PHOENIX, Ariz. — Three weeks after leading the Mountain Pointe High School football team to its first-ever appearance in a state championship game, head coach Norris Vaughan sat behind his office desk and attended to routine offseason business.
Vaughan was searching for opponents to fill out the Pride’s 2013 schedule, a task briefly interrupted by a University of Nebraska recruiter calling to schedule a visit with offensive lineman Kenny Lacey.
Looming over both those duties, never far from the coach’s mind, were the words scrawled across the white board on the wall behind his head. It’s the crux of the plan to make his team better, and it’s all the information anyone needs to understand what drew the former South Forsyth head coach back to football after a brief retirement.
Improving a football program, Vaughan believes, is about getting enough people on the team to join him at "level 4," the last number of a quartet of stages written on the board.
In Vaughan’s ratings system, level 4 means that someone is obsessed with football.
"If we can get enough people at level 4, nobody’s going to beat us," Vaughan said. "So far, I’m the only one that is obsessed."
Vaughan, a graduate of Forsyth County High School and the head football coach at South Forsyth from 1996-2003, didn’t realize how obsessed he was until 2004, several months after he took early retirement from the Georgia public school system and moved to Arizona.
After dreaming of permanently exchanging his spot on the sideline for one on a professional golf circuit, Vaughan soon realized that although he had moved 2,000 miles away from the place where he grew up to start a new chapter of life, his love of football made the trip with him.
"I kind of fell in love with the West because my oldest son [Jason Vaughan] played football at UNLV," Norris Vaughan said.
"I thought Phoenix was a good place to live ... two hours and I could be [out of the desert and] in Flagstaff skiing. Arizona is kind of like being in different countries [in one].
"I played [golf] on the Pepsi Tour for a few months ... had a lot of fun and did OK on it, but I missed coaching so bad and missed football so bad I couldn’t stand it."
Retired for less than a year, Vaughan accepted the job as head football coach at Wickenburg High School, a Class 3A program in western Arizona. During Vaughan’s first season at the helm in 2005, the Wranglers went 11-2 and reached the state semifinals, a place he’s gotten his teams to more often than not over the past eight years.
Vaughan went 47-5 during four years at Wickenburg, including two state semifinal appearances and a state runner-up finish.
He’s followed the same pattern since being hired by Division I (Class 6A) Mountain Pointe in 2009, taking over a team that went 12-18 in the three years prior to his arrival and going 40-11 with two semifinal appearances before last season’s 31-16 loss against seven-time state champion Hamilton in the championship game. Mountain Pointe had previously never reached the title game in its 21-year history.
Only once in the past eight years has one of Vaughan’s teams finished with fewer than 10 wins, and he’s won two state coach of the year awards during that time.
"We’ve got a good staff," Vaughan said. "We’ve had a lot of luck and a lot of good kids and [we’ve put in] a lot of hard work."
Vaughan seems well-suited for the West, right down to the life-size cardboard cutout of John Wayne standing in the corner of his office. His coaching philosophy is the same as it was in the South, though, he admits he is sometimes forced to adjust the way he communicates with his assistant coaches and players.
"Some of my colloquialisms, my Georgia accent, [leaves people] asking, ‘What? What did you say?’" Vaughan said.
"There are no secrets [to coaching], just hard work and discipline."
In many ways Vaughan comes across as a throwback to a different era of coaching and he even jokes that he’s too old to alter his style. In reality, he’s anything but set in his ways and makes major changes to his schemes on a year-by-year basis.
"If you’re a one trick pony ... you really limit yourself ... and I think a lot of coaches do that," Vaughan said. "We run a different offense or different defense [ever year] depending on our talent.
"This year we passed for 2,300 yards. My first year here I had a quarterback who couldn’t throw it in the ocean if he was standing on the beach. We threw for like 800 yards and ran for about 4,000 and we won 12 straight games.
"I think the biggest [responsibility] in coaching is to find out what your kids do best."
Though Vaughan said Arizona is not in the same league as Georgia in terms of overall high school football talent, he believes his team and a handful of others in the Grand Canyon State have more than enough weapons to challenge any of Georgia’s top programs.
That assertion is bolstered by players like Mountain Pointe junior wide receiver Jalen Brown, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Arizona. Brown has offers from more than 10 major college football programs, including Oregon, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
"The top seven or eight teams [here] have all got four or five Division I players," Vaughan said. "Almost everybody who starts for us or Hamilton could play [in college at some level]. There’s probably four or five teams here that could play with anybody in Georgia ... but from top to bottom it’s a lot better in Georgia."
Vaughan said he misses Forsyth County and believes there is a real possibility he could end up back in Georgia within the next few years so he and wife Ellen can be closer to their daughter and grandchildren. But Vaughan will only make the move if, of course, the right coaching job becomes available to him.
Vaughan doesn’t like to talk about his age and slyly insists that he is in his 50s, but regardless of the number of candles on his birthday cake or the part of the country life takes him to, it’s clear that his obsessed, level 4 mindset will never let him stray too far from a football field anytime soon.
"I feel great," Vaughan said. "I’d like to coach another 15 or 20 years."