PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE
“Losing is like a bad disease. It can be very contagious and not easy to cure.
High school football in a small community is the heartbeat of the town. It gives the town something to rally around. It becomes that town’s identity. If you can figure out a way to be successful, it can be the one driving force that keeps your community going.”
-- Vic Grider, Head Coach, South Pittsburg Football
Warren County Football did not have a winning season from 1991–2019. Ten coaches over 29 years failed to have a winning season. One of those coaches, Matt Turner, broke the losing streak in his second season. Warren County won its first eight games in 2020 to break the losing streak with a vengeance.
Footnote: Warren County had 35 losing seasons out of 36 seasons from 1984–2019.
Some very good football coaches tried to break the streak before Matt Turner. The coach who came the closest was Chris Madewell, who went 5-6 twice. Madewell was among four WCHS coaches who suffered 39 straight losses from 2001-2004. Madewell broke the losing streak in 2005, his first season of going 5-6.
Footnote: Warren County lost 49 out of 50 games from 2000 to 2004.
To fully appreciate what Matt Turner accomplished, it is important to remember how pervasive the losing was, as well as what the responsibilities are of a head coach. Football is a team sport, and the value of a Mr. Football, C.J. Taylor, should not be underestimated.
The offensive line, The Syrup Squad, did an outstanding job. Several skilled position players in addition to C.J. made meaningful contributions. The defense was the unsung hero of the season.
Many players and coaches deserve credit for the successful 8-3 season in 2020. Nevertheless, the disease of losing was real, just as COVID-19 is real and threatened to eliminate the 2020 season.
The hope to overcome COVID-19 is a vaccine. Warren County football needed a vaccine to overcome the disease of losing. Matt Turner was the vaccine.
THE SYMPTOMS OF LOSING
1. Losing causes players not to participate in the sport. Warren County High School has one of the largest student populations in the state. Warren County is the 21st ranked high school in the TSSAA with 1,908 students (959 males – 949 females). This puts Warren County in the largest football classification. Coach Turner referred to his varsity as the “Dirty 30.” Many of the teams Warren County faced had 80 to 100+ players. Winning five region games in 2020 against teams with larger rosters was impressive. Teams such as Warren County become smaller when losing.
2. Players lose their work ethic. Chris Madewell said when he played on the 1990 team that went 8-3, all the linemen could bench 300 pounds, with several benching over 400. Some running backs were benching over 300 pounds.
When Madewell assumed the head coaching job in 2004, no one on the team was benching 300 pounds. Teams become weaker when losing.
3. Consecutive years of losing creates a coaching graveyard. Many coaches did not want to come to Warren County because it would kill their resume. One coach expressed it this way, “You have to be a dumb a** to coach at Warren County.” His logic was he would have to take a cut in pay and fight to get another head coaching job after taking all the losses. Losing teams become unattractive to successful coaches.
4. Losing encourages parents and members of the community to start accosting coaches, creating a non-supportive, dysfunctional environment. Coaches will correctly state that parents and members of the community complain everywhere.
The difference a culture of losing creates is a dynamic in which parents become more abusive than normal. Coaches at Warren County have been forced to endure accusations of racism, calling bad plays, and not caring about the players. Administrations are often passive in this dynamic and there is no buffer between complaining parents and coaches.
An extreme example, but a true story, is when parents start shopping their kids to other teams. It is a statement of non-support that can tear a program apart.
Losing brings out the critics in abundance, especially in the age of social media.
The Responsibilities of a Head Coach –
1. A head coach has to get players on the team, “on the bus.” If only 3% of your student population is on the football team, there will be challenges. In the past, Warren County may have been competitive for the first two quarters, but as the games against Murfreesboro teams transpired, the Pioneers would fade. Too many players would play both ways and fatigue developed in the later quarters.
Turner overcame the shortage of players by recruiting local students to come out for the team. The Holder brothers, Kason and Ryland, came out for the team in August of 2019, right before the season started. Braden Bottoms came out his senior year. C.J. Taylor helped recruit Bottoms. Turner actually helped keep C.J. on the team.
To his credit, Turner was determined to put the best 11 players on the field. This meant many players played both ways. Even Mr. Football C.J. Taylor played both ways. How Turner kept his team healthy and strong enough to have so many players play both ways for the season is sign of superior coaching.
Winning creates success, and Matt Turner will have that advantage to “recruit” players in 2021. Turner will also have to keep Warren County players in Warren County. In previous years, coaches have lost players to surrounding counties.
2. A head coach has to motivate his players to condition and work hard to get better. No one assumed Warren County could put together a winning season in the region with the Murfreesboro teams. Matt Turner believed winning was possible.
Previous coaches, including Turner’s predecessor, Tom Moore, thought it was impossible to develop a winning season in the region with Murfreesboro teams. Scott Smith, a previous one-year head coach, resigned by text to the team when it was announced that Warren County would be placed in the region with Murfreesboro teams.
Matt Turner instilled a work ethic. Turner believed Warren County could win in the region. One thing Turner did was focus on power cleans and squats for strength conditioning for linemen. Turner also spent a lot of time in what the linemen affectionately call the “Fun House.”
Being a former lineman in high school and at UT-Chattanooga has made Turner personally determined to develop all-state caliber linemen. The line must be a strength of the team for Warren County to continue winning. Matt Turner has the passion and football knowledge to make this happen.
3. A football team cannot coach itself. Warren County was searching for a new coach when the program was at another nadir, an extreme low point after the 2018 season. Some people questioned if Warren County could continue football. There was real concern about having enough players to field a competitive team.
The solution was a young coach who had been the head middle school coach in the past and was the present head wrestling coach. Matt Turner had not been a head high school football coach, and he was about to enter what many considered to be the toughest 6A region in the state.
Exhibiting football intelligence beyond his years, Turner installed Rick Stewart’s pistol-wing offense. This was an offense that “weaker, smaller” teams had used successfully. Turner also installed a defense that was a hybrid system that also was able to compensate for Warren County’s lack of strength and speed.
In the words of Matt Turner, “Warren County was not strong. The team’s football intelligence was not high. The team did not have great tacklers.”
Tom Moore, an intelligent football coach who was captain of Vanderbilt’s defense in his college days and a former head coach at Brentwood Academy, would not disagree with Turner. Moore was constantly frustrated by the team’s inability to get better.
Turner stepped up and put together a staff of entirely former Warren County Pioneer football players. Turner was not concerned about his resume and how the job would affect his future. Turner was dedicated to turning Warren County into winners. As Turner often says, “Winners win!”
4. Matt Turner immediately started talking about changing the culture when he accepted the job. One term he refused to be spoken was “Pioneer Pride.” It was a concept without meaning to Turner. Turner also talked often about “burning the ships – no turning back.” He demanded dedication to the team.
Matt Turner had an intangible quality that did not show up on paper. Family was No. 1 for him, and it was instilled in him by his father and mother. In college, Turner made the commitment to return home to take care of his mother who had been in a wheelchair since he was a 1-year-old kid. He helped his father and sister take care of her. After she passed away, Matt did the same thing for his father as he became ill and passed away from cancer.
The Pioneer football team became Matt Turner’s family. The players were his kids. Camron Bond described it this way, “Matt wears his emotions on his sleeve. He does anything for the kids. He confronts parents honestly. No coach speak. He is brutally honest. Matt is great at relating to kids. He started camp again. He did things to promote team unity.”
Vince Lombardi said, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all-the-time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”
The heart of the Warren County football team was being questioned for decades. Twenty-nine straight years of losing seasons that included losing 49 of 50 games creates a lot of doubt.
High school football players are not blind, obedient soldiers. They rarely drink the kool aid. The principles of football are virtually meaningless without winning. Sacrificing free time to practice football and endure the pain of conditioning is not appealing if the team is losing.
How many players would have not played football if Matt Turner was not a head coach with passion and a vision for winning? Would the Holder brothers have played in 2019? Would Braden Bottoms have played in 2020?
Tough to answer a hypothetical. Here is another hypothetical -- would Nick Saban have won at Warren County in two years? In 2019, it was difficult to envision anyone outside of Warren County with successful head-coaching experience coming to Warren County. Moreover, Warren County was not an appealing destination for assistant coaches.
Ezekiel 22:30 “I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one.”
The person who stood up was Matt Turner. Call him the vaccine. He knocked down the walls of doubt. He kept the team together when many thought it would continue losing, potentially folding.
Football had lost its place as the town’s identity. No one in Warren County wanted to be branded a loser.
One man changed the culture. Matt Turner says he is building a program. Next year his Pioneer team will be competing in a new region with Shelbyville, Coffee County, Cookeville, and Lebanon. Next season will be a true test of Matt Turner’s program.
One winning year in 2020 does not change the tradition. There is a lot of pressure on Matt Turner to continue winning.
Graduating 23 seniors who included Mr. Football C.J. Taylor will be a tough act to follow. The 2020 Pioneer team was 8-0 and ranked 10th in the state. Is the cupboard now bare? Is the team on life support like it was at the end of the 2018 season? There is only way one way to answer those questions. The record at the end of the 2021 season.
Matt Turner has done everything to make Warren County believe he and Pioneer football are winners.