Today's interviewee is Clarke Central coach David Perno, whose team defeated Buford 31-28 to win the Region 8-AAAAA championship last week. It was Clarke Central's first victory over a No. 1-ranked team since 1982 (Warner Robins) and first region championship since 2011. Perno is a former Clarke Central football player and member of Clarke's 1985 state-championship team. He became better known as the baseball coach who led Georgia to three College World Series appearances. He became Clarke Central's coach in 2016. His Gladiator football teams have gone 29-17.
David Perno, Clarke Central head coach
1. What happened in the Buford game? What made the difference? "We were very fortunate to hang on. Buford is all-class, Coach App [Bryant Appling] and his whole staff. We decided after the game that even though they're jumping to 6A, we're going to keep playing them because they're first class and bring out the best in us. I've never been one to put together an easy schedule no matter where I was coaching.
"A couple of weeks ago, we had an open week and went against the grain a little bit and took the whole week and told the players we're going to pretend we're playing Buford this Friday. It was the best open week of practice we've ever had. The kids were locked in. We left there and got focused on Johnson [and won 48-14], and when we came back around to getting ready for Buford, one thing that we as a staff talked about was getting off to a fast start. It's probably the first time we've done it all year. We'd been trailing in seven out of nine games. That wasn't the case this time. Damien Gary [offensive coordinator] dialed up a great play. We came out in an empty backfield, which we haven't shown all year, and A.J. [Jewell] ran a great route right down the middle of the field and was wide open, 80 yards. So we got a fast start, and we were plus-three in turnovers. So I think it was about preparing a couple of weeks out and getting them to realize we could hang in there and we needed to make it a four-quarter game, which we hadn't been able to do with them. We had a two-possession lead in the fourth quarter, and things broke our way late. It wasn't perfect, but it worked out."
2. The team has been up and down. You beat Buford and Oconee County but lost to Loganville and were blown out by Flowery Branch. How do you explain the peaks and valleys? "We've been up and down, but we've played some good teams. Lanier was a good team [and defeated Clarke 23-20]. People didn't give Oconee County enough credit. They pushed us, and now look at them. We gave them their only loss. The next week was Flowery Branch, and we didn't show up [lost 38-0]. We were missing two defensive linemen and didn't have them for five weeks. Flowery Branch and Loganville ran it down our throats. We were also transitioning two sophomore linebackers, and they're starting to learn what they need to be successful. My thing with our guys is we want to be playing our best football in November. I'm proud of our kids after the Loganville game for picking up the pieces and staying the course and believing in each other and keep getting better. Hopefully they learned a lesson from coming out flat. Expect us to be ready to go in the first round."
3. Has the job been what you thought? What have been some of the things you learned or didn't anticipate? "It was a tough go those first couple of years. When I got here, we had to work hard from a culture standpoint because it had lost its way. There wasn't a lot of discipline, so it took a while. I don't want to tell you all the stories and scenarios, but it was difficult. We were surviving on talent. We've always had good athletes here, but it took a while to get them to think like they needed to think and prepare and commit to a program that was bigger than themselves. That's been extremely challenging, especially in this era of 7-on-7, showcases and combines and social media promotion that's out there. That's a trap for them. They read about all these other kids and their offers and commitments. It's been fun seeing this come together and to keep it going. Now we've got a senior class that's been with us four years. They're changing culture and inspiring Clarke Central."
4. What's been the biggest change that you've been able to bring about that's set the program in a good direction? "I have to give our athletic director [Dr. Jon Ward] and principal [Dr. Swade Huff] a lot of credit. The resources have to match the expectations. Obviously that was something I always had an issue with at Georgia, especially the last couple of years with the baseball team. I didn't have the resources to compete in that league. People thought because we went to the World Series, we'd keep it up. Our stadium was subpar. We went to the World Series with three different coaching staffs because we didn't have the resources to keep them. We have a lot of good alumni at Clarke Central. The governor [Brian Kemp] is from Clarke Central. He played in our program. Willie Green [a football teammate of Perno's at Clarke Central] had a stellar NFL career. We've had Dunta Robinson and Chuck Smith in the NFL, and they've been very involved. We've had Derek Dooley and David Dukes, a long string of ultra-successful guys who were great players at Clarke Central that we've rallied. I can't thank them enough. These guys have come back and helped us financially to keep these coaches because we have a tremendous coaching staff. We have some college coaches on our staff that are really solid. Our defensive coordinator, Justin Jones, has been here from day one. He was at Carrollton. We got Damien Gary [former Georgia wide receiver and UNC-Charlotte assistant coach] to take over the offense. You throw in Ricky Bustle, who coached Michael Vick [at Virginia Tech] and was a head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette [2002-10], and Tony Pierce, who worked on coach Mark Richt's staff at Georgia [2001-02]. This year is probably as good a staff as there is as far as experience."
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