Making Strides: Russell, Gregory lead Mountaineers, Governors back from brink

Heritage coach Brint Russell strides into Jack Renfro Stadium ahead of the Mountaineers last season.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Heritage coach Brint Russell strides into Jack Renfro Stadium ahead of the Mountaineers last season.

William Blount coach David Gregory gets a hug from his daughter, Madison, after a big win.

William Blount coach David Gregory gets a hug from his daughter, Madison, after a big win.

Unlike their Alcoa and Maryville counterparts, Brint Russell and David Gregory didn’t inherit teams coming off state championships the year before.

Heritage had won nine games in five seasons under Tommy Rewis when it hired Russell to be its new coach three years ago. Russell was introduced to the Mountaineers and their fans the same day Barack Obama was sworn in as the 43rd president of the United States.

William Blount swooned from a school-record 9-3 season the year before to 1-9 under interim coach Richie Wilhite before the previous coach, Catholic head man Scott Meadows, returned from a leave of absence to get the Governors going again. Meadows accepted the position with the Irish after the Governors had gone through spring practice. Gregory was hired in late May three years ago after school had already let out for the summer.

Gregory and Russell will both be entering their third season at their respective schools when they lead their teams onto Alcoa’s Goddard Field for Friday night’s Maryville Orthopaedic Clinic Football Jamboree.

The defending Class 6A champion Rebels and North Carolina commitment quarterback Patton Robinette meet the Governors and new signal caller Hunters Saunders in the opening quarter at 7 p.m. The punt, pass and kick skills competition and the 40-yard dash for linemen and backs follows.

The host and defending 3A champion Tornadoes meet the Mountaineers in the third quarter, with Alcoa doubling down against Greenback in the night’s final quarter. All four Blount County schools open the 2011 season next weekend, with Heritage traveling to Jefferson County and William Blount hosting Sevier County on Friday. Saturday, the Tornadoes open against Cleveland, the Rebels against Webb School of Knoxville, in the inaugural Airport Motor Mile Bowl at Maryville’s Shields Stadium.

The Tornadoes are looking to add to a record seven consecutive state championships this season, the last five under TSSAA Hall of Fame coach Gary Rankin. All Maryville coach George Quarles has done after being promoted from offensive coordinator following the Rebels’ 1998 championship season is win titles in five of the last seven years - eight championships overall - with a state record 74-game winning streak thrown in for good measure.

Neither Gregory nor Russell had the luxury of starting with teams already on top.

“When we first stepped foot on campus, things were a lot different than they are now,” Russell said.

After two seasons, Russell (7-13) has all but eclipsed the 9-41 mark left behind by his predecessor. The upset of then-defending state champion Catholic his first season was a program maker. At the close of that inaugural season, Mountaineer running back/linebacker Michael Cermak signed a Division I scholarship with West Point.

“That was huge,” Russell said.

Eight Mountaineers in Russell’s two seasons have gone on to play at the college level.

That first season was all about changing mindsets, Russell said, ridding the program of the thought process of “when things go wrong we hang our heads.”

“You have to keep in mind you’re building a program, not a team,” Russell said.

Players like Minh Tran, Evan Crockett, Evan Brown and Cermak did a lot to rally Heritage the last two seasons, Russell said. An administration and energized booster club determined to turn things around quickly got behind the team to add a new weight room, new film and meeting rooms and other facilities.

“Those were things we didn’t have that other teams did,” Russell said.

The biggest move that first season was a change in offenses, Russell punting a possession-oriented ground game for a spread offense that emphasized the quick strike. Much in keeping with the Mountaineers’ motto that season - “Full Speed” - the move was as much psychological as strategic.

“The mentality was, and if I heard it once, I heard it a million times, there are no athletes here,” Russell said.

Throwing the ball around the field had the desired effect of firing the Mountaineers up. If running back Chase Cline and a super-sized offensive line have their say, the program Russell began building two years ago could easily become a playoff team this season.

“I’m really excited,” Russell said. “The optimism is real high, and we’ve got a lot of seniors.”

Gregory is especially significant to the seniors at William Blount. Two years ago, hired after Wilhite was not retained and Meadows left, he was the third coach for the Class of 2010 in six months.

A state championship head coach from Mississippi who’d moved to Tennessee after Hurricane Katrina, Gregory joined Meadows’ staff as a defensive coordinator in the spring of 2009. The timing of Meadows’ exit couldn’t have been worse for finding a new coach. If Gregory had declined the offer, the Governors would have been well into June before a new coach was onboard.

He could not simply turn and walk away, Gregory said.

“I guess it goes back to how I was raised,” he said. “My daddy (Jack Gregory) was a Baptist minister, and he had been offered some prestigious churches throughout his career, but he never took them. He always wanted to build a church.”

Three coaches in six months led to a lot of confusion that first season, Gregory said. Instilling his approach was the first thing to be done.

“It was a big transition year,” he said. “It’s hard when you’ve got a group of teenagers who had done things a certain way, and someone new comes in and changes things up.”

The Governors played to a 3-7 finish that first year, but there were a lot of close calls. William Blount gave Catholic a rousing run for its money before the Irish surged to win late. Bearden was thrown a scare in a 24-10 escape. West was the deepest cut of all: 28-26 Rebels.

Who knows where William Blount would be if players like 2010 seniors Robbie Irwin, Randall Davis, Jonathan Ridout, Josh Burton and Zach Thomason hadn’t held the Governors together. Jesse Crisp, Dalton Wheeler, Chris and Coty Willocks got William Blount a little closer a year ago. This year’s senior class, the first to have the same coach for three years in a long time, could be the one that returns the Governors to the playoffs.

“All the seniors,” Gregory said, “whether they’re playing a lot or not playing at all. There’s not a bad apple in that senior class.”

Pretty good coach, too.

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