James Rainer is not a William Blount graduate.
Had the Governors running backs coach accepted an offer to follow Scott Meadows to Catholic, few could have blamed him.
Meadows was his high school coach. They’d won a state championship together at Alcoa in 2000. When Rainer came looking for a job last winter after an award-winning track and field career at East Tennessee State, Meadows put him on his William Blount staff as an assistant.
All that withstanding, when Meadows took the Catholic job in late April, Rainer stayed put.
“The kids,” he said. “I had the chance to go with him to Catholic. I said, ‘Nah.’
“It’s not always about the money.”
There was something about the new guy, Rainer said, the coach who would have to rally William Blount from a 1-9 finish a year ago, the coach who would be the third for the Governors in less than six months. David Gregory was going to need all hands on deck to right William Blount’s ship, so Rainer stayed.
That show of support from his new staff, Gregory said, has been humbling.
“I’m honored that they feel that way,” he said. “I’ve tried to be as honest and as straightforward with them as I can. That’s just the way I am.”
The timing of Meadows’ departure could hardly have been worse for the Governors. Interim head coach Richie Wilhite directed an injury-riddled William Blount team to a 1-9 showing in 2008. Meadows, who’d been on a year-long leave of absence for personal reasons, announced in November he was returning, taking the team through spring practice in February.
When Meadows accepted the Catholic offer, Gregory, 49, who coached running backs at Daphne (Ala.) High last year before serving as the Governors new defensive coordinator this spring, was soon promoted to head coach.
The challenges were many, not the least of which being no spring practice to install the offense he wanted run. Learning the plays in summer ball is no substitute for seeing it live - in pads. The coaching staff was all but brand new also, with Rainer, offensive line coach Justin Emert and defensive line coach Lon Thornton the only holdovers from the Meadows regime.
For Emert, Gregory would be his sixth head coach in 11 seasons with the Governors.
“The most difficult thing is there’s always that uncertainty when someone else comes in,” Emert said. “‘Where do I fit?’
“Like I tell everybody, I’m loyal to this school, and I’m loyal to those kids in that (locker) room. I’ll do what’s best for them.”
With so much ground to make up, right away Gregory set about changing mindsets. Instead of the staff’s annual golf retreat in July, the new Governor skipper suggested white water rafting on the Pigeon River.
“None of us were big golfers,” Gregory said. “I thought it would be something everybody would enjoy.”
Football coaches are generally a hardy lot to start with, and the Governor coaching staff is no exception. When the guide on the rafting trip asked if they wanted to go all out or take it slow, Gregory and his crew said let it rip.
“He asked, straight up, ‘Y’all want to take it easy or y’all want to go hard,” Gregory said.
Somewhere around the midway point of the trip, Emert said he glanced to the rear of the boat to see only the guide’s shoes pointed skyward as he went over the side into the drink.
“Basically, we had the oldest, most experienced guy,” Emert said, “and he was crazy.”
The retreat went better than planned, Gregory said. It was a coaching staff with a renewed, single-minded focus that returned from the two-day outing. What few of them knew was how ready Gregory was for the task at hand.
“When you confront adversity, there’s one of two ways you can go,” he said. “You can let it whip your tail, or you can man up.”
Gregory arrived with a reputation as a program builder. His Central Hinds Academy team won the 1995 Mississippi state championship. His ‘93 squad finished runner up. Neither though, is the team he’ll remember most.
Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Course in 2005. Gregory and his wife and daughter weren’t spared. When the flood waters receded, they’d lost everything.
“We lived in a camper for four or five months,” Gregory said.
Christmas that year was a painful one, he said. The following year, he rented a cabin in Gatlinburg for the holidays.
“I told my wife my little girl is not going to have Christmas in a camper this year,” Gregory said.
Along with finding a place to live after Katrina, Gregory had a football team to help coach. The hardships were genuine among his players, he said. Many were forced to leave the team as their parents relocated. Others were forced to take part-time jobs to help their families rebuild.
With the ones who remained, Gregory helped put a team together to play the season.
“To watch those guys …” he said, his voice trailing off, “that was a touching experience. You had guys who lost everything in the world, and they’re practicing football. It was difficult for the simple fact my family was going through the same thing.
“I’ll cherish that year forever.”
Gregory said his wife immediately took a liking to East Tennessee during the Christmas getaway. When Meadows offered the coordinator’s job, Gregory said he jumped at the chance. Three months on, he said he’s never had a second thought about the decision.
“No,” he said. “Never.
“It’s probably been a long time since I felt like this is where I’m supposed to be.”
So, too, are former Governors Steven Whitehead, Jeremy Snoderly and Andrew Anderson, now assistant coaches at the school whose cause they once championed as players.
William Blount finished Blount County champions Snoderly’s senior year. With that in mind, last season’s slide really hit home, the former East Tennessee State champion high jumper said. When Meadows left in April, it stung.
“We thought we’d gotten it to a certain level of success,” Snoderly said. “It’s upsetting to me, but there are no hard feelings.”
Just two seasons ago, William Blount posted a 9-3 record, the best finish in school history, reaching the second round of the playoffs. It was a high mark for a Governor team that had been on the rise for several seasons. To see it all come apart a year ago was tough, Emert said.
“Last year, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” he said.
Injuries had William Blount down to its fourth-string quarterback before the season even began. Then it got worse.
That fourth-string quarterback just happened to be senior Darrin Garner, the team’s star running back. The week before last season’s jamboree, Garner suffered a broken collar bone and was lost for half the season. By the time he returned, fellow senior Don Cope, the team’s top receiver and playmaker, was lost for the remainder of the season with an injured knee.
Only a win over rival Heritage in the finale averted a winless season.
To move forward, the Governors must now leave all of that behind, Anderson said.
“They can’t be looking back,” he said. “They’ve got to sell out for the new coach. Coach Whitehead summed it up perfectly for us: It’s all about the pride in the program.”
That pride isn’t lost on the players who now must bring William Blount back.
“You’ve just got to take it all in stride,” Governor senior Dylan Keith said. “Whatever comes, you’ve just got to go with it.”
With all the hardships of a year ago, the coaching changes, fellow senior Chad Hartline said he never once thought about just walking away. Others did just that.
“It’s football, man,” he said. “This is the best time of your life. You don’t want to miss out on your last year.”