24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
“Coaching is taking a group of young men from where they are to heights that they never knew existed.”
I think I learned the most about coaching football in my career during my four year stint at Tuscaloosa Academy from 2007-2011. It was my first head football job. I truly believe I was ready to lead a football program, I had been prepared very well by serving under Kenny Dallas at Landmark Christian School and Trinity Christian Academy. I had led other programs, I was a head baseball coach for eight years, I was a principal for three years, and I was even a head basketball coach for a year. I also worked with some great men at Landmark that had a great positive influence on me as a coach and as a man. Roby Ross, Fred Gilkeson, Vince Cobb, Rick Burslem, the Gable Family, Phillip Swords, and Chris Mortensen changed my life. They sharpened me and molded and encouraged me unlike any others. I was excited and ready to go! There is nothing like learning on the job. As prepared as you might think you are, there is nothing like actually putting a plan in action and serving in the position of head coach. Every day brings a new challenge!
I think I learned the most during those four years for a few reasons:
- The people and resources that God put in my path during that time
- The challenges of rebuilding a program that was down
- Trial and Error of being a first time head football coach
- Experiencing Winning Big and Losing Big
- Reflection on the Experience after I Left Tuscaloosa Academy
With that being said, I want to focus on my time at Tuscaloosa Academy in the next few chapters and tell the story of that experience. I pray that this will interest you, encourage you, make you laugh and cry, and help you become a better coach and person! In 2007 the Lord blessed me with a great opportunity. I was hired to be the head football coach at Tuscaloosa Academy in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I am so thankful for Headmaster, Dr. George Elder and Athletic Director, John Rushing for putting their trust and faith in me. I was 36 years old and it would be my first head football job after being an assistant coach for the previous 14 years. When I think back on that opportunity I am reminded of Psalm 9:1, “I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonders”. It was a great time in my life and I am forever grateful to God for putting me in that position!
I was super excited but the job was not going to be easy. To say the job was a rebuilding project is an understatement. The Knights had hit a low point in their program’s history. They had been through four coaches in six years, they had lost five games the season before by more than 40 points and two games by more than 60 points, and they had only won 35 games and had one winning season in the previous 10 years. In 2006, they only had 16 players on the team. Several people, even a dad from Tuscaloosa Academy, told me I was crazy for taking the job. I was leaving a school in Atlanta with over 60 players on the team and we had won 6 straight region championships. I was the Offensive Coordinator there and we had plenty of great players and I loved the other men that I was coaching with. But, I knew without a doubt that God had something special planned at TA and I wanted to be a part of it! It felt like home.
During the spring and summer of 2007 I focused on Deuteronomy and Moses and his leadership ability. Deuteronomy 1:8 says “I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land that the Lord swore that He would give to your fathers, Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, and to their descendants after them”. I knew that God had put me at TA, I knew He had a special plan for the football program and the people involved. Just like God promised land to the Isrealites, I knew there was a promise involving me and all of the others that would be a part of what the Lord was doing! Now, the Isrealites were afraid to go into the land that was promised to them. The people that they saw there were bigger and stronger than they were and they lost heart. In Deuteronomy 1:29-30, Moses says, “Do not be terrified, do not be afraid of them. The Lord your God who is going before you, He will fight for you, as He did for you in Egypt”. I reminded myself often, this might be hard at times, but God is going ahead of me and fighting for me. He didn’t bring me here to fail, He brought me here to be successful! I would remind myself often that the other teams might be “bigger and stronger” but God was fighting for us! That doesn’t mean that we would win the game, it just means that God would be with us. We would play like mighty warriors and honor Him with our efforts. Galatians 6:7 says, “a man will reap what he sows” and Galatians 6:9 says, “at the proper time, you will reap a harvest if you do not give up”! I knew if we did this right, we would reap a harvest at the proper time. It was up to me to lead us in that direction!
There were six major things that I was learning from Deuteronomy about building a program:
- The head coach must have a plan and a vision (1:6-8)
- You must surround yourself with great people and have a structured organization where you clearly present job expectations, hold people accountable, and then allow those people to do their job (1:9-18)
- Have real courage and real faith; God has a plan and He is in control! (1:29-30)
- Establish a culture of passion and purpose (4:32-40)
- Establish a culture of continual improvement and leadership development (6:4-9)
- Teach principles that extend past the football field (5:1-22)
A major part of rebuilding the TA program was putting together a coaching staff from scratch. The people that you surround yourself with will have a lot to do with your level of success. The most important hire on a football coaching staff without a doubt is the offensive line coach. The offensive line is a unique group, a brotherhood, unified tighter than any other position group on the field. You live and die by the success of the offensive line. Our team was blessed beyond our wildest imagination in 2007 when I was able to hire not one, but two men to lead the big boys upfront. The two men were Jack Rutledge and Justin Moon.
II Timothy 4:2 says “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.”
When I think of a great coach, II Timothy 4:2 is what I think about!
Jack Rutledge was 68 years old and had been retired from football for 10 years. He had played offensive guard and linebacker for the University of Alabama under the great Paul “Bear” Bryant and was a part of the 1961 National Championship team. He later served as a coach on Coach Bryant’s staff from 1966-1982. He coached the centers, special teams, and was the Bryant Hall dorm director. After the infamous “Punt, Bama, Punt” game in 1972, Coach Rutledge was placed in charge of special teams. From that season until Coach Bryant’s retirement, Alabama did not have a single punt blocked or a punt returned for a touchdown against them. Coach Rutledge was one of the best coaches in the country! His on field coaching duties ended in 1982 when Coach Bryant retired. After a stint at Gulf States Paper, he returned to the Capstone to be the Bryant Hall dorm director from 1990-1996 under Coach Gene Stallings. As a player and a coach, he was a part of 5 National Championship Teams and 15 Southeastern Conference Championship Teams! The decade previous to joining the TA football program Coach Rutledge had suffered through some health problems and had a serious bout with lung cancer. He had to have one lung removed but it did not stop him. He was probably the closest thing to a real life John Wayne that I ever knew! To me, he was larger than life.
I met Coach Rutledge through church. My family and I started attending First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa right after we moved in early June of 2007. Coach Rutledge and I met after he helped my wife one night after choir practice. Her car would not start and Coach and his wife, Norma, came to her rescue. Coach and I hit it off and started having lunch together and discussing football. We had some great discussions at Ruby Tuesday on McFarland Boulevard and Academy Drive. We would talk for hours, never about scheme, only about technique, the quarterback-center exchange, long snapping, and how to motivate players. It was an education that I could not have gotten for a million dollars. In late July I nervously offered the coach a job. Nervously probably does not do it justice. He had coached for the greatest coach of all time and now this 36 year old, first time high school head coach is offering him a job at a school that was rebuilding. Much to my surprise and delight, he accepted with great enthusiasm! He was like a kid in a candy store! I know this will sound crazy, but I really believe he was as excited about coaching at TA as much as he was about coaching at Alabama.
Jack Rutledge (left) and Wayne Brantley
Tuscaloosa Academy 2007
Justin Moon was 23 years old and had just finished his playing career at Alabama in 2006. Justin was a star high school offensive lineman from Guntersville, Alabama. A prize recruit in Alabama’s 2003 class. Justin was known as one of the best run blockers and athletic offensive linemen in the Southeast. Justin was an All-State performer in football and an All-County performer in basketball both his junior and senior seasons. He was coveted by a lot of schools. He played four years for the Tide under Coach Mike Shula and earned his degree in Business in 2007. He struggled through several injuries during his Tide playing career but was highly respected by all of his teammates and his coaches. He was one of offensive line coach Bob Connelly’s favorite players because of his great attitude, toughness, and his willingness to always put the team first. You couldn’t help but love Justin, he had a great smile and a great personality. His laugh was infectious. His best friend at Alabama was fellow Tide offensive lineman, Chris Capps. They were cut from the same mold, big, tough, high character, country boys that loved to hunt and fish and play football.
Kenneth Vandervort (left) and Justin Moon (right)
Kenneth coached our LB’s and Justin coached our OL at Tuscaloosa Academy
My connection with Justin Moon came through Chris Capps. Chris had played for me in high school in Atlanta. I was his offensive coordinator and I also taught him in 11th grade U.S. History. I also taught Chris’ sister Courtney, and his girlfriend, Lindsey Ballard! The Capps family and the Ballard family are as good as they come and I was close to them. In a lot of ways I feel like I am a part of both of their families and I think they feel the same way. My wife, Lisa, and my children, Ashton and Bryant, and I would make the trip to Bryant-Denny stadium often in the fall to watch Chris play for the Tide. It was a big family outing! We would tailgate on the quad, usually with Taco Casa or Dreamland ribs, go to the game, and then spend time visiting with the Capps and Ballards post-game. Justin and the Moon family were also always present at the post-game party. I got to know the Moon family well so it made it a no-brainer to offer Justin a position on the TA staff in the summer of 2007. Justin and I met at Firehouse Subs right across from Bryant-Denny Stadium in early June, I talked through the mission and vision of the program and what was expected from the coaches. Justin was very impressive, he talked for an hour about the inside zone play. He talked about steps, combo blocks, eyes on the second level, and being physical. I could tell he had a lot of knowledge and a lot of energy and that he would make a great coach! You could feel that Justin deeply cared about you when you were around him. He was a winner in every sense of the word and he had a heart of gold.
Chris Capps with me and my children in the A Club at Bryant-Denny Stadium
It was incredible the way God orchestrated this coaching staff. We had two former Alabama offensive linemen coaching our offensive line. One a player from the early 1960’s and one from the early 2000’s. Old school and new school! Coach Rutledge was all about toughness, grit, shoulder blocking, and pad level. Coach Moon was all about zone blocking, steps, using your hands, and moving your feet. They were both hard-headed, as stubborn as you could be and tough as nails! We had so much fun in the coaches office just sitting and listening to them debate the proper way to block a defender and they loved to demonstrate on anyone who dared come in the room! Some of my fondest memories of that season are watching Coach Kenneth Vandervort, our linebackers coach, and former Alabama player, and Coach John Copeland, our defensive coordinator, and Alabama former Alabama player, as they would laugh at Jack and Justin and egg them on! Jack Rutledge and Justin Moon were a lot more than football coaches, they were my friends, they were my brothers. We had a blast together coaching football, eating lunch together at Southland Restaurant, talking Alabama football, and just hanging out. I think we all made each other better. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another”. In order for iron to sharpen iron, one piece needs to be equally hard or harder. Surround yourself with great men. You need to have men in your life that will make you sharper!
That 2007 season set the tone and it set a standard for how TA would play football over the next several years. That tone and standard had Jack Rutledge’s and Justin Moon’s fingerprints all over it! They were the men!
Jack and Justin both loved Alabama football, two a days, the seven man sled, board drills, the power and counter play, drawing blocking schemes on the white board, and sprint out pass protection. They could also both tell a great story. I could sit and listen for hours as Coach Rutledge would tell Coach Bryant stories. I could also sit and listen for hours as Coach Moon told hunting and fishing stories. But most importantly, they loved their family and their friends, they loved the players that they coached and they loved each other! During that season I taught our team about the 10 characteristics of a Knight. Courage, Discipline, Unselfishness, Humility, Loyalty, Purity, Perseverance, Honesty, Integrity and Servant Leadership. Coach Jack Rutledge and Coach Justin Moon were and are the embodiment of these. They are forever Alabama! They are forever Knights!
In establishing the foundation of your program you must have a plan of how you will win football games. In my experience here are the measurables that you need to focus on in order to win games. This should be taught to the team and a report should be given each week when the game film is reviewed. A board or chart in the locker room is a great way for the players to see the accomplishment and how it correlates to winning!
- No Turnovers on offense and we must create turnovers on defense
- Our goal will be to create 2 turnovers per game by the opponent
- No Pre-Snap or Post Whistle Penalties
- No False starts or off-sides, we must stay ahead of the chains and not give free yards to the opponent
- Post Whistle Penalties are usually 15 yards and are selfish actions!
- 1st Down
- We must gain 4 yards on first down and prevent our opponent from doing so
- 3rd Down
- We must convert 70% and hold our opponent to less than 30%
- We must never punt from inside our own 25 yard line
- Hidden Yards in Special Teams
- We must win the hidden yards in special teams by at least 50 yards in each game
Take pride in these areas as well, all of these are something you can control as a team each Friday night:
- Be the most well conditioned team
- Play harder than your opponent
- Be better prepared than your opponent
- Fundamentally block and tackle better than your opponent