Barney Hester didn’t have much luck keeping a job early in his career as a football coach.
Hester’s first two head coaching jobs didn’t last long. He spent three years at one, four years at another.
Not that losing those jobs was his fault.
Both Josey Academy in East Dublin and Gordon-Ivey in Gordon entered the history books long ago as schools that shut their doors. Look on the Georgia High School Football Historians Association website, and the final head coach listed for each was Hester.
“Both of those schools, I think I put both of them out of business,” Hester said jokingly.
It wasn’t until 1982 that Hester, who joined Erk Russell’s start-up effort at Georgia Southern for a year after Gordon-Ivey closed, would take a job that would put him in a long-term situation.
Now, 42 years after taking that first job at Josey and 34 years after starting his signature job as Tattnall Square’s head coach, Hester is about to become the second man in Georgia high school football history to work his 500th game as a head coach.
Only Larry Campbell, who won a state record 477 games in 42 seasons at Lincoln County, has reached that mark. Hester is slated to reach 500 Friday night when Howard, the team Hester took over in 2013 after 31 seasons at Tattnall, takes on Veterans at the Ed DeFore Sports Complex.
“I figured I’d come up and stay a couple of years and then catch on with one of those guys at Georgia Southern,” said Hester of his time in Macon. “The offensive coordinator went out to TCU, and a little later Paul Johnson went out to Hawaii. Everybody was going different places. I figured I’d make a little money and catch on somewhere, hitch on with one of those guys. But then I stayed 31 years at Tattnall. It was a good place to be, a good place to raise a family.”
Hester has certainly enjoyed success through the years. His Tattnall teams won 11 GISA championships, and he led Howard to its first winning season a year ago. Hester’s career record of 334-156-9 puts him sixth on the all-time state list, with the only active head coach ahead of him being Marist’s Alan Chadwick. He’s 12 wins away from matching the win total of Dan Pitts (Mary Persons 1959-1997) and 18 in back of Robert Davis (Warner Robins 1973-96 and Westside 1997-2008).
The interesting thing about Hester’s career, however, is that he walked into program-building efforts just about everywhere he coached.
With the exception of Gordon-Ivey, where Don Marchman had won 21 games in two years before heading to River North Academy in 1977, Hester had programs to build. Josey Academy (where Hester was hired out of college as a student assistant) had one win in its previous two seasons prior to Hester’s elevation to head coach in 1974. Tattnall had three straight losing seasons and no stadium of its own when Hester arrived. And Howard had lost 24 straight when Hester made the move from Tattnall.
“They were small, private schools,” said Hester of his days at Josey Academy and Gordon-Ivey. “My first job was in my hometown as a student assistant. I was finishing up (school), the head coach took the job at Telfair County, and I ended up being the head coach. I really wasn’t prepared to be a head coach, I really wasn’t ready to be a head coach. But I was.”
Even Georgia Southern was a construction job, in the most literal sense of the word.
Hester coached wide receivers at Georgia Southern in 1981, the year before the Eagles fielded their first full season. There were no permanent facilities for the team at the time, just trailers. Paulson Stadium was still in the planning stages, and he had to help Russell sell the program.
“(Russell) had a tub in the back of his,” said Hester of the trailers. “That was a highlight when you showed a group around, to show the nice whirlpool tub he had back there.”
An invitation from Macon
After a three-game mini-season that included games against Florida State’s JV squad, a military team from Fort Benning and and an outfit from Jacksonville called the Magnum Force that was sponsored by the sheriff’s office there, Hester was invited to take over the football program at Tattnall.
Success for Hester at Tattnall came right from the start. A 6-4 season in 1982 marked the first time a Hester-coached team finished above .500, and the win total was just one victory shy of tying the program’s single-season high, achieved three times in the 1970s.
“One of the teachers I worked with at Gordon was a teacher at Tattnall and also the basketball coach, Paul Brooks,” Hester said. “They had called me about the job when it opened, and I thought about it. We had a good thing going (at Georgia Southern). We weren’t making any money. Coach Russell was making all the money, and all of the assistants really didn’t make any money. But I should have been paying him for what I learned.
“Tattnall was not a great program. Jerry Faulkner, who was a great football coach, had just resigned, and the program was down. When I went to tell Coach Russell that they had contacted me, he said, ‘Boy, you have always got to go listen to them. Whether you want it or not, you go listen to them if they’re interested enough to call you.’ I went and interviewed with them, and then I didn’t hear anything from them for a month and a half, maybe even two months. It was a long time. But then they called up and told me that I had the job.”
A string of seasons just above the .500 mark — with the exception of an 11-1 season in 1984 — followed. But in order to take Tattnall to the next level, Hester and those involved with the Tattnall football program were going to have to get into the construction business.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Tattnall and Mount de Sales shared the city stadiums of the day (Henderson Stadium and Porter Field) with the three Bibb County School District teams at the time — Northeast, Central and Southwest. Porter Stadium, which was Mercer football’s home prior to the program’s suspension at the outbreak of World War II, faced condemnation and demolition in the late 1980s, leaving the city with just one football stadium.
Tattnall moved to build a stadium of its own on its north Macon campus, with the school hosting its first games there in 1988. The Trojans responded with a 13-0 season and their first GISA championship, defeating FPD 16-9 in the final.
“We built that stadium that fall,” Hester said. “It wasn’t quite completed, we were using temporary bleachers as we were working on it.
“It was a huge deal. We were playing most of our games on Thursdays or Saturdays. We were in the back of the line because the city schools were getting to play there first. If you think about it, the first year we had the stadium (on campus) was the first year we won a state championship.”
A few years later, Hester moved into administration at Tattnall, first as assistant headmaster in the early 1990s before taking the headmaster role on an interim basis and eventually taking the position on a full-time basis for 11 years, continuing his football duties the whole time.
Tattnall’s final state title came in 2011. By then, Hester had already received two overtures from Howard for its head coaching position, both when the school opened in 2008 and again following the 2010 season when its first head coach, Bobby Hughes, left to take the defensive coordinator position — and eventually the head coaching job — at Cass in Cartersville.
By the time the Howard position came open again following the 2012 season, Hester was in a better position to move. He had given up headmaster duties, and he was ready to take on a new challenge.
“I didn’t know who was going to come in after me to be the headmaster, so I guess that’s why I stayed 11 years there,” Hester said. “I stayed too long (as headmaster). I don’t think any headmaster should stay longer than five years. I think that after five or six years, you need to move on.
“When this job came open out here, I had discussions about it when it first opened. I was still headmaster and football coach, and I couldn’t leave Tattnall in that position. We talked awhile, and finally I had to call and say take my name out of the hat. The second time it came open, we had a conversation again, and pretty much the same thing. I was still headmaster and football coach, but I was at a point where it was time for me to do one or the other. Right after the second time, I left the headmaster position, so I knew if another opportunity came along it would not hurt Tattnall at that time if I left.”
Hester took to reshaping the Howard football program from the ground up. A 2-8 season was followed by a 3-6-1 year that, mathematically at least, was the best season in program history. A veteran group of players led Howard to a 6-4 mark last year, narrowly missing the GHSA Class 4A playoffs.
With considerable roster turnover taking place, Howard is off to a slow 1-3 start this season. It’s a team, however, that Hester is willing to take some time with, mixing a few ninth-graders in with some other underclassmen to give the Huskies a fresh look.
The next chapter
Hester said he doesn’t feel any rush to move on into retirement. His family, including grandchildren, is in Macon, and they spend plenty of time together, including on the field after games.
“My family has been very supportive,” Hester said. “My daughters grew up with me as a football coach, so they understand the game and how important it is to us as a family. My sons-in-law are very involved, and now the grandchildren are involved. It’s a family affair for us.
“I’ve always been told by coaches that retire that I’ll know when that time (to retire) hits. I’m sure that I’ll know when it hits, but I’m not sure that I know yet. So I’ll give it awhile.”
In fact, there’s another building project Hester would like to get done before he steps away: another football stadium, this time a place for Howard to play games on campus.
“We’ve been very blessed,” Hester said. “I haven’t asked for anything that I haven’t gotten, other than a stadium. We haven’t gotten that one yet, but it’s still in the works. I promise it’s still in the works.
“Everything we ask for is for the kids. As long as you take care of them, that’s what it’s all about.”