AFTER nearly all of East Jackson’s football coaching staff resigned shortly after spring practice in May, the Eagles were met with a seemingly infinite number of personnel challenges – with principals, athletic directors and coaches playing a metaphorical game of administrative musical chairs.
This month, EJCHS has begun to tackle some of those challenges, but as many of the new East Jackson hires admit, there is still much work to be done.
The Jackson County Board of Education recently named Gary Hughes as the new head football coach at EJCHS.
Hughes originally signed on to be defensive coordinator under Robert Andrews, but when Andrews left in the spring, the BOE decided to offer Hughes the head coaching position.
Hughes said he accepted the position for a number of reasons – namely, that it seemed like a good fit for him.
“For one, I think you have a chance to do some great things here,” Hughes said. “I didn’t step in just to be average. I want to make a difference. There’s going to be some work ahead, there’s no question about that. But I think we can get it turned around.”
Andrews and former athletic director Brent Tisdale cited their main reason for abandoning EJCHS was due to furlough days and not being allowed to bring in all the personnel they wanted. Hughes says he understands their frustrations, but says those things are no deal breaker for him.
“When you’ve gone to college and you are a professional with advanced degrees, do you want to get paid commensurately? Of course you do,” said Hughes. “For me personally, I look for a fit more so than anything else. There are a lot of counties that have furloughs. I think the economy is turning around and getting better, so we aren’t going to worry about those things too much.”
Jackson County director of athletics and activities Bill Stewart said the BOE is confident in its decision to hire Hughes.
“When we went into the process of hiring, we were looking for someone to work well with the community, to be a leader and an organizer,” said Stewart.
Stewart added that that Hughes has a proven track record when it comes to fundraising, recruiting and putting together a comprehensive plan.
“(Hughes) has had significant success,” Stewart said. “On top of that, he’s a high character, high integrity person.”
Hughes has had a long tenure of approximately 30 years of coaching experience at the high school and college levels.
After graduating from Sterling University in Kansas in 1982, Hughes served as an assistant coach at Emporia State College, Valdosta State and then earned his first head coaching position at Lecanto High School. He later went on to become the defensive coordinator at West Texas State and Livingston University before once again heading up high school programs in Florida at Lake Weir and Wildwood. After his tenure in Florida, Hughes moved to Georgia where he coached at Etowah, North Forsyth and most recently, Dacula.
Hughes will also teach physical education at EJCHS.
In addition to Hughes, East Jackson hired three new coaches to fill positional gaps.
Clark Drennen, former head coach at Fannin County, will be the Eagles defensive coordinator. Hughes was able to bring former offensive coordinator at Dacula, Paul Alexander, and his son Gary Hughes Jr. (assistant coach) onto the Eagle staff as well.
According to Stewart, potential financial constraints and furlough days were a non-issue for the new coaching staff.
“They bought into the vision of what’s going to happen at East (Jackson),” added Stewart. “They understand that the system is going through some challenges, but they also understand they can persevere.”
The Jackson County BOE also recently decided to promote former EJCHS health and physical education teacher Shawn Lindsey to the positions of assistant principal and athletic director.
In the midst of these personnel changes, a struggling Eagle football program is still trying to earn its wings. After an 0-10 season in 2012 and the confusion that ensued after the spring resignation, one might expect that many kids would be reluctant to even try out for the Eagles.
Yet, many East Jackson players have continued to work throughout the summer, even with the uncertainty surrounding their program. Hughes said he’s been working with the kids since early June, focusing mainly on strength and agility training. He notes that attendance has ranged from around 28 to 35 kids, but he believes the numbers will increase when multi-sport athletes participating in other camps finish up.
While the future of the football program at East Jackson is still tentative, Hughes believes the key factor in determining its outcome is trust.
“I think the very first thing that we have to do is regain trust and stability,” he said. “I’m not going to get into all of that stuff about all the things that happened in the past. The real world turns like that. I’m not going to look back, but instead move forward. I do know that we have to get the trust of the community, the people in the building, the players and the parents. Establishing a line of trust with somebody that they believe in, somebody they understand and somebody that’s going to be there – I think all those things are important. Once we gain ground, I think everything else will follow pretty fast after that.”
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