Forsyth County was new territory for Shane Williamson. So was changing a culture.
The south-Georgia native was looking for a simpler life after feeling “burnt out” serving as assistant principal and head football coach for Toombs County , south of the fall line, after the 2012 season. A friend on the coaching staff at Gainesville nudged Williamson toward an open-position at Forsyth Central, but when Williamson looked up the football history at the Cumming school online, his first reaction was to steer away. Central had not had a winning season since 2001 and an overall winning percentage below .400 since starting play in 1955.
“I didn't want to go somewhere with a tradition of losing. I didn't want another nightmare,” Williamson said. A few days passed, and Williamson changed his mind, so he packed up a résumé that included three nine-win seasons and a 10-win season at Swainsboro and Toombs combined, and he headed north.
Welcoming strangers to the southern end of Forsyth County is a sprawling community of new development, new people and even new high schools—for Williamson, those were places to get gas. Further north he went, toward Sawnee Mountain, where the multiple road lanes converged to two, mixed-use developments were replaced with mom-and-pop shops, and the optimism of the athletic communities made stark contrast with the attitude those in the northern Cumming community seemed to have about Central football.
Williamson took what he called a “leap of faith” and accepted the job. At first, it required having a bit of a spine.
“I'd tell people while moving in I had accepted a new head coaching job. At the time North Forsyth's job was open, so they'd assume I was coaching at North. I'd say Central and they'd say, ‘I'm sorry to hear that,’” Williamson recalled.
“It's funny. The gear people wore around here either had a Georgia Bulldog logo or a Cincinnati Reds logo on it, so people could talk their way out of it, but there wasn't anything that even said Forsyth Central. I said, you know, these folks are too embarrassed to even put the school name anywhere.”
That quickly changed. Williamson put in orders for new team uniforms that deliberately read “Forsyth Central” across the chest. He followed those symbolic changes with installing a new culture, which ran off a few older players. In 2013, Central won just two games—business as usual.
“The big thing there was just putting the stake in the ground. We ran off some guys but the ones that stayed played a lot as freshman and helped begin to solidify our football team,” Williamson said.
The “Losing History”
In 59 years, Forsyth Central has won 180 games and lost 268. The Bulldogs have an all-time losing record at home, just three region titles and just one first-team all-state player.
Ten coaches came before Williamson, and only two had considerable success. Ronnie Jackson coached a 7-3 team in 1984 and an 8-1-1 team in 1985 before leaving the program. The best era for Central was between 1995 and 2001, that last winning season, under the leadership of Bob Herndon. Central had five winning campaigns in eight seasons, including a 9-2 record in 1996 and the only double-digit winning season in school history in 1997 at 10-2.
Current Central assistant coach Bradley Fowler is more familiar with Central's past than Williamson. Fowler, a local, played football at South Forsyth high school in the early 90s. He remembers the first game between Central and South in 1992, which ended in a 14-14 tie.
When asked about what he remembered specifically about Central's program from his playing days at South, Fowler preferred not to mention any moment or year. As far as he's concerned, the dog days are over.
“I'll say this. It's way different here than when I was a kid,” Fowler said. “It's good for the community to have the new stuff at this school here. It's exciting for everyone to get involved with that. People come back, see the changes, and it's certainly been re-imagined.”
Under the leadership of Williamson, school principal Mitch Young and athletic director Dan Kaplan, Central is in the midst of a major facelift.
Over the summer, the school unveiled a new identity with a “FC” monogram logo that is unique to the school. The school crest was changed, hallways were re-lined with symbols of school pride, rugs in classrooms were pulled away if they had old logos on them—a detailed aesthetic refresh began to take place.
The infrastructure will soon change as well. By June of 2017, the Bulldogs football team will have a brand new, state-of-the-art field house to call home. The look is different—an all-black Adidas uniform gives the team a sense of intimidation they've not had in the past.
And, for once, finally, thanks to Williamson, the kids in the football program at Central truly believe they're built to win.
“Just getting our kids to believe they can be winners, that was the first struggle,” Williamson said.
After 2013, the Bulldogs jumped an entire year ahead of schedule, winning six games last season in Williamson's second year, defying the common rhetoric that coaches usually make their mark in their third year.
On Friday night, many of those younger players who bought into Williamson's foundation will step onto their home field as upperclassmen for the first time in their lives in front of a community that's beginning to actually buzz about Bulldog football.
“The thing is, in this community, and it's not like this everywhere in the area, the older generations here, they went to Central too, whether it was Forsyth County High School or Forsyth Central,” Williamson said. “Their heart is in it, they've not had much to cheer about in the past, but we want that to change. You are starting to see people brag and say, I went to Forsyth Central.
“When I was in front of the interview panel to get this job, I was asked what I could do to help school spirit, school pride. My simple answer was win. You can do all of those little things here and there, but at the end of the day people want to watch a winning football team.”
The Bulldogs will play their home opener tonight against Woodland-Bartow, while the community will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the school by honoring Central greats from each decade. The day will also signify what the Central community hopes is a bright future on the gridiron.
That future should, according to Williamson, include becoming region foes with South, West Forsth, North Forsyth and Lambert, which means more rivalry games and a true chance to re-claim the county.
“I think we'll be in their region as part of the Big 44,” Williamson said. “You want the rivalry games. You want that sense of community to continue to grow.”