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Saturday Morning Quarterback

Andy Reed • Updated Sep 23, 2017 at 9:30 AM

While lamenting the struggles he was having in his attempt to revive Lebanon football, then-coach Sam Harp pointed to the school to the west.

Mt. Juliet has one feeder program, which is also a Wilson County school. Harp said the middle school Bears ran the same system as the high school. Thus, when a new freshman class arrived at MHJS, they already knew the playbook.

At Lebanon, his two major feeders are Walter J. Baird and Winfree Bryant, who are in a separate school system. Thus, he felt he couldn’t tell those coaches to run his high school system. Thus, they arrived at LHS unprepared for football the Harp way.

I pointed out to Harp having three feeder programs (counting the Wilson County co-op team combining Carroll-Oakland and Tuckers Crossroads schools) gave more kids the chance to play, earning them experience by the time they arrived at LHS.

“I like that part of it,” Harp admitted, but re-iterated that having different playbooks negated that advantage.

In his email detailing his team’s narrow loss to Mt. Juliet on Thursday night, Winfree Bryant coach Jody Criswell said MJMS, the largest middle school in the state (I don’t know that for a fact, but I’ve heard it often enough I’ll just say it’s true for the sake of argument), has 92 players and nine coaches. None of the Golden Bear players play both offense and defense, and that they even platoon on offense.

Walter J. Baird may have been reasonably close in size to Mt. Juliet at one time, but the opening of Winfree Bryant in 2011 cut the size in half (yes, sixth grade was added to the middle school, but that doesn’t help in the short term against a large class of eighth-graders). Criswell noted two of his major players - Josh Bass with a dislocated elbow and Copeland Bradford with a knee injury - were out and two others - Kaden Harrell and Luke Painter - were playing out of position.

I mention all of this because years ago, Mac McCurry, then enjoying a successful run as a small-school coach at Moore County (he’s now at large school Franklin County) said the difference between a small and large school wasn’t just the number of players. He said bigger schools tended to have more feeders, which forced competition between the players when they reached the single high school. Of course, McCurry’s school had just one feeder while the school to which he was comparing, Tullahoma, had two (but Tullahoma’s two middle schools co-op the football team).

Using McCurry’s reasoning, Lebanon should be successful because, in theory, as many as three new quarterbacks or three new running backs or three new (name the position) should be arriving on the high school campus as freshmen every year where they would compete to see who would eventually start on the high school team. Trousdale County, like Moore County, a one-feeder school, shouldn’t have been able to compete with Lebanon, let alone beat the Blue Devils.

But forget about winning. How about participation? How many of those 92 Golden Bear players are unable to get on the field due to the sheer size of the roster? How many would start and thrive at a different school?

Of course, Lebanon has been successful in the past. Mark Medley operated under the same school system setup as exists today. There was no Winfree Bryant then, so most of his players came from Walter J. He was also the first coach able to take advantage of the original co-op team, the Wilson County Blue Raiders, who combined students from Carroll-Oakland, TXR and also Southside. That setup didn’t hurt Medley’s Blue Devils any.

I suspect you can round up all the successful programs in the state, look at their feeder systems and find different setups which would prove both Harp and McCurry right - and wrong.

You can look at the feeder setups and the numbers and all the tangible ingredients all you want to. But to build a successful program, it takes a lot of elbow grease and sweat equity by coaches and players (with help from parents and, if applicable, the community). It takes a grind-it-out attitude and a refusal to say “no” in the face of the so-called “obstacles”.

Harp’s successor, Chuck Gentry, had the Blue Devils on a two-game winning streak going into last night. A two-game run does not a turnaround make, but it’s a start.

We can look at college football. For years, Vanderbilt was said to be at a disadvantage to its SEC brethren because of its academics (a convenient crutch) and the fact it’s a private school going against the well-heeled big state schools (interesting how being a private college is considered a disadvantage going against a state school while public high schools believe they are at a disadvantage to the privates). But the Commodores are going into today’s game against mighty Alabama with their chests sticking out with real confidence.

The secret to a winning football program? There are as many ingredients as words in a dictionary. But “hard work”, “grit” and “determination” probably have the best definitions to answer the question.

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