(This is the first in a series of preseason stories on new high school football coaches, or veteran coaches at a different school, and top players in the Chattanooga area)
Ryan Mallory had been an assistant coach for 14 years until KiJuan Ware presented Central High with a sticky situation this past spring.
Ware left Eastern Michigan University to accept the vacant Purple Pounders job on March 7. By April 2 the deal between Central principal Finley King and Ware had gone sour.
Five days later King turned to Mallory, who was a finalist when Ware was tapped to succeed John Allen after he high-tailed it to Knoxville to take over the Powell program, to calm the storm.
So, Mallory is the guy now and nothing that happened a few months ago matters. He’s got the job, is enthusiastically tackling the job of restoring the Pounders’ football fortunes.
That may not have sunk in yet.
“It probably won’t hit me that I’m a head coach until that first game and I have to make my first big decision,” Mallory said. “I’m starting to get a heavy feeling, about like when I was getting married. When the lights go on and all the eyes are on us it will hit me that this is pretty important.”
Mallory, 32, has been preparing for his first head coaching opportunity for more than a decade, starting with a graduate assistant job at the University of Memphis. Then he spent a year at Fayette Academy, moved to North Brunswick (N.J.) for a couple years, O’Dea High School, his alma mater, for two years and was at Union City (Tenn.) before coming to Central as a teacher and assistant wrestling coach before the 2013-14 school year.
“Patience,” Ray Davis once said, “is not passive waiting. Patience is active acceptance of the process required to attain your goals and dreams.”
Mallory waited, waited and waited until the Central job landed in his lap in a non-traditional way.
When King came back to him, Mallory quickly accepted the challenge of trying to turn around a team that has gone 46-93 since 2000 with only two winning seasons – 2003 (7-3) and 2010 (6-4) in that span.
“I heard rumors and stories about that situation,” Mallory said. “I was around when (Ware) was supposed to arrive. Whatever issues, whatever prevented him from coming here, whether he didn’t want to be here or got another opportunity, for me it was a non-issue.”
Clearly, Mallory – and everyone else around the school – knew “something was up” with Ware and he hoped King might yet offer him the job.
“Sometimes things happen quickly. Sometimes it takes a long time,” Mallory said.
Maybe Mallory is fulfilling his destiny at Central.
His father, Rick, played at Lindberg (Wash.) High School was a three-year letterman at the University of Washington – he played or coached in 15 bowl games – and was an All-Pac 10 offensive lineman his senior season in 1983. He was drafted in the ninth round of the 1984 NFL draft and spent five seasons with the Tampa Bay Bucs.
By 1992 the elder Mallory was an assistant coach at Washington, went to Memphis in 2000 and followed up with stops at Wyoming, Alabama-Birmingham and he’s currently the tackles/tight ends coach at Middle Tennessee State.
That’s a wealth of football knowledge his son can – and will – tap into.
“I talk to him almost every day,” Mallory said of his dad. “He was more excited when I got this job than I was. He was all jacked up. ”
What was the best advice his father offered?
“Follow your gut,” Mallory said. “If it’s something you believe in, that’s what you should be doing.”
Mallory’s first test leading the Pounders into action came last month during the Southeastern 7-on-7 Championships in Dalton, Ga.
“That gave us a chance to compete,” Mallory said. “I think we did pretty well for our first time out playing against teams that had been together quite a while. We worked out some offensive kinks. The kids have a better understanding about the attention to detail. When they didn’t execute the right way, ran a lazy pass route, took a play off or use the wrong technique they ran into trouble.”
That entire weekend of stiff competition, plus every practice, is taped and the coaches can use that visual coaching aid with the players, who also have the opportunity to study the tapes online at home.
Mallory has been impressed with his players’ willingness to be coached.
“They’re investing their own time into getter better,” he said.
It appears the Pounders are thrilled with the coaching staff Mallory has put together– Courtney Braswell, defensive coordinator; Gary Bloodsaw, offensive coordinator; Glen Carter, quarterbacks; Aaron Powell, receivers; Rick Rogers, defensive line; and Connie Hay, kicking game. Mallory is coaching the offensive line.
Not a single player has left the team, Mallory said, and the roster has actually grown in recent days.
The coach said several players made “great progress” over the offseason and believes that positive trend will continue in preseason practice leading up to Central’s season opener at home against Franklin County on Aug. 22.
He pointed to linebackers Caleb Morgan and Jamel Metcalf; defensive backs D.J. Baxter, Dayquan Witcher, James Walker and Jeffrey Gaines; offensive linemen Wyatt Green, Andrew Wilson, Austin Banther, Eddie Gillette and Patrick McGhee are among players who have worked themselves into starting freshmen.
The offensive line and secondary players mentioned are underclassmen, with Banther beinga freshman.
Mallory also noted that wide receiver/cornerback Xavier Norwood, quarterback Scout Morgan, outside linebacker Devin Swafford and athlete Isyah Funk also have been impressive.
“The job is Scout’s to lose,” Mallory said prior to the 7-on-7 tournament in Dalton. “He’s a senior and we’re confident Scout can lead this football team. We’d like to build some depth behind him though.”
Mallory said that Funk is perhaps the team’s best and most versatile athlete. He’s been working at running back, quarterback and safety.
“He’s an explosive player on offense,” Mallory said.
Any surprises for Mallory in his first stint as a head coach?
“It takes a lot of time, I won’t lie,” he said. “As an example, I was here at 6 a.m. the other day and didn’t leave until 2 the next morning. That’s not normal, but it happens. You want to get it right.”
(Tuesday: Howard coach Mark Teague)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)