It is no surprise that when Roswell comes calling, you pick up the telephone.
“When a place like Roswell comes around, you are not going to pass that by because it is a pretty special place,” said former Johns Creek coach Matt Kemper. An Ohio native, Kemper will take over the head football coaching duties of former coach John Ford, who took the Buford job earlier this year.
Kemper, who played football at Miami of Ohio, has coached in Ohio, Florida, and since 2008, in Georgia. He led Pope to a region title in 2008 before heading to Johns Creek in 2015. At Johns Creek, Kemper led the team to an 8-3 finish and the school’s first 7-AAAAAA region title in 2016.
As Kemper steps into the Roswell job, he will inherit a program with a head of steam, so to speak. Roswell put together 14-1 seasons the past two years, losing state championship games to Colquitt County in 2015 and Grayson in 2016.
But for Kemper, one of the things that stands out is the link to a storied 1971 football team from Virginia.
To understand that story, you need some background information.
In 1950, Roswell High School debuted a football team for its inaugural season under coach Bill McCampbell. The Hornets, who went 6-2 that year, gave McCampbell another shot in 1951, but a 3-7 season did him in. Roswell went 3-7 in ’52 and ’53 with new coaches — Kirk Price and Louis Lake, respectively.
By 1954, the head coaching job was vacant again, and the man who filled it would be the last Roswell head coach to not be promoted from within the Roswell system … until Kemper. That spans 63 years and seven coaching changes.
Enter Bill Yoast in ’54, who later became the assistant coach to Herman Boone at T.C. Williams High School in Virginia. And if that doesn’t ring a bell, go watch the movie “Remember the Titans” to see Yoast, who was played by actor Will Patton. You remember the coach with the football-fanatic daughter? That’s him. If you pay close attention, you can even see film of Roswell games used in the movie. Netflix anyone?
“It is very, very humbling (to be the first coach hired out of the Roswell system since Bill Yoast),” Kemper said. “Coach Yoast was here when the school was 9 or 10 years old. He coached football and a few other sports before he went back up to Virginia. It is so humbling. It just kind of reinforces how big of a deal this is. There are a lot of expectations. I certainly respect those and we hope we can live up to those.”
Kemper took time Friday morning to answer a few questions in a wide-ranging Q&A.
Q. Tell me a bit of background information.
A. I grew up in Ohio and played up there are Miami University and coached 10 years in Ohio. Then I went to Florida for five years and have been here in the great state of Georgia for nine. We moved to Florida because I had four children, and we went somewhere where they have spring practice and a great scholarship program.
Q. What fueled the move to Roswell?
A. Well, it all happened really, really fast and kind of came out of the blue. I was not really looking for a new job, but certainly when a place like Roswell comes up, you are not going to pass that by. It is a pretty special place. Coach Ford left for Buford right around mid-January and things happened really fast. I had a bit of history knowing coach (John) Coen, the athletic director, and Mr. (Jerome) Huff, the principal. I did have some discussions with coach Ford about possibly joining his staff a couple of years previously. It was a great surprise.
Q. Is there any housekeeping going on within the coaching offices?
A. Well, you know, there always is, to a degree. A place like Roswell, however, you don’t want to completely change things because there have been some great things accomplished here. But I think anyone coming into a new job is going to put their stamp on it, to a degree. What I have tried to do is reach out to some of the people from the past. Sit down with those guys and talk about this history and ask them, “What is the most important thing about Roswell football?” Each of them had their unique answers. But we understand that to accomplish great things here we are going to have to stand on the shoulders of some pretty great people, great kids. We want to respect that and at the same time to keep working toward the future.
Q. Tell me about the upcoming team. What are you seeing?
A. The one thing is just the work ethic these kids bring to everything that they do. Roswell is a kind of a town that has a reputation of being blue-collar, hard-working, hard-hat, lunch-pail-carrying group. These kids are certainly not disappointing in that regard. They come into the weight room every day and just give you everything they have got. And I can’t wait to get on the field with them and be a part of that, too.
Q. Has spring practice started yet?
A. We are starting on May 4. We will go two days that week, four the next week. And then we will finish with a scrimmage at North Forsyth on Thursday, May 18.
Q. Is coaching in Georgia any different than Ohio or Florida?
A. Georgia has that reputation of just being rabid about high school football. Certainly, it has lived up to that. I grew up in Ohio and grew up coaching in Ohio where you go into a game and it’s system football. You’re gonna play these guys and they’ve been running the “Wing-T” since Jesus was a boy. Then you go to Florida, where, they are unbelievable athletes, and there is not a ton of community support for high school football. And the football is a little bit, I’ll almost say, sloppy. You know, you might see four different offensive systems in one quarter. I think Georgia is a pretty special blend of those two styles. You have great coaches and well-coached teams. The level that the recruiting has increased in the nine years I’ve been here is a testament to how good the athletes are.
Q. Speaking of recruiting, what has changed over the years.
A. I just think it is that there is so much emphasis on the camps and some of those things for kids to get exposure. Certainly we do everything we can to try to help our guys and ensure that they’re in the right places. Whether they’re taking the tests or signing up for a test and making sure their grades are right. But you know, there are a lot of people who make their living just off speculation of recruiting now. And that’s not the case 10 or 15 years ago. It is certainly different. I don’t know if it is better or worse. Certainly, with all the media and electronic outlets, kids are able to get more exposure. It has made men like me have to get versed in Twitter and have a Twitter handle for Roswell recruiting and use that to try to promote our kids. I had my 20-year-old son gives me tutorials on it.
Q. When did you know that coaching was for you? Did you have a mentor?
A. I think everybody does. When I left high school coaching was, probably, the furthest thing from my mind. I was not an education major. I got my bachelors; I was a pre-med guy. I worked in some different areas, worked in bio-medical research for a while. I had all kinds of jobs, was a machinist for a bit. I was able to go back and get certified to teach and certainly my high school football coach, John Blake, was a huge influence on my life. Took a job in Toledo, Ohio, with coach Hal Lafontaine, who has since passed, God rest him. He had a huge influence on me. There are a lot of philosophies in our coaching notebook that coach LaFontaine taught me. I fully believe that thing that (Ralph Waldo) Emerson said about, “You can’t pay back the people who helped you in life; you can only pay it forward.”
(Note: Former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes shortened Emerson’s quote to: “You can never pay back, but you can always pay forward.” The original Emerson quote is as follows: “In the order of nature, we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”)
Q. What is your relationship like with the fanbase at Roswell?
A. Doing everything we can. Just did a spring fundraiser last night, and we capped it off with an event we call the “Strong Man” in the gym. Leading up to that we had a couple of community events. Our senior players and their dads organized a fundraiser at a local restaurant, and I was able to speak to those people. About a month ago we had a meet-and-greet here at the school. We invited the community and tried to lay out what our philosophy for football is and our goals for the program. It was pretty neat to talk with the coaches and families. We are doing a lot of the things that are already in place, like having a youth camp at the Roswell parks and having a one-day clinic here in late April for the Roswell Youth Football and Cheer Association, so we want to be transparent with those folks and make them feel very vested in our program.
Q. A message to the Roswell fan base?
A. We fully understand the expectations here and want to continue those and respect those and build on them. The fact that, ultimately, our No. 1 goal of the program will always be to develop young men of character and not to sacrifice academic success in order to achieve athletic success. We want this place to make this community very, very proud. We want them to have success here and after leaving Roswell High. We want this community to look at them and say, “Hey, that’s a Roswell kid.”