Herron brings renewed hope to Camden: ‘It starts with believing’

Jeff Herron shows off the Region 8-AAAAAAA championship trophy his team won in his first and only season at Grayson, which would go on to win the state title.
Jeff Herron shows off the Region 8-AAAAAAA championship trophy his team won in his first and only season at Grayson, which would go on to win the state title.

Credit: Stan Awtrey

Credit: Stan Awtrey

When Jeff Herron met with his new Camden County football players in February, he passed out index cards and asked them to write down their predictions for Camden’s record in 2021.

’'Don’t put your name on it; just tell me what you think it’s going to be,’' Herron told them. “I started flipping through them, and it was 6-4, 7-3, 5-5, maybe a couple of 8-2′s. When I was here before, if I’d asked them that question, every one of them would’ve put 15-0. That was the expectation. Thinking it doesn’t make it happen, but it starts with that. It starts with believing.’'

Herron, perhaps Georgia’s most successful high school football coach the past 25 years, will rejoin Camden County full-time Monday, hoping to rekindle the glory of a coastal Georgia football program that that he led to three state titles and a 154-18 record from 2000 to 2012.

Herron also is employed on Tennessee Tech’s coaching staff, but Tech’s final game is Saturday at Tennessee-Martin. Herron will catch a plane from Nashville and arrive Sunday in Camden, where sons and former Camden quarterbacks Tyson and Major still live.

Major Herron was on Bob Sphire’s Camden staff and will remain, but now as offensive coordinator. Most of the previous staff are in place, but there’s one big change – Camden is reverting to the wing-T offense from Sphire’s up-tempo, pass-heavy spread. The wing T is the offense that Major ran as a Camden player, and it’s the scheme championed by Jeff Herron throughout almost all of his 312 career victories.

’'It’s what I know and what I believe in,’' Herron said. “Being a run-based, time-of-possession, control-the-clock offense gives us the best chance of success. That said, I’ve learned things over the years that can help us fit the personnel better than I used to when I was more hard-headed. Yes, people will see us as a wing-T team, but what we do out of the wing T depends on what kinds of skill kids we have and what their strengths are.’'

Herron’s most significant hire has been bringing back Jon Lindsey, his defensive coordinator during the 2008 and 2009 state-championship teams. Herron plans to add one more assistant, which would put his staff at 21, up from about 16 or 17 last season. Herron also asked for upgrades to the weight room and practice field but said the program doesn’t need a full makeover.

’'Honestly, Bob (Sphire) did a really good job, so it’s not like the program is in disarray, but there are some things that I believe in that maybe he didn’t,’' Herron said. “My job is to go in and say what can we do to make it better. I don’t know all that yet. I’ve got to get in there and get my hands dirty and actually see it.’'

It’s been a struggle for Camden since Herron left. The Wildcats finished 5-6 last season, their third losing campaign over the past five. Camden’s record after Herron is 50-36. That’s twice as many losses in eight seasons as Herron’s teams suffered in 13.

The move to Region 1 in 2012 with state powers Colquitt County and Lowndes factors heavily into the victory decline. But regardless, the struggles on the field have led to a decline in participation numbers. Camden dressed out 150 players in its heyday, or until every uniform was passed out. There are only about 80 players in the program now, Herron said, not counting rising freshmen. The pandemic was a factor last season as students were given the choice to learn virtually, but doing so prevented them from participating in sports.

But Herron said it’s an issue in most programs around the state and that rebuilding the numbers is a significant goal.

“Kids today have other options,’' Herron said. “That’s changed whether it’s Camden or somewhere else. Many choose not to be that dedicated. Certainly if you’re not winning and having that success on the state level, some opt not to do it. That’s one of the strengths we had at Camden. We had lots of depth. We didn’t always have great (college) prospect players, but we always had a lot of really good high school players. That carried us, but to do that you have to have lot of numbers.’'

The question Herron has answered most over the past several weeks is what brought him back. After all, he once announced his retirement. There’s more to the story that some realize.

’'I enjoyed being at Tennessee Tech, but I missed being the head coach,’' Herron said, citing one reason. “For 28 or 29 years, I was the guy making the schedule. Then all of a sudden, I wasn’t. Not being able to be able to make all those decisions, that was what I missed.’'

What Herron hadn’t revealed was that his retirement in 2019, at age 59, wasn’t his plan when he took the T.L. Hanna job in 2017. That move was largely prompted by a serious health scare now under control.

’'I was having some issues and was worried about it and thought there were things I wanted to do in my life and made the decision we (he and his wife, Inka) were going to retire and travel,’' Herron said.

Herron spent the 2019 season away from football, a rare respite for a man who’s been on football sidelines for nearly 40 years.

“The travel was great,’' he said, ’'but when I was home, I was bored to death.’'

So he tried something new, the college gig at Tennessee Tech.

At Camden, Sphire got a job in early February to return to his native Kentucky, and a Camden administrator called Herron the same day to gauge his interest. Camden’s superintendent, John Tucker, was a principal when Herron was coach, and Camden’s principal, Steve Loden, is one of Herron’s former coaches. With his sons still in Camden, Herron has remained close to what’s happening there and jumped at the opportunity to return, knowing the administrative support would be what he needed.

It’s brought an excitement to Camden that hasn’t been seen since Herron’s first tenure. Herron is the only coach to win Georgia state titles at three schools (Oconee County, Camden County, Grayson). Can Herron join Thomson legend Luther Welsh as the only coach to win state titles in separate stints at the same school?

That won’t be easy, but Herron believes his absence was good for him and the school, regardless of the football team’s recent fortunes.

’'When I left, I look back and believe that me, my coaches, the administration, the community and the players had become complacent, me included in that,’' Herron said. “We were doing the same things over and over, and everybody just thought we were going to keep winning. I remember making a comment at our last coaches retreat before the last season that the only way things are going to get better was either I was going to have to leave, or we were going to have to start losing. I felt we’d gotten to that point.’'

The good news now, Herron said, is that nobody is complacent now. The hunger is back. There might be a few Camden fans already writing 15-0 on Herron’s index cards.

’'But I like that,’' Herron said. “I’d rather coach at a place where expectations are sky high than a place that’s complacent.’'

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