(This is the fourth 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)
The cupboard was bare when Dan Duff took over as head
football coach at Hixson High School in 1996.
Things changed in a hurry and the results improved as the Wildcats won
their first-ever region title before Duff packed up his stuff and headed south
to coach at Rockmart in Georgia.
Well, the popular coach is back on the sideline at Hixson
for the 2014 season, but things are in much better shape this time around than
they were 18 years ago.
The Wildcats had their best season a year ago when they won
District 6-AA with a 5-1 record and finished with nine wins in 13
games. They advanced to the third round
of the playoffs before losing to Knoxville Catholic, 14-13.
Coach Jason Fitzgerald has moved up the road to Meigs County
and the Wildcats have the burden of replacing a large senior class, but Duff
has all the confidence in the world that his troops have what it takes to
continue being successful.
“I’m glad to be back,” Duff said with a smile earlier this
week following a hot afternoon practice.
“I was at Rockmart for 12 years and we did a lot of good
things while we were there, but it was time for me to move on. I wanted to come back to the Chattanooga area
as my family is here, but I applied for every position that came open. The Central job was available but the Hixson
job came open and it was offered to me first.
“Coaching at Hixson was my favorite time as a football
coach. The people were fantastic and we
created a lot of great relationships. I
see the same thing now. The kids wanted
to win the first time I was here, but they just didn’t know how. These kids know how, so our biggest battle
will be fighting complacency. You have
to keep fighting to maintain what we’ve accomplished,” the 51-year-old husband
and father of two grown children continued.
“Despite losing a lot of seniors last year, we still have a
lot of talent. It’s the little things we
have to deal with, but if we can all jell as one unit, we have the ability to
accomplish great things,” Duff nodded.
Senior Preston Wilkey, who served as backup to Gill Brown a
year ago, returns as the starter at quarterback. He will be lined up behind an experienced
offensive line, which Duff calls the strength of his team.
“We’re behind in some areas, but we’re learning a lot of new
things and I’m pleased with our progress most of the time. We have a good nucleus with a great senior
class, but they’re the ones who have to lead us now. It’s hard to say how we’ll do as competition
in this district is real even. We have
the ability to beat anybody, but we can also get beat by anybody on any given
Friday night,” Duff said.
“Every game is big around here and right now, I don’t know
how they’ll respond. We still have a lot
of work to do, but how we do depends on how much we can grow up. With a target on our backs or not, we still
have to go play. I just want to be in a
place that wants to win and that’s the case at Hixson,” the popular coach
Dan and Donna have been married for 29 years. Josh is 26 while Paige is 22. Duff admits that he loves spending time with
his family, but he also enjoys a little fishing when time allows. Another passion of his has been his time as a
Sunday School teacher where he taught a college-age class.
The Wildcats open the new Duff campaign on Aug. 22 at
Soddy-Daisy. Other non-district games
include South Pittsburg, Bradley and Livingston Academy.
Hixson has been picked at the top of District 6-AA, but the
Wildcats will have to face big challenges from East Ridge and Tyner.
Coach Duff has faced challenging situations before and he’s
ready for another. If all falls into
place, the Wildcats could have another successful season and make another deep
run in the playoffs.
County coach Jason Fitzgerald.
(E-mail John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)