A Retirement Toast to Coach Roger Vandergriff

Sunday, June 29, 2014 - by B.B. Branton

Sunday afternoon they came from down the street, across town and out-of-state to say happy retirement and thanks for the memories.

But most of all … to say thanks for being a mentor and an example of hard work and staying the course.

Longtime Hixson High School wrestling coach, athletics director and teacher Roger Vandergriff recently announced his retired after 36 years in the classroom, in the gym or on the field.

Known best as his wrestling coaching career, Vandergriff coached at Soddy Daisy HS (3), Lumpkin Co. (Ga.) (3), Hixson HS (21) and Loftis Middle (3), coached Soddy Daisy’s first state champion, led Lumpkin Co. to three, top-5 state finishes and saw 70-plus Hixson wrestlers grace the medal stand at state tournaments in a two decade span.

“It’s not just about all the state champions one coaches, but it’s more about the example the coach sets and the quality of men or women he or she helps mold and teaching important life skills,” said former Hixson state wrestling medalist Charles Mitchell.

“I came from a pretty tough background (one parent threatened to kill him and his family home was destroyed by fire), but coach Vandergriff never accepted any excuses when life was tough for me and looking back I am grateful for all he did for me.”

Wildcat Four Horsemen: Mitchell’s example of Hixson wrestlers and their success stories underscores his belief in coach Vandergriff’s hard work ethic.

In 1996, the foursome of Tim Rowlette (171), Chris O’Rear (189), Mitchell (215) and Brian Mann (275) were the backbone of Vandergriff’s successful Hixson teams.

Today, Mann is a missionary in Alaska, Rowlette works for his dad’s construction company, O’Rear (2x All-American at Wartburg College) is operations manager in insurance and Mitchell has his doctorate and is an assistant principal at Brainerd HS.

A 1974 Hixson graduate, Vandergriff was a member of the 1973 state championship Wildcat team before earning a degree in Biology from Middle Tennessee State in 1978.

“I graduated in the summer of 1978 and two days later I had a teaching job at Soddy Daisy,” Vandergriff stated. “Someone told me early on your career will go by fast and it sure has.”

Thanks to Vandergriff, current Hixson coach Garrick Hall and three other coaches (Willard Mitchum, Gordon Connell and David Copeland), Hixson has been a solid program statewide for several decades.

“We have had good success with individual state champs and state traditional and state duals titles, but the foundation was built at Hixson Junior High in the late 1960s,” said Vandergriff.

“There was a core of us who started together at Hixson Junior High under coach Rawlin Parker and later would set the tone for Hixson wrestling for years to come as we were part of the state championship team under Gordon Connell,” he said and named teammates including Randy Batten, Tom Popp, Tracy Cook, Stan and Marvin Walden, Dean and Gary Smith and Danny Emery.

Vandergriff points to state championships and medalists as highlights, but more importantly the opportunity of coaching family.

“I had the privilege of coaching my two sons, Lee and Logan, and my nephew Ricky Lanter who I believe is the first Hixson student to graduate from Yale (Lanter earned an MBA at Yale) which is pretty special,” he stated.

Hot Summer Trip to Iowa City: Former Chattanooga City High wrestler and member of the Georgia chapter, National Wrestling Hall of Fame Paul White told of a long bus ride to Iowa City with Roger and a handful of school wrestlers.

“It was the summer of 1983 and Roger was head coach at Lumpkin County and I was at Gainesville High School and we drive a 12-passenger van (no air conditioning !)  with several wrestlers to the national freestyle and Greco-Roman tournaments at the University of Iowa.

“It was great experience for us as Brian Raber became the first Georgia wrestler to earn All-American Freestyle honors as he placed fourth and later at Clemson was an NCAA qualifier in wrestling and also played football.”

What They Said
“Roger wrestled behind (two-time state champ) Randy Batten for a couple of years so he was on the B-team … he never complained, but was always ready in case his time did come to wrestle in a match.

--Dr. Tom Popp, state champion and state Outstanding Wrestler

“I am proud to be your son and to have wrestled for you.”

--Lee Vandergriff

“Roger means a lot to the Hixson wrestling program and to Hixson High School. If it wasn’t for him taking me under their wing when I was in middle school, I doubt I would be the Hixson head coach today.

”I was not getting to wrestle in middle school as an eighth grader so Roger let me wrestle high school junior varsity matches … I got my head beat in that year, but in the long run the mentoring and coaching of Roger and one of his assistant’s helped me eventually become a state medalist and more importantly graduate from high school.

--Garrick Hall, Hixson head wrestling coach

“Roger was a good coach, a good motivator and always watched out for us.”

--Tracy Sanford, former principal Lumpkin Co. HS and wrestled for coach Vandergriff at Lumpkin Co. on teams which places, 2nd,  5th and 3rd at the state tournament.

Hixson' New Wrestling Room:

The Wildcats have their own wrestling room highlighted with locker space, area for exercise bikes and the Hixson Wall of Fame listing 85 state medalists from the first one in 1968 to the 10 medalists from this past season's A-AA state traditional championship team.

contact B.B. Branton at william.branton@comcast.net

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