The Fall of a Football Dynasty
The Valdosta (GA) Wildcats, the winningest high school football team in the nation, defeated region foe Houston County (GA) Friday to even their record at 5-5, narrowly avoiding their second losing record in three seasons.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Since current head coach Rick Tomberlin took the reins at Valdosta in 2006, the Wildcats have posted a putrid 15-17 record, including three straight losses to cross-town rival Lowndes High School.
However, prior to arriving at Valdosta, Tomberlin had enjoyed success as the coach of Washington County (GA), where he won three state championships and coached current NFL linebacker Takeo Spikes.
Tomberlin's predecessor, current Apopka (FL) coach Rick Darlington, didn't fare much better during his time at VHS.
Despite a region championship and a trip to the state championship game his first season, Darlington had a tense relationship with the community throughout his tenure, resulting in his resignation following his third season at the helm in 2005.
Not to mention, Darlington lost his final two games to the Vikings, giving Lowndes a five-game winning streak against the 'Cats in the "Winnersville Classic."
Similar to Tomberlin, Darlington was no stranger to success, leading Apopka to its first state championship in 2001 before coming to Valdosta High.
While both Tomberlin and Darlington thought they knew what they were getting into they took the Wildcats coaching job, both men have turned out to be sorely mistaken.
Yet, the failure of these two men to live up to the expectations at Valdosta High is not entirely their fault.
Although the Valdosta coaching job is considered one of the most prestigious positions in high school football, it provides its occupant little margin for error.
One victim of Valdosta High's high expectations is current Woodstock High (GA) head coach Mike O'Brien.
O'Brien was a member of legendary Valdosta coach Nick Hyder's staff from 1981-1995, a stretch that saw the Wildcats win 10 region, six state, and three national championships.
However, Hyder tragically passed away after suffering a heart attack in 1996, delegating the head coaching duties to O'Brien.
Hyder's successor went on to continue Valdosta's winning ways, collecting three region titles and the 1998 state championship in seven seasons.
Yet, despite his success, O'Brien was fired as head coach of the Valdosta Wildcats after the conclusion of the 2002 season.
O'Brien left Valdosta High with a winning percentage of 77.5 percent, the third best mark ever recorded by a Wildcat coach, trailing only Hyder and Wright Bazemore.
The firing of any coach with a winning percentage that high is inexcusable, unless the coach has not complied with team rules.
The dismissal of Mike O'Brien by the school board, which was rumored to be the doing of the Touchdown Club, marked the beginning of the end for Valdosta High football.
No longer will a coach patrol the home sideline of Cleveland Field on Friday nights without worrying about his job security.
Every game is now a do-or-die matchup and a slow start to the season will lead to grumbling that will only get louder and louder as each season progresses.
The problem facing Valdosta High School is that the school expects every coach they hire to duplicate the heralded success of former coaches Bazemore and Hyder.
Bazemore and Hyder, whose names grace the stadium, combined for 21 out of Valdosta's 23 state championships, all six national championships, and 480 victories in 50 total seasons.
However, what the school board and Touchdown Club fail to realize is how fortunate Valdosta was to have two coaching legends whose tenures were so close together.
In fact, Valdosta barely missed a beat, with the lesser-known coach Charlie Greene going 17-3 in the two seasons between Bazemore's retirement and Hyder's hiring.
In addition to the high expectations that are associated with the job, Valdosta is rapidly losing talent that they once had unlimited access to.
The prowess of high school football in South Georgia is embodied by the region's success at the state level and the current population growth in the area should add even more prospects to a talent-rich population.
Unfortunately for Valdosta, the majority of the incoming residents have settled outside of the city limits.
Therefore, most of the new talent coming into the area will attend Lowndes High School and play for the Vikings, the Wildcats' bitter rival.
The talent disadvantage Valdosta now suffers, combined with the pressure that the 'Cats coaching job entails, is a formula doomed for failure.
Not to mention, the pressure at Valdosta has intensified even more with the Vikings' recent run of dominance.
Lowndes currently holds a five-game winning streak over Valdosta and the Vikings have won three out of the past four state championships, in addition to a No. 4 ranking in the national polls this season.
While the majority of Wildcat fans are fully aware of the program's shortcomings, the powers that be choose to remain oblivious to reality.
Valdosta High School is no longer an elite football power.
Do the Wildcats still have a great football tradition?
Of course they do.
However, if tradition goes too long without progress, it is buried by the inevitable label of defunct history.
Instead of living off an old tradition, it is time to start a new tradition of winning that will excite the city and bring more talent inside the city limits, wearing black and gold.
While many will want to see immediate results, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will Valdosta High School football.
The Wildcats’ return to high school football relevance will be an uphill battle, but the resilience and toughness of the ‘Cats has proven strong many times before.
Finding a coach that the school board and the Touchdown Club believe in and giving said coach enough time and support to make his presence known and to shape the program into his mold is a key priority.
If the Wildcats can form their identity behind a strong, stable authority figure on the sidelines, it will kick start their quest for a 24th state championship and a return to the state and national rankings.
It may take some time, but it is necessary to find that one coach to battle through the rough times with, whether it be Tomberlin or someone else.
The Valdosta Wildcats are stuck in a deep rut and getting out will not be easy.
However, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the high school that gave Winnersville its name has the potential to rise to prominence once again.
In the words of Coach Hyder, "Never, never, never quit!"
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