BAILEY – Southern Nash’s old fieldhouse was a rickety metal building with no insulation and a window air-conditioning unit that ran constantly, working overtime to keep away the oppressive summer humidity.
It was in that building 14 years ago that Southern Nash coach Brian Foster began to accomplish his goals for the Firebirds’ football program. There were five goals that Foster set. None of them had anything to do with winning games or filling up the trophy cases that line the school’s main entrance.
That era feels like a long time ago, and not because some of Southern Nash’s current freshmen had yet to be born.
The most obvious change is the new fieldhouse, which was built in time for the 2011 season and features nice offices that overlook the stadium, training rooms and even central air.
Games in Bailey feel like events, like every person from Bailey, Spring Hope and Middlesex is there, like every middle schooler in the district is playing touch football underneath the East stands.
The early years under Foster feel like a long time ago because all five of those goals have checks next to them. It feels like a long time ago because seeing games today feels like the Firebirds’ program has always been that way, where people went to football games on Friday night in the fall, there was a giant sea of red-and-navy-blue in the stands and corn is sold as a concessions item.
Because seeing games now shows that football isn’t just part of the community at Southern Nash. In many ways, it is the community.
Foster’s first two goals were improving the Firebirds’ weight program and offseason program.
When he arrived as an assistant in 1990, it wasn’t that the school didn’t care about football, rather the sport was treated as only a season.
“It was culture of football starts Aug. 1, if we win, we win. If we don’t, we’ll wait ’til next year,” Foster said.
Foster wanted the kids to put more into preparing to play the game.
The greatest sin under Foster is not losing or playing a bad game, it’s not preparing to fullest of one’s ability.
He wants to win, but he’s more concerned that Southern Nash’s players apply themselves completely to what they do.
“To me, if you don’t invest in something, it’s not going to mean anything to you when it doesn’t go right,” he said. “If we lose a game, it should hurt. The harder you work for something, the harder it should be for you to give it up. We’ve tried to accomplish that.”
Both programs are strong points now. Kids don’t dread them; they crave them.
“At the beginning, I think Coach Foster had to pretty much beg kids to go to the weight room,” Southern Nash offensive line coach Brian Batchelor said. “Now, I think if we told them they couldn’t lift for a month, we better be expecting a fight. They might beat the walls down to get in the weight room.”
Foster next wanted to organize the feeder programs to look like the varsity and start a youth program.
He has good relationships with Wayne Bryant, who coaches the middle school team, as well as the heads of the youth program, which began in 2007.
And it looks just like the varsity. From the beginning, kids know that they’re playing a double-wing, double-tight offense and a 4-4 defense – just like the Firebirds have been for ages.
The same staff coaches both JV and varsity, too, which Foster said is invaluable to preparation.
“A lot of places do JV and varsity separate, but we coach all of ’em,” Foster said. “So when they start their program in the eighth grade with working out, that’s who they’re going to see coaching them for the next five years.”
The program that Foster has helped breed a standard. Southern Nash has had only one assistant coach leave since 2005.
Five of its seven assistant coaches played for Foster when they went to Southern Nash.
That model of consistency lets everyone know what to expect from the outset, from parents to boosters to players.
“When you start football, people tell you, ‘If you don’t want to work hard, you might as well leave.’” Southern Nash offensive lineman Cameron Gardner said. “We’re all about hard work, we’re all about team.”
The last thing Foster wanted to chance was the attitude. He didn’t want Southern Nash’s teams to feel like they were going to lose on Friday nights.
Midfield at Southern Nash’s football field does not have a helmet or a logo, but a slogan: ‘All In.’
And they mean it.
“It’s not just words that we’re telling the kids,” Foster said. “We really believe everything we tell them.”
A program filled with more than 100 hard-working kids dying to reach the varsity field wasn’t exactly what Batchelor experienced when he graduated in 1997.
“We used to worry if all our kids would have enough fight on gameday,” Batchelor said. “We know if they put a lot into something, they’ll fight for it. Coach Foster turned that around, and it really comes back to that word ‘program’ now. It’s night and day.”
Many kids want to be a part of the program, which will achieve its fourth-straight winning season with another victory this year. When those kids ask Gardner and his peers how they can be a part of Southern Nash’s program, the varsity players always have an answer.
“You can see the kids from middle school, and they’ll see the kids from varsity and how big they are, and they want to be like that,” Gardner said. “They ask us, ‘How did you get that way?’ We’ll tell them, ‘Listen to Coach Foster.’”
It’s a simple system: If a player gives his all for Foster, Foster will be there when it counts. He has been there driving kids all around for recruiting trips, staying up late at night cutting extra film and calling college coaches on his players’ behalf “until they get tired of me sometimes.”
In the end, that’s why so many of Southern Nash’s assistants came back.
And that’s why former players show up on Friday nights. And why people who don’t have any kids on the team still go to the games.
“The reason everybody comes back is because they’re proud of what they’re doing,” Batchelor said. “When you look back and see you’ve been successful, you start to see what helped you get there. People here come back because they love Southern Nash, and they love Brian Foster.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org