(This is the fifth 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)
Jason Fitzgerald’s head coaching career began in 1999 at Rhea County, his alma mater. The Golden Eagles’ football program was in good shape when Fitzgerald took over, having posted back-to-back winning seasons the two previous years.
Fitzgerald was 29-21 after four years, but took three years off from coaching after the 2003 season and returned in 2006 to once again lead the Golden Eagles’ program, which then was around the .500-mark under Tim Hammontree.
After that second stint spanning five seasons, Fitzgerald was hired at Hixson, which had put up a combined 15-35 record in five years under Houston White without a winning season.
All Fitzgerald did was take the Wildcats to the playoffs that season and led them to the quarterfinals and a 9-4 record the following year.
Fitzgerald, 43, is now tasked with turning around a Meigs County program that had gone 15-46 with a string of six straight non-winning seasons.
“Hixson was a challenge and we got that thing turned around,” Fitzgerald said. “Meigs County has not had a lot of success lately, but it’s fun as a coach to take on a challenge. This is a good opportunity and this school has a good tradition. Meigs has been successful in the past and I believe we can have success in the future.”
Noella Evans once said, “Challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth. Tame the dragon and the gift is yours.”
Fitzgerald, 73-50 in a 12-year career, had a long friendship with former Meigs County coach Clint Baker, now the school’s principal. When Ricky Holliday left after the 2013 season, Fitzgerald felt he needed to sit down and talk with Meigs officials, although he wasn’t really looking to make another coaching move at the time.
The discussions led to an offer for Fitzgerald to become the Tigers’ next coach and he accepted the job in early February.
Despite Meigs being caught in a down cycle of on-field success Fitzgerald was not at all hesitant to take the job for reasons other than being closer to his home in Rhea County, where the only time he was out of the county for an extended time were the years he played football at Auburn University.
“The (football) tradition is here,” he said. “Everybody is pulling in the same direction and wants us to succeed. That was part of the draw. It’s all orange and black. The town shuts down and everybody is at the football game on Friday night.”
“Tradition is a very powerful force,” John P. Kotter.
Meigs has won big before.
From 1993-95, coach Stan Eller led the Tigers to a combined 37-4 record and three playoff appearances in which they reached the semifinals, second round and the championship round in successive seasons.
Since 1996 Meigs County has been a consistent playoff threat but advanced past the first round only once in 11 trips to the postseason.
That’s what excites Fitzgerald. He believes the Tigers can achieve levels of success they enjoyed under Eller’s guidance.
“These folks want to be the best,” he said. “I know what it has been before. Decatur is just across the river from Rhea County and I went to playoff games here in the 1990s. The passion this administration and community has makes me feel like this is the right situation for me.”
Fitzgerald is trying to tap into the boys’ basketball success from the 2013-14 season. The Tigers returned to the state tournament for the first time in 27 years and lost to Memphis Mitchell in the championship game at Middle Tennessee State University.
The Tigers finished with a 32-5 record and senior Levi Woods was a Class A Mr. Basketball finalists, ending his four-year starting career with more than 2,000 points and 1,000-plus rebounds.
So, Fitzgerald wants to use the hardwood success rub off on his football team.
“We’ve got kids going into their fourth year of football who haven’t had a lot of success (8-23),” he said. “I want some of those basketball players out here playing football because they have a winning mentality. These kids want to turn this thing around right now.”
Three basketballers in key roles with the football squad are quarterback Bryson Baker, son of Clint Baker, defensive back Derek Letner and defensive lineman Ryan Rayl and Fitzgerald could get additional contributions from other players making the transition from the gym to the field.
Fitzgerald’s first two head coaching jobs were at Class AAA and Class AA schools, but Class A Meigs County is at the other end of the spectrum with a student enrollment of approximately 500.
Yet, the coach is working with 67 players, which isn’t bad for a small, rural school.
“As long as the numbers stay at that level,” Fitzgerald said, “you can do pretty much do things the way you want to. Smaller numbers would force you to change that. It’s all about the numbers.”
Having a solid talent pool is necessary to compete in a tough District 3-A that includes Knoxville Grace, Tellico Plains, Rockwood, Midway, Greenback and Harriman.
Grace claimed the 2013 district title and won 12 straight games before losing to Trousdale County, 34-27, in the Class A semifinals.
The Rams clubbed Meigs County, 63-7, during the regular season and the Tigers finished 2-8 and in last place in the district. They are picked to finish tied with Midway for fifth place this season.
The team Fitzgerald inherited went 0-6 in league play and was outscored by 261-87, an average of 43-14 per game. The Tigers’ two wins came against Sale Creek (55-6), a first-year program, and Lookout Valley (49-6). The Panthers and Yellow Jackets were a combined 1-19 and Lookout Valley beat Sale Creek for its only win in the season finale.
Only Harriman (4-7) and Meigs had losing district records.
“It’s a really good district,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously, Grace is the favorite and coach (John) Mullinax) up at Tellico has a hard-nosed team. Those other teams are solid too.”
The Tigers have played in 34 playoff games, winning 15, reached title games in 1980 and 1995 and had semifinal appearances in 1981 and 1993. However, they have just one playoff win in the last 13 years, a 30-27 first-round victory over Smith County in 2000.
Meigs County made four straight trips to the postseason from 2004-07, only to lose each time in the first round, and went 29-15 in that span. The stadium recently underwent a $400,000 renovation project.
The school system, administration and community are strongly supportive of the football program, a plus for any program big or small.
“I feel good about the situation here,” Fitzgerald said. “I think we can turn the program around. It’s going to be a program where we play hard, the kids act the right way and the community can be proud of us.”
That’s a challenge – return the Tigers to football respectability – the well-respected Fitzgerald accepted back in February.
Sunday: Marion County coach Ricky Ross
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)