(This is the third 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)
Back in early February the Internet heated up when Chattanooga Christian hired Rob Spence as its next football coach.
The central theme of social media response to the news was: “How in the world did CCS pull this off?”
Well, the Chargers were searching for a coach and Spence, a 23-year veteran of college coaching, including 16 as an offensive coordinator, was open to a career change that included the serious thoughts of going back to his high school coaching roots or getting out of coaching altogether.
“I prayed about what career path God wanted me to take after the end of last season (at Rutgers),” the 55-year-old Spence said. “College football had taken a tremendous toll on my family because we moved about 14 times in 27 years. It’s very challenging to raise a family, honor my wife and make sure that I continued to be a husband and father to my children.
“I thought this wasn’t going to work anymore.”
While he had opportunities to remain in the college game, Spence sought a Christian school with a coach/teacher vacancy located closer to South Carolina where his daughters, Samantha and Sydney Rae, attend Clemson University – Spence was the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Clemson from 2005-08.
He found a match at Chattanooga Christian and started the ball rolling.
Spence, a native of Pellham, N.Y., who hadn’t coached high school ball since a 10-year stretch at Iona Prep Academy ended in 1989, applied for the job to replace Barry Royal, who stepped down as the Chargers’ coach after the 2013 season.
CCS flew Spence and his wife, Susan, to Chattanooga for an interview. The Spences felt like the CCS situation was right for them, CCS principal Bryant Black was equally impressed in Spence and the veteran coach was hired shortly thereafter.
“We discovered what a wonderful place Chattanooga is during the interview process,” Spence said. “I was intrigued how the school integrated competitive athletics and faith. Throughout my college career I felt I was called to teach and coach. I was on a mission for Jesus wherever I would go. I never saw coaching college football as a contradiction to my faith, but in recent years college football had trended so businesslike it became harder to coach the way I wanted to coach.”
Spence didn’t expect preferential treatment from CCS and the administration afforded him none, handling each candidate for the job in the same manner.
“The process was as thorough and professional as I’ve ever been involved with, including my BCS interviews,” Spence said. “My wife enjoyed meeting people here. I felt like if the door was opened for me at Chattanooga Christian, I would certainly consider the (opportunity).
“Come decision time, I knew the only factor would be my ego and pride, but God hates prided. Teaching and coaching here will be as important to me as any other place.”
Spence finished his contract at Rutgers, where he was the quarterbacks coach, moved to Tennessee, bought a home and has settled into the community.
As for the ego thing, Spence knew that with any change it is “wise to get counsel,” especially when it’s about leaving the bright lights of BCS football and taking a job with the Chargers, who are 13-27 with no winning season and no playoff appearances in the program’s five-year history.
The team’s high-water mark for wins in a season is FOUR.
Spence knew that before flying to Chattanooga for his interview. And, yet, when offered the job he jumped at the chance to coach the Chargers.
“I had done a lot of research,” said Spence, who was 29-19-1 in his five years as Iona Prep’s head coach. “I knew the talent level and understood what I would encounter.”
He has spent his time in the offseason evaluating CCS players and worked hard to develop the talent on hand.
While coaching at college level, including stops at Maryland and Syracuse in addition to Rutgers, Spence didn’t entirely lose contact with high schoolers or even younger players than that.
He conducted summer camps for kids as young at 7 or 8 years old and all the way up to rising seniors. Spence frequently recruited high school players and the skills to communicate with college-aged players aren’t that much different than those used to connect with prep players.
Spence’s message to his new team has focused on putting forth “an extraordinary effort” and “competing for 48 minutes.”
“These kids have to be concerned about our process and not the outcome,” he said. “It’s not about our opponents. CCS is our only opponent right now.”
The Chargers participated in four 7-on-7 sessions during the summer and were “very competitive,” the coach said. He is now entering the next phase of challenging his players to be more physical.
Spence will use an attacking 3-4 defense, one based on what he saw as the most difficult scheme to block he encountered during his college career. He is pooling ideas gathered over the past 10 or 15 years for his offensive approach with the Chargers.
“I’m borrowing ideas from Nevada and, most recently Tulsa and Auburn, and combining them into a system that features the shotgun and pistol,” Spence said. “I was one of the first people back in the 1990s to use a no-huddle offense and we competed for a national championship at Hofstra. I borrowed that from legendary run-and-shoot coaches Darrel “Mouse” Davis and Glenn “Tiger” Ellison.
Ellison, a high school coach at Middletown, Ohio, designed the offense in 1958 and Davis, who coached high school ball in Ohio for 15 years before moving to Portland State and eventually to the NFL, Canadian Football League, Arena League and the defunct United States Football League, refined it in 1962.
In 1984, the USFL Gamblers, with Jim Kelly at quarterback and Davis coordinating the offense, set a pro football record with 618 points in a season.
The offense has evolved into what is more commonly known as the “spread.” A vast majority of teams, no matter at which level of competition, utilizes the offense designed to run plays every 10 or 15 seconds to wear down the opposing defense – and put massive point totals on the scoreboard.
“We will employ a tight end and sometimes two backs for the running game, use multiple formations and have a no-huddle offense with a strong passing game,” Spence said. “It’s important that we run and throw the football.”
Spence was pleased with skill players in the 7-on-7 sessions, including quarterback Zach Mercer, receivers Jared Miller, Brandon Mason, Barrott Bickley, Will Patton and Justin Wheeler, tight end Nick Fulmer and running back D.J. Toney.
Defensively, Spence praised the work of linebacker Cam Aldridge and secondary standouts Jon Hundley, Brandon Mason, Wheeler and Sam Ibach, who also is a team captain.
In terms of facilities, the Chargers have a new stadium, complete with a turf field, and a weight and strength and conditioning building is under construction.
While Spence calls the facilities “as good as any place in the Chattanooga area,” he maintains a basic approach to football.
“At the end of the day all we need is an acre and a ball, so we have enough,” he said.
(Friday: Hixson coach Dan Duff)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)