Class AA blog: Checking in with Worth County

First-year Worth County coach Phillip Ironside (left) takes over for the Rams after 14 seasons at Hillgrove. (File photo)
First-year Worth County coach Phillip Ironside (left) takes over for the Rams after 14 seasons at Hillgrove. (File photo)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Like every high school football program across the country, Worth County will not hold spring practice this year. However for the Rams, the cancellation is especially tough because they’re working through the transition of coaching staffs. Phillip Ironside was hired to take over the Rams in late December following 14 seasons at Hillgrove in which he built the Hawks’ program from scratch.

As a first-year coach for Worth County, spring would have been his chance to evaluate his players and formulate a plan heading into summer practice. Now he won’t get that chance.

“It’s very big,” said Ironside, who went 109-46 at Hillgrove. “Being in a new place, spring ball was how I was going to get to know the kids — figure out who’s an offensive kid, who’s a defensive kid. We’re missing out on that. Hopefully we can catch up in the summer but there’s no guarantee of that either.”

It’s not just time lost evaluating players for Ironside. Anything involving his transition to the Rams was halted. For one, he hasn’t been able to round out his coaching staff. He had two assistants picked, with their hires slated to go to the school board. That meeting has been postponed indefinitely.

Currently, Ironside isn’t even in Sylvester, where Worth County is located. He’s three hours away at his metro-Atlanta home. He’s supposed to be closing on a house in Worth County in the coming weeks and he’s preparing his current home to be put up for sale.

Ironside is taking all of the uncertainties in stride.

“Things will settle,” he said. “There are more important things in life than sports but my job is to lead this team and I look forward to doing that. I think after all of this we’ll have a different perspective.”

Admittedly, Ironside said he might be panicking if he were a first-time head coach. But he’s no spring chicken. Between Hillgrove, Campbell, Alcoa (Tenn.) and Christian Life Academy (Baton Rouge, La.), Ironside has 24 years of head coaching experience. In that time, he’s dealt with practice shutdowns to a lesser degree with heat and weather, but that has helped him to look at the bigger picture rather than the day-to-day.

“I just don’t get caught up in the little things,” he said. “It’s not just about wins and losses. Hopefully, I’ve built up enough street cred that people will understand if it doesn’t turn out as it should right from the get-go. I’m a person of faith and I believe God has us in this for a reason. I’m not in panic mode.”

When football activities resume, Ironside will be tasked with turning a Rams program around that's now on its third coach in the last four seasons. They went 2-8 last year but that was their best finish of the last three seasons — they went 1-9 in 2018 and 0-10 in 2017. Ironside views the challenge as more like the one at Campbell than Hillgrove.

“It’s easier to start something (Hillgrove) than fix something that’s broken (Campbell),” he said.

At Campbell, Ironside went 18-23 in four seasons. His best year came in 2003, when the Spartans finished 7-4 for their first winning season since 1992. He went 3-7 in his first and third seasons and 5-5 in his final season, 2005, before heading to Hillgrove. In the Hawks’ first full season in 2007, they went 8-2 and went on to winning seasons in ever year except 2016, though they still went to the playoffs that season.

Worth County’s senior class for next season will have not experienced a winning varsity season. Ironside noted one of the challenges of taking over a futile program is changing the culture.

“There’s an expectation to lose,” he said. “The thought is, ‘how are we going to screw this up?’ There was a lot of apathy. In the three months I’ve been a part of Worth County there’s not so much apathy, but the kids don’t have a lot of confidence. Say a fumble here, or an interception there cost them the game. ‘That’s how it happens here!,’ they’ll say. We’ve got to change that attitude. We’re going to bring in an energetic, positive staff. The right attitude will will create an atmosphere of winning and that’s as important as anything.”

After 14 years coaching in metro-Atlanta, Ironside felt his mission at Hillgrove had run its course. He left the school on good terms and holds no ill will, but it was simply time to move on. Small town football was what he wanted and that’s why he chose Worth County.

“We’d run the rat race in metro-Atlanta,” he said. “There’s a school every five miles, with each school having 2,500 kids and they’re all transferring. It was recruiting. That whole process got old for me and I don’t want to play that game. In my mind, if I could coach small town football, that would be better for me. My wife, she coaches track, and she wanted a small town too.

“I started looking at openings (for football head coaches) and Worth County fit those parameters. My wife could coach track there. I had some buddies who coached there and loved the town. My wife and I met the people there and we felt like we could pour into the community and make a difference.”

Ironside and his Rams will compete in Region 1 with Thomasville, Fitzgerald, Early County, Cook and Berrien.

“It’s a tough region,” he said. “Fitzgerald and Thomasville are the cream of the crop, similar to McEachern and Marietta (Hillgrove’s opponents in Region 3-AAAAAAA). You always want to point to the elite teams in the region and try to close the gap, while keeping the rest of the region at bay. That seems like a tall task, but hopefully we can get into the playoffs.

“I’m good at being 6-4 if that’s the hand we’re dealt. Then we can try to make a run.”

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