The seeds of a potential championship were planted during the 2014 season, Macon County’s best since going 10-3 in 2005, which was part of a run of seven straight winning seasons.
A run of five straight losing seasons followed, but light began to flicker in 2013 with wins over Dooly County and Americus-Sumter, as well as a quality loss to Peach County.
Being outscored 118-12 in the final three games put a damper on the season, and starting the next year with a loss at Americus-Sumter continued that tentative feeling.
Macon County, keyed by future Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith and a number of quality linemen, along with a sophomore quarterback showing potential, went 9-2 the rest of the way.
The Bulldogs lost in the second round of the 2014 playoffs, but clearly things were on the upswing in Montezuma and around Adams-Maffett Field. Smith spent the season as one of the state’s top recruits, which brought attention and enthusiasm to a program that had turned the corner.
Then two months after the season-ending loss to Lovett, head coach Larry Harold left for Class 5A Brunswick.
Just when it appeared the Bulldogs might be back on the path to regular championship contention, another transition.
“It kinda hit a lot of people,” senior offensive lineman Peter Eaddie said. “A lot of people were kind of close to Coach Harold.”
Not many expected the job to be open so soon, especially when it became clear there was some talent to work with.
Dexter Copeland had returned to Twiggs County after Baldwin decided to go in another direction after his lone losing season with the Braves, 3-7 in 2013. But it wasn’t the same Twiggs County situation Copeland had left, in terms of support and growth of the feeder programs. The Cobras went 1-9 under Copeland.
When Harold left, Copeland wasted no time, and he got the job.
The momentum and chemistry that has Macon County in Saturday morning’s GHSA Class 1A public championship game against McIntosh County Academy and seems so easy now took time to develop, with Copeland citing trust issues after Harold’s departure.
Actually, it took a surprising win followed by a surprising loss in 2015.
The Bulldogs exploded in a 52-20 win over Veterans, then a Class 4A program, only to follow with a 34-30 loss to Perry.
“The big thing was the Veterans game,” Copeland said. “I think we gained their trust then. Things just fell into place after that.
Not immediately. Copeland then had to suspend a few players the next game, and Macon County lost to Perry.
“I told them, I said, ‘Listen, we’re going to win with good kids,’” Copeland said. “The bad kids, we’re going to get rid of them. I think that is also a big turning point.
“They realized that the coaches, me and the coaching staff, were dead serious about what we were gonna do. We were gonna do it the right way.”
And the present brings back memories of a successful past.
C.B. Cornett’s worst season at Macon County was 10-3 in his final season. He was in 9-2, his second year, in 1991. The Bulldogs lost in the next season’s state championship game, 13-6 to Bowdon.
That was the first of four straight one-loss seasons, a run that was pleasantly interrupted by a 15-0 mark in 1996 that ended with a 16-8 win over Putnam County in the Class 1A title game.
Cornett left after going 10-3 in 1997 for Central, giving way to Chris Reeves, currently Northside’s defensive coordinator. Macon County went 8-4 and 3-7 in his two years, and the school decided to make a change. Tony Byram went 20-13 in three seasons, and he left for Crawford County.
Bobby Hughes took over and kept things going with five straight winning seasons, including 10-win years in 2005 and 2006.
Then he left to begin the program at Howard, succeeded by former Northeast assistant Matthew Lester. The Bulldogs went backward for the first time since the late 1980s with five straight losing seasons, four under Lester and one under Harold.
None of Copeland’s six direct predecessors followed their stints at Macon County with major head coaching success. Cornett was 10-30 at Central, Hughes went 5-21 at Howard and is 14-16 at Cass, and Byram’s nine seasons at Crawford County ended with a 17-69 record. Reeves has found success at Northside under head coach Kevin Kinsler, and Lester is no longer coaching.
Copeland said booster club members warned him when he took the job.
“ ‘If you get up and leave and go somewhere else, you’re not gonna win,’ ” Copeland related with a laugh. “The Macon County jinx.”
He doesn’t talk like somebody looking, especially considering the future. Quarterback K’Hari Lane might leave with a state record and state title, but Copeland points out that the Bulldogs return the vast majority of this season’s regulars.
Copeland’s offensive philosophy has pretty much been whatever fits the talent on hand, and that’s certainly the case with this group of Bulldogs players.
“He turned our program around more,” senior defensive back Tyrese Adkinson said. “We’re more complex on offense, and we have better defense.”
Copeland always has a smile on his face, except for earlier this week when he was mighty unhappy during practice. Still, there’s a mix of serious and silly, and it works.
“He’s a real fun guy, I can tell you that,” Eaddie said. “I like the way he thinks. I’ve never seen a coach like him, his personality, what he knows. A smart guy.”