly half a century.
When Howard and FPD line up Aug. 29 at George S. Johnson Stadium, it will mark what is believed to be the first time a Bibb County public school team has played a Bibb County private school team in a varsity football game since Mount de Sales took on Mark Smith in 1965.
Never mind that Howard has won just two football games in the past three seasons as it struggles to build a program in its first decade of operation. Never mind that FPD already has four years of experience against public schools under its belt. In a city where the split between public and private schools has run deep, where private schools are seen by some as an escape from a public school district perceived as troubled, there finally will be a Friday night when one of Macon’s public schools lines up across from one of the city’s private academies, playing by the same rules on a level field.
And the city’s other three major private schools are headed down the same road, as well.
RUSH OF CHANGES
Robert Slocum is a product of a private school. He played football at Mount de Sales in the early 1970s, served as the school’s football head coach from 1991 to 2013 and is still the Cavaliers’ athletics director.
Prior to playing at Mount de Sales, however, he grew up around his father’s football program at Ballard-Hudson, one of two black high schools in Bibb County at the end of segregation.
His father, Robert Slocum Sr., coached at Ballard-Hudson from 1956 to 1969, the final year before Ballard-Hudson was absorbed into Southwest.
“We grew up, my brothers and sisters and I, attending Ballard-Hudson games,” Slocum said. “We had rivals here in town, Appling, then there were the Columbus schools, Spencer and Carver, and the Augusta schools. I had the opportunity to see both sides.”
The late 1960s and early 1970s were times of turbulence for schools in Macon and Bibb County.
Desegregation mandated by the federal courts, including a decision by courts in January 1970, meant numerous changes to Bibb County’s public schools, which at the time were largely separated by gender, as well. Historic school names like Appling, Ballard-Hudson, Lanier and Willingham were out, as was Mark Smith. So were all-girls schools McEvoy, Miller and Lasseter. In were Central, Northeast and Southwest, fast-tracked consolidations meant to bring about racial balance in a matter of months.
It was also during those decades when many of Bibb County’s current private schools were formed. Stratford (1960), Tattnall (1969) and FPD (1970) came about during those two decades, with only Stratford taking part in any sort of GHSA competition from among those three schools.
Mount de Sales, which became coeducational in 1959 and began varsity football in 1961, integrated in 1963, seven years before Bibb County’s public schools.
“We were kind of ahead of the game when that came about,” Slocum said. “For whatever reason, I think Bibb County was one of the counties in Georgia that had a real problem with integration. Cities our size, like Columbus, Augusta, Athens, Savannah, didn’t seem to have as many problems as we had here in Bibb County.”
THE FIRST STEP
By the early 1970s, FPD, Stratford and Tattnall were competing solely against private schools in an organization that would later become the GISA. Mount de Sales, the oldest of the four main Bibb County private schools, followed in 1980, one season after losing to Herschel Walker-led Johnson County in the GHSA Class A football semifinals.
A couple of generations passed. Schools came and went from the GISA. Some left for the GHSA. Others closed their doors. Memories of the events of 1970 faded.
“Back in 1969-70, we knew where most of the private schools came about; we know why they came about,” Slocum said. “Here in 2014, not so much the case. I think most of the private schools now, people send their kids there, No. 1, for the opportunity to get a good education, and, No. 2, an opportunity to compete in athletics where they feel they might not be able to do it in a larger setting. Times have changed in the private schools, and I think (the move to the GHSA) will give the public an opportunity to see that private schools aren’t basically what they started out to be.”
FPD took the first step in bridging the gap. The school moved to the GHSA in 2010, playing for the first two seasons in a region that included private schools from Atlanta’s southern suburbs. By 2012, FPD was playing in a region with several small rural public high schools.
Moving to the GHSA took a step of faith. None of the other Macon private schools went in with FPD on the move at the time, leaving the school with either lengthy trips to Atlanta to take on private schools or travel to nearby small, rural schools that were also part of the GHSA’s smaller classifications.
Still, there were those in charge at FPD, a school with ties to the evangelical Presbyterian Church in America, who saw opportunity in the move.
“Kids want to be educated. Athletics can be a gigantic part of that,” said Moore, who is also FPD’s athletics director. “To me, it doesn’t matter -- public, private, North, South, black, white, rich, poor -- none of those things matter in athletics. It certainly doesn’t matter in the huddle in football. To me, it’s just a good opportunity for kids to learn.
“There’s a lot of people out there in this world who want the exact same things I want. Everybody has dreams, everybody has things they are trying to do and achieve and overcome. We’re just like all of the rest of the folks. But for the grace of God, we’re all in trouble. So it does fit in line with the mission of our school, and the mission of our school basically is that we just want to educate and get our kids ready to go out into the world and do something positive. Doing things like this is not life or death, but it’s a chance to show them, ‘Hey, here’s a chance to go out and do something big on a big stage and do something positively that might make a difference.’ ”
That 2010 FPD team went 5-5 and missed the playoffs. But each Vikings team since then has posted a winning record and has been a playoff qualifier.
A large picture of Hester is still on the wall of the head coach’s office at Tattnall, where he won 306 games in 31 seasons before heading to Howard for the 2013 season.
Hester won’t be going up against his former school this season. Besides the Aug. 29 contest at FPD (the Vikings’ season opener), Howard has a “zero week” game Friday at Lamar County and a pair of games against Bibb County school district opponents (Central on Sept. 5, Rutland on Sept. 12) before taking on GHSA Region 2-AAAA competition. Howard also had a scrimmage scheduled against Mount de Sales.
Still, there is excitement at Tattnall with the move to the GHSA, thanks in part to the ability to reconnect with some familiar faces.
“Everybody is excited about that part,” current Tattnall head coach Clint Morgan said. “You get all four schools back together. Travel among the schools decreases tremendously because the four of us are right here in each other’s back yard. The rivalries that we’ve all had from back in the early years and to get FPD back after four years, that’s a plus, too, to have them back in the mix with all of us. It’s going to be a good region; it’s going to be a tough region. We’re excited to be playing in the Georgia High School (Association).”
FPD’s move to the GHSA gave the other three Bibb County private schools a path to follow. With GISA members from other parts of the state also heading to the GHSA, the GISA was slowly losing membership. As of the 2012-13 season, the GISA was down to 12 football-playing schools in its largest classification and 46 overall.
Stratford, Tattnall and Mount de Sales passed on their opportunity to move to the GHSA when the deadline for the 2012 realignment came up. But, by March of 2013, three years into FPD’s tenure in the GHSA, Stratford, Mount de Sales and Tattnall leaders were ready to give a green light to their respective school’s move. Mount de Sales signed off on its return to the GHSA, kick-starting the talk of the four schools once again competing.
Tattnall and Stratford approved their move on March 4, 2013, the same week as the GHSA basketball finals at the Macon Coliseum.
And the Big Four were going to get back together.
“What it’s done, entering the GHSA, is it’s instantly made it more important to our kids and the Mount de Sales community,” said first-year Mount de Sales head coach Keith Hatcher, who attended the school as a student along with his cousin, former Georgia Southern and current Murray State head coach Chris Hatcher. “There’s a lot of excitement, interest that maybe wouldn’t have been there before. The challenge for us is to maintain focus on being the best football team we can be each day.
“A lot of those kids’ grandparents, they went to Mount de Sales and competed in the GHSA against some of the teams that are coming back onto our schedule. There is a lot of excitement. It is talked about.”
The GISA, meanwhile, contracted to two classifications after losing several of its smaller members to the start-up GICAA. Bibb County, which had as many as seven schools in the GISA within the past 10 years, is down to a single Bibb County member in Windsor.
The first schedule
The four Macon private schools are grouped in GHSA Region 7-A, a region that extends from Macon to Augusta. Because there are 12 football-playing schools, the region is subdivided.
Macon’s schools are grouped with Twiggs County, a program that has struggled in recent years but is being led again by the highly successful Dexter Copeland, and Wilkinson County, a team that is usually in contention for a postseason appearance.
The other sub-region includes Aquinas, the defending GHSA Class A private school champion, a perennial power in Lincoln County that is in transition following the retirement of longtime successful head coach Larry Campbell, a prep school in GMC that is counted as a public school for playoff purposes, and public schools Glascock County, Hancock Central and Warren County.
Tattnall opens its season Aug. 29 at home against GMC, while Stratford hosts Savannah Country Day that night. Mount de Sales heads to Pacelli in Columbus for the first meeting between the Catholic schools since 1975.
By October, region play will kick in, and the schedule will look very familiar at that point for the Macon private schools.
“That’s a good component of moving to the Georgia High School (Association), is that we do get back to having all of the schools in Macon in the same sub-region and playing each other and having those big games,” Stratford head coach Mark Farriba said. “Those local rivalries and those things are good. As a competitor, you want to play, you like crowds, and you want to have the stands full. That’s part of the fun of the competition. As long as everyone can handle themselves properly, I think all of that is good.”
FPD will face its former GISA rivals back-to-back-to-back in a three-week October stretch. The Vikings will host Stratford on Oct. 3, host Mount de Sales on Oct. 10 and visit Tattnall on Oct. 17.
Stratford visits Tattnall on the same night FPD hosts Mount de Sales. It’s a series Tattnall leads 25-21.
Mount de Sales, meanwhile, visits Stratford on Oct. 24 and hosts Tattnall on Oct. 31.
“To me, Macon is the mecca of high school football, especially when you start talking private school football,” Morgan said. “There’s a lot of good private schools in Macon. When October rolls around, (the Macon schools play) back-to-back-to-back. We’re excited about it.”
More at stake
While bragging rights were on the line during regular-season meetings in the past for the Macon private schools, there will be much more on the line this fall.
The GISA playoffs, which usually included eight or 16 teams, generally included as many teams as possible. Getting into the playoffs wasn’t much of a challenge, and in some years playoff spots were automatic. The only thing at stake during the regular season in terms of playoffs was usually seeding.
That’s not so in the GHSA. Especially in Class A.
Under the current playoff structure, only region champions are guaranteed playoff spots in Class A. Every other team is subject to the power ranking formula that accounts for victories and the strength of opponents’ schedules.
There are no guarantees. FPD found that out last season, when it was right on the fence for a playoff spot.
“We got off to a really slow start last year,” Moore said. “I think at some point we were 26th in the power ranking. Halfway through the year, we were still in the 20s. It was really good for us to kind of go back and say, ‘Let’s just worry about the things that we can control, and that is getting ready to play one game at a time and play that game the best that we can do it.’ We got hot and won a few games in a row at just the right time, and as we did the power ranking thing started changing.
“We finished the last game of the year against Aquinas with a loss, and on the way back from Augusta, we had no clue where we were going to fall, if not out of the playoffs. Then we got in as a 13 seed after having won six ballgames.”
For the coaches moving into the GHSA, the power ranking formula and the race to the playoffs will be an adjustment. All games, not just region games, count toward the power ranking. And trying to figure out all the moving parts to the power ranking is difficult, if not impossible.
“You can sit there at the beginning of the year and try to project, but you don’t really know how you’re going to do necessarily or how your opponents are going to do on their schedule. It’s a little bit of a crap shoot,” said Farriba, who spent six seasons at GHSA member Prince Avenue Christian before returning to Stratford in 2013. “But given the set of circumstances that we have, it’s the only way you can do it. There’s not another way you can do it under the circumstances that we have where in the playoffs they’re going to split the public and the private schools. There’s no other way to do it.”
One morning in July, before a midday thunderstorm rolled in, some visitors from a rural public school program stopped by Tattnall for an informal 7-on-7 workout.
Facing off with a team in for 7-on-7 drills isn’t unusual. It allows teams to run pass routes while conditioning in helmets and shorts.
The team paying the visit to Tattnall, however, wasn’t one some would expect considering some public stances the school took a few years ago.
Wilcox County was one of the leaders in a drive to split public and private schools when it came to playing for state championships in Class A. The plan the GHSA put into place averted a threatened departure from the GHSA by many rural schools frustrated by the increasing dominance at the small-school level by the private schools.
But Mark Ledford, Wilcox County’s head coach and a vocal supporter of the split, was more than happy to give Tattnall its first public school 7-on-7 opponent. It goes back to connections. Ledford and Morgan were classmates at Georgia Southwestern.
“They’ve had good programs in the GISA and had a lot of success,” Ledford said. “They know how to do everything and play first class. They know how to play the game. Being able to do (7-on-7) and come up here has been a great experience for us.
“When the ball is snapped, it’s just players out there trying to get better.”
Brad Harrison contributed to this report, which also contains information from Telegraph archives.