Mark Daniel, Rutland
1. What is the real difference-maker in winning and losing in Georgia high school football? “There is absolutely no question that the unequivocal, No. 1 reason for success in Georgia high school football is recruiting! Georgia coaches now have a saying, ‘If you’re not recruiting, you’re not playing for first.’ All of the money poured into field houses and weight room facilities is to help recruit. Teams are now spending Thursday nights in hotels and not going to school on Fridays’ away games so they can ‘be like the college teams.’ The reason is to influence good players to come to their schools. Who wouldn’t rather play there if you don’t have to go to class on Fridays. Staying in hotels and going to the movies is a lot more fun than going to class. When I was the defensive coordinator at Camden County, we had a long trip to Colquitt County, so we got out of school early. We left before lunch on Friday morning, not Thursday morning. In the news media, you see in preseason every year about the D-I prospects that transferred here and transferred there. It’s like ESPN reporting on free agency moves in the NFL. All the teams that ‘turned’ programs around have done it by recruiting outside players.
“I have heard parents say, ‘It’s my son’s senior year, I want him to have a chance to win.’ ‘So they put their house up for sale and rent in the next district. Then after football season, they move back into their house. This year, I talked to a parent who lives in Howard High’s district but said he is moving his son to a neighboring county because they are winning.
“It used to be about hard work, discipline, team chemistry and character-building. Now, it’s about recruiting. After Screven County beat Gainesville in the Dome in 2002 [state semifinals], one of their parents saw our booster president at the concession stand and said, ‘My hats off to you. Y’all beat the best team money could buy.’ That was a proud moment for Screven County, knowing that all of their players lived there since middle school.” [Daniel was head coach for Screven County’s 2002 Class AAA championship team.]
2. Which player that you’ve coached is memorable mostly for his character or inspiration? “In 32 years, I have coached many good players who have grown up and are doing well in life as managers, lawyers, doctors, engineers and preachers. One of the most memorable was definitely Tony ‘The Toe’ Evans, as he is now affectionately known around Sylvania, Ga. Tony was kind of a mediocre player and backup guard who didn’t commit himself very well. During his sophomore year, he decided to skip spring practice. I told him I would not let him play in the first four games in the fall because it would not be fair to the players who did show up for spring. He subsequently decided to quit.
“After that season, he came back to me and wanted to play again, so I told him he would have to make a commitment to work hard and not miss any more practices even though he was not going to be a starter. He did honor that commitment and even started kicking duties. Tony couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn when he started. On one notable try, he even hit the bus parked on the other side of the scoreboard from the goal post. But Tony continued to work hard every day at practice and slowly became more consistent. (It helped his confidence that we scored a lot that year and he had many opportunities.)
“In the 2002 quarterfinals, versus No. 1-ranked LaGrange, Tony kicked the winning field goal with just under two minutes remaining to send his team to the Georgia Dome for the semifinals. Then at the Dome, Tony again kicked the game-winner with time running out. It was story book. I will never forget going home and watching the videotape of the televised game and seeing Tony’s interview after the game. The announcer questioned Tony if he had ever imagined himself doing that. Tony responded with a smile as big as a quarter moon, ‘Naw dog, I thought we were going to blow these boys out.’ We still laugh about that interview and the most unlikely of hometown heroes, ‘Tony the Toe.'”
3. What is the best atmosphere for a high school game that you’ve experienced away from home? “2001, Screven County vs. Appling County, season opener in Baxley, Ga. Legendary Coach Bob Griffeth had the place extremely excited about high school football. They had it all happening there, and we had a tough rivalry going. Their band was loud and involved in playing with timing that emphasized all of their good plays. The announcer made it sound like a playoff game. Both crowds were constantly on their feet and supporting their teams, and we won a very close game with a goal-line stand on the last play of the game. The place exemplified everything that was good about high school football in a small town.”
4. As a player or coach at any level, which game do you wish you could play again? “As a coach, definitely Screven County vs. Cedartown, 2001. I felt like we had the team to win it all that year, but we lost the free safety to injury a couple of weeks prior to that game. Our all-state running back took the opening kickoff all the way for a touchdown, but it was called back. Then, in the second series, our QB fractured his ankle and could only hobble the rest of the game. He finally got injured again in the third quarter because he couldn’t avoid the rush. The kids played so hard, but we could not overcome the injuries. You have to have a lot of luck to make it through without injuries. I always wonder what would have happened if we were able to stay healthy.”
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