Soddy-Daisy has endured back-to-back losing seasons and four in the past six years and the Trojans have seen coaches come and go.
The Trojans were a combined 6-14 overall and 3-7 in District 5-AAA in 2011-12 and in July were predicted by coaches and media to finish last in the league this season.
But in February principal John Maynard, who has since become assistant principal at Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts, and athletic director Steve Henry put their heads together and in an attempt to stem the team’s losing way, and hired 32-year-old Justin Barnes to change the program’s fortunes.
Barnes, who grew up in Falling Water and was a quarterback at Red Bank High School before playing collegiately at UT-Chattanooga, has been down this road before, but not as a head coach with all the pressures of turning a program around squarely on his shoulders.
“When I went to Oconee County (in Watkinsville, Ga.) they were coming off a losing season,” Barnes said. “The new staff had three losing seasons, but in my last year we started to turn the corner and ended up 5-5.”
Upon arriving at Soddy-Daisy, Barnes addressed the Trojans’ misfortunes head-on after the prediction that they would wind up this year just like in 2012 – in the district’s dark and dingy dungeon of sub-.500 football.
“I told the guys that until we prove ourselves that’s where we belong,” he said. “And we have a lot to prove, a ways to go. I also told them this is what the district thinks of you and if we’ll work hard we can be competitive and win a few games.”
One of the key lessons Barnes learned at Oconee County was brought to the immediate attention of his new players.
“We have to break that losing mentality,” he said. “The great part about it here is our kids are hard working. They have no bones about doing what is necessary and doing it right. Everything has been very positive.”
There is no magic wand. The job of reversing a downward trend begun in 2005 when the Trojans followed up a 9-3 campaign – a season in which they won their first seven games, outscored opponents, 238-66, and eventually reached the second round of the playoffs – with successive 4-6, 1-9 and 2-8 seasons.
That 2-8 mark in 2007 came in the first year of Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s switch from region alignments to one of districts. Over the next three seasons Soddy-Daisy went 17-14 overall and 13-6 six in the district. The Trojans then posted the disappointing 2011 and 2012 campaigns, last year ending with six consecutive losses.
Barnes has quickly tried to change the program’s culture.
“The weight is on my shoulders,” he said. “In every decision I make I have to worry about all 80 kids, but I make the decision and go with it. I try not to second-guess myself.”
Barnes said he met individually with players and discussed how they felt about the program, last season’s results, the upcoming season, and things about the program they would like to continue and things they’d like to change.
Then, he talked about his own ideas.
“One thing I said to them concerned accountability,” Barnes said. “These seniors have gone through a lot of adversity in their time here and really struggled the last two years, but they’ve stuck it out. I’m fresh blood to them and from day one I challenged them to set the stage for a turnaround. They have taken it to heart.
“I told them I have rules and they would be held accountable for their behavior on and off the field. I want leaders on the field and leaders in the classroom. We’ve lost some kids since spring practice because of those type things. In the end, I’d rather have 60 players all in than have 100 players on the roster with 40 of them not all with us.”
Assistant coach Drew Lyness, the only holdover from Kevin Orr’s previous staff, says Barnes’ authoritative approach has proven to be the right course of action.
“I love the attitude he’s brought to the guys,” said Lyness, 27, the Trojans’ defensive backs coach. “He’s strict and that’s what we need and the kids bought into what we’re doing. In no time, Justin has changed the mind-set of students and players and it has been great working with him.”
For two months Barnes and Lyness formed a two-man staff.
“We got to know each other really well, really quick,” said Lyness, who is also the school’s girls head basketball coach. “When I was going to Red Bank Middle School, Justin was the high school quarterback. I enjoyed watching him play. When his name came up for the job here I was glad he was interested.”
Following an acclimation period in which the attitude adjustment was put into effect, Barnes began spring practice and he purposely started slowly. That methodology was necessary, he thought, because his new players were being asked to adapt to a new head coach, a new staff – with the exception of Lyness – and a spread offensive system that varied from what Orr, utilized in his four years at Soddy-Daisy.
“We didn’t really install a lot, probably four base running plays and about eight passes and two screens,” Barnes said. “We started from scratch, focused on fundamentals and taught them football. Over the first few says we didn’t run team stuff at all, just individuals and fundamentals.”
Brett Standifer, the Trojans’ starting quarterback in 2012, transferred to Bradley Central and forced Barnes to find a new “trigger” for the offense and it looks like junior Hunter Maynor might be the guy on Friday when the Trojans open the season at Hixson.
Barnes admittedly is going to rely on a group of eight seniors, led by running backs/defensive backs C.J. Blue and Caleb Watson, defensive tackle Gavin Moody, last year’s defensive MVP, linebackers Jared Eidson and Austin Goins, offensive lineman Caleb Ooten, the only returning starter in that unit, and defensive lineman Tyler Gamble.
“We’ve grown every day in practice,” Barnes said, “and they’re picking up the system. By no means am I declaring we will go 10-0. It’s a long road ahead, but I hope we’ll be competitive. While 10-0 would be great, realistically we have a shot to win some games. This is a tough district and we’re just trying to build a foundation and a mentality around this place.
“Soddy-Daisy is a football community. People want to see the program do well. Other coaches at the school want us to do well because that can pull more kids into the school and other sports can flourish.”
Barnes’ early goal was to become a coach by the age of 30. He missed the mark by just two years, but he has several friends who landed top jobs when they were 25 or 26 years old.
He’s heard their stories. Some were good, some bad.
“Some of them struggled,” he said. “I’m glad to have a few more years under my belt before I got the opportunity. I wasn’t that disappointed. But I want to make my program successful.”
That’s the maturity of a 32-year-old rookie head coach shining through.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)