4 Questions with Valdosta head coach Shelton Felton

Bazmore-Hyder Stadium, the home field of Valdosta High School's football team, in Valdosta, Ga., on April 8, 2021. (Aileen Perilla/The New York Times)

Bazmore-Hyder Stadium, the home field of Valdosta High School's football team, in Valdosta, Ga., on April 8, 2021. (Aileen Perilla/The New York Times)

Today’s interviewee is Valdosta coach Shelton Felton, whose team defeated Lowndes 13-6 on Friday, Valdosta’s first victory in the Winnersville Classic since 2016. Felton, a former high school head coach at Crisp County and college coach at Akron, Chattanooga and Tennessee, was named interim coach during the turbulent 2021 offseason, when the GHSA forced Valdosta to forfeit its 2020 victories and banned the Wildcats from the 2021 playoffs for violations occurring before Shelton got the job. Valdosta was 4-6 last season but is now 7-0 and ranked No. 4 in Class 7A.

1. What won the Winnersville Classic? “Defense, man. Our defense played lights out. We had a great plan, and our kids played hard, physical and fast, what we call the standard, playing Wildcat football. I gave them the old-fashioned speech. ‘We’re winning, so if they don’t score, we win the game.’ We put the game on our defense, and coach Tracy Buckhannon [defensive coordinator] did a great job with the task at hand.” [Valdosta held Lowndes to 182 total yards and 9-of-23 passing.]

2. What’s been the reaction in the community? “The excitement and feedback have been really good. When you go so long without winning the trophy, to break that streak is awesome for the school and community. There have been a lot of texts and phone calls. The legendary Stan Rome, one of the best players ever to play here, came and saw me personally. Coach [Jerry Don] Baker told me that was Wildcat football. It meant a lot to me to hear from true Valdosta guys. It made me very proud. There are a lot of people here young and old who believe in the Black and Gold.” [Rome, a member of Valdosta’s 1971 championship team, is an inaugural inductee into the new Georgia High School Sports Hall of Fame. Baker played on 1968 and 1969 championship teams and was on Valdosta’s coaching staff from 1976 to 2005.]

3. When you were hired, Valdosta was at a crossroads. What have you and your staff done to revive the program from one of its all-time lows to where it is now? “The biggest thing when we took over was I promised the kids we’d always tell the truth. We’d work hard, and we’re not going to lie. One of our biggest mottos is control the controllables. I’ll give those returning seniors [last season] a lot of credit. They showed the younger kids that even if they had no playoffs, they had pride, and they fought. Our coaches staff, too. They could’ve tucked tail and run off when people were leaving us. It was like you said, a crossroads. Our superintendent Todd Cason and principal Janice Richardson and the board members have been supportive and bought into what we’re preaching. We believed we could mend fences. We have to give a lot of credit to these kids for not quitting on us.”

4. What has this team and this job opportunity meant for you personally? “One thing that my wife always says is that God will take you where you’re supposed to be. He led me to Tennessee and to Valdosta. Being the head coach at Valdosta, the winningest program in history, is an honor. I’m the first African American coach in Valdosta history and that means a lot to me. I want to make it better for the next African American who might coach here. I want to walk the walk and do the right thing with this opportunity. We want to show people we can win and continue to win.”

Produced by Georgia High School Football Daily, a free e-mail newsletter. To join the mailing list, click here.