Kirby Smart, Mike Bobo show up to honor coaching legend Ray Lamb

Georgia coach Kirby Smart (R) shares a laugh with Mike Bobo (L) and high school coaching legend Ray Lamb before a banquet honoring Lamb at the Commerce Civic Center on May, 12, 2022. (Photo by Chip Towers/ctowers@ajc.com)

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Georgia coach Kirby Smart (R) shares a laugh with Mike Bobo (L) and high school coaching legend Ray Lamb before a banquet honoring Lamb at the Commerce Civic Center on May, 12, 2022. (Photo by Chip Towers/ctowers@ajc.com)

COMMERCE – There was some world class story-swapping going on here Thursday night.

A crowd of about 500 packed into the Commerce Civic Center to honor legendary football coach Ray Lamb. Among the first to arrive were Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Mike Bobo. Yarns immediately went to spinning.

The three coaches go back. Like, way back.

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Lamb said Bobo was “running around Commerce about 3 feet high” when he first met him. His father, George Bobo, was student teaching and coaching at Commerce High at the time.

Lamb wouldn’t meet Smart until years later. He knew his dad, Sonny Smart, from the coaching ranks. But Lamb didn’t really get to know Kirby until he started studying Smart’s high school film as UGA’s director of high school relations in the 1990s.

Lamb advised Georgia coach Ray Goff they probably should take a closer look at the kid from Bainbridge. As they say, the rest is history.

“I got to know him real good during recruiting when he came up and started visiting,” Lamb recalled before Smart and Bobo arrived. “He signs, of course, and I remember the first time we were out there working on special teams. Kirby was back there returning kicks against the starting kickoff team. And he took it to the house! I bet he remembers that.”

Yes, he does.

“That’s when I knew we weren’t any good,” Smart cracked. “That was a scout-team kickoff, and I returned against the first team. I knew we were in trouble then. Coach Goff called us up and said, ‘If he can return a touchdown, we’re in deep trouble.’”

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Goff showed up in Commerce on Thursday night, too. So did Georgia’s Loran Smith, former Commerce coach Steve Savage and dozens and dozens of Lamb’s former players. After a 35-year, Hall of Fame high school coaching career and two decades of service to UGA under three head coaches, Lamb’s sphere of influence stretches deep and wide.

They showed up Thursday night not just to honor the 80-year-old Lamb, but to raise money to create a UGA scholarship in his name. Organized by Brad Brown (Commerce High Class of 1979), there was a silent auction, a special VIP room for gold-ticket holders to be able to visit with Ray and Linda Lamb and their family, an elaborate banquet spread, and more laughter and tears than has been spread in these parts in a long, long time.

Such an outpouring of love is not unusual for anybody who has coached for many years. But Lamb’s story is truly special in so many ways.

On the field, he simply was hard to beat. He forged a 249-103-11 record over a 32-year career as a high school coach in Georgia and South Carolina. His teams won 11 region championships and three state titles.

Around here, they still talk about Commerce’s run through the 1970s and into the ‘80s. An innovator for his time, Lamb brought the wishbone to Commerce and eventually ran roughshod over what they used to call the “I-85 region.”

Success wasn’t immediate. He started off with 14-year-olds Ricky Hill and Terry Elder playing guard and center. But once they got up to speed, they were hard to stop.

“It took us a while,” Lamb said. “I think we went to the wishbone in 1970. We went 3-6-1, 4-5-1 and 5-5. But I had a great superintendent, so I wasn’t worried about my job. Then we went 8-2 and kind of took off.”

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In the 1970s, Commerce was the program with the second most wins in the state across all classifications, just behind Warner Robins. In 1981, with his sons Bobby and Hal leading the way, Commerce finally ran down the state championship.

“A bunch of good football players, hard-nosed guys,” Lamb said with his arm slung around one of them, Donald Rucker.

As one might expect, sports reign in the Lamb family. Hal Lamb and Bobby Lamb each followed their father into coaching, with Hal flourishing in the high school ranks and Bobby in small-college ball. His daughter, Lynn Davis, is a teacher and tennis coach. His son-in-law, Michael Davis, is now head football coach at Rabun County.

At the moment, Lamb probably is proudest of his granddaughter, Lyndi Rae Davis. She’s the starting catcher for the Georgia Bulldogs’ softball team. She’s named after her grandparents.

The Lambs still live in the same house where they’ve resided since 1979. Thanks to Lyndi Rae’s games, Lamb regularly makes the 20-mile commute to Athens that he used to make daily.

Lamb has an open invitation from Smart to attend Georgia football practices and games as often as he wants. He still goes, but less every year.

As for Smart’s success at Georgia, Lamb said he’s not at all surprised by it. Same for Smart’s best buddy Bobo, who’s now at his side as an offensive analyst after becoming a Division I head coach himself.

“Both of them are natural leaders,” Lamb said. “They just had it. Whatever it is, they had it.”

Whatever it is, Ray Lamb had it first. And he’s spent a lifetime sharing it.

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