Return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, 100 coaching changes among top offseason stories

Class AAAA champions: Blessed Trinity players (from left) Jr Bivens (8), Ryan Davis (6), Steele Chambers (22), and JD Bertrand (16) celebrate with the state championship trophy after their 23-9 win against Cartersville at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wednesday, December 12, 2018, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/Special)

Class AAAA champions: Blessed Trinity players (from left) Jr Bivens (8), Ryan Davis (6), Steele Chambers (22), and JD Bertrand (16) celebrate with the state championship trophy after their 23-9 win against Cartersville at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wednesday, December 12, 2018, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/Special)

Mill Creek beat Carrollton 70-35 in the final Georgia high school football game of the 2022 season. In the 234 days since, nearly a quarter of the GHSA’s 413 teams have hired new head coaches. The next championship games will be played on a Monday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium under the scrutiny of video replay for the first time. Here are the most significant stories of the offseason:

Let’s go inside: On Dec. 15, the GHSA announced it was moving the football championship games back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they were played in 2017 and 2018. The 2023 finals are scheduled for Dec. 11-13. That’s a Monday-Wednesday schedule because Mercedes-Benz Stadium didn’t have practical weekend dates available. In 2018, the finals were played midweek at the Benz because of a soccer conflict, but they still drew 40,462. The outdoor Center Parc Stadium at Georgia State averaged 27,443 during its four-year run. The GHSA moved out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2019 largely to save money. The MBS rent at the time reportedly was around $500,000, or as much as four times the cost Georgia State offered. The GHSA got a better deal this time, though details have not been reported.

Change is inevitable: On Dec. 20, Lowndes hired Grayson’s Adam Carter in what might have stood as the most newsworthy of 100 offseason GHSA coaching changes. Or perhaps it was Peach County’s hiring of Warner Robins’ Marquis Westbrook on Jan. 9. The 100 hires sound like a lot, but it’s not especially unusual. The number was 97 last year. The record is 109 for the 2017 season.

Back to college: In January, Georgia Tech coach Brent Key hired Tim McFarlin of Fellowship Christian and Bill Stewart of North Gwinnett, two of the state’s more successful coaches. McFarlin is Tech’s director of high school relations, and Stewart is a defensive analyst for linebackers. They are among more than a dozen high school coaches who have taken college jobs after winning GHSA titles in the past 15 years. They also include Clemson’s Mickey Conn (Grayson), Georgia’s Dell McGee (Carver of Columbus), Arkansas’ Jimmy Smith (Cedar Grove), Alabama-Birmingham’s Miguel Patrick (Cedar Grove) and Miami’s Jess Simpson (Buford).

Going out on top: On Feb. 13, Brett Garvin joined a short list that includes Wright Bazemore and T. McFerrin as GHSA coaches who retired after winning state championships. Garvin led Sandy Creek to the Class 3A title. Other retiring head coaches this offseason included Eric Parker, a 208-game winner who led Burke County to a 2013 state title; Gary Varner, who started Allatoona’s program in 2008 and won state in 2015; Tommy Atha, who won 179 games at Darlington; J.B. Arnold, who won 168 games at Jefferson County; Tim Barron, a 176-game winner who won a 2018 state title at Heard County; and Sid Fritts, a 263-game winner whose 2021 region title at Washington-Wilkes made him the 11th GHSA coach to win region championships at four schools.

Upon further review: The GHSA on April 17 approved video review for the 2023 football championships, making Georgia one of fewer than 20 states to employ it. The catalyst for change was a play in the 2022 Class 3A final in which a Sandy Creek player was credited with the winning touchdown with 55 seconds left despite TV replays showing him stopped a yard short on third down. The GHSA rules allow the head replay official to call for reviews at any time. Head coaches are limited to one challenge per half. The rules will be tested during the Saturday games of the Corky Kell Dave Hunter Classic on Aug. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Replay won’t be used for other playoff rounds or other sports for now. “One step at a time,” GHSA executive director Robin Hines said.

Georgians in the NFL draft: Five former Georgia high school players were first-round NFL draft picks April 28, and 25 went overall, both exceeding state averages, but the most remarkable story came out of Gwinnett County, which claimed nine picks. The Gwinnett nine exceeded the totals of 42 states, including Ohio (eight), Pennsylvania (six), Alabama (four), Oklahoma (four) and Tennessee (two). The Gwinnett nine were D.J. Turner and Josh Downs of North Gwinnett, Wanya Morris and Owen Pappoe of Grayson, Colby Wooden of Archer, Terrell Smith of South Gwinnett, Payne Durham of Peachtree Ridge, Kendall Williamson of Brookwood and Robert Beal of Norcross. Georgia’s five first-round picks were tied for second-most all-time for the state. There were six in 2021 and five in 2005. This year’s five were Dutchtown’s Will Anderson, Dalton’s Jahmyr Gibbs, Lithonia’s Broderick Jones, Hillgrove’s Myles Murphy and Calvary Day’s Nolan Smith. The 25 Georgia draft picks overall are the fourth-most all-time. Georgia had 30 in 2022 and 2015 and 29 in 2017. The 25 ranked third nationally behind Florida’s 36 and Texas’s 30.

New football czar: Jay Russell became the GHSA’s football coordinator officially in June, replacing Kevin Giddens, who stepped down after four years. Russell formerly worked with the GHSA and was second in command behind executive director Gary Phillips in 2017, when the Georgia legislature forced Phillips out. Russell helped new executive director Hines through the transition, then left the next year. Russell was a longtime former football coach and school administrator and is a son of former Georgia defensive coordinator and Georgia Southern coach Erk Russell. One of the GHSA’s longest-serving employees, Ernie Yarbrough, is retiring. He began with the association in 1992 and will stay on part-time and assist with lacrosse, officials and event management. He was replaced by Darrell Lane, a 30-year basketball official.

The Prep Super League: In June, former USFL president Brian Woods announced plans to include Atlanta in a 12-team national high school football league to be played over a six-week season April 19-May 24. It’s called the Prep Super League, and Woods is seeking major Division I prospects hoping to raise their recruiting stock and maximize their name, image and likeness potential. Georgia coaches largely have panned the idea.

Raiola to Buford: On June 22, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation enrolled at Buford. Dylan Raiola is a quarterback from Arizona, where he had attended three high schools. He was uncertain if Arizona rules would allow him to be eligible for the full season in that state, so he decided to get closer to the University of Georgia, where he is committed. Buford’s 2022 quarterback, Dylan Wittke, graduated after signing with Virginia Tech. Raiola is the son of Dominic Raiola, a former NFL player.

Mill Creek’s Nick Maxey (88), Trajen Green (3) and teammates host the GHSA Champions sign after their 70-35 win against Carrollton in the GHSA Class 7A finals, at Center Parc Stadium, Saturday, December 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

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Credit: Jason Getz /