A phone rang just a few minutes into my interview with West Forsyth head football coach Adam Clack last Friday, and maybe it was good timing. We’d just been talking about the Wolverines’ season, specifically how the team evolved into what looked like a playoff-caliber one by season’s end only to miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker, a tiebreaker that didn’t gain clarification until two days before the regular season finale.
It was a gut-wrenching situation for any coach, let alone one in his first season in charge. On Monday of that week, West thought it had a 75 percent chance of making the playoffs. By that Wednesday, it dropped to 25 percent. With this phone call, Clack had a 100 percent chance of not talking about it anymore.
"Excuse me," Clack said as he leaned over to open a desk drawer. He pulled out a black flip phone and answered it.
"This is Coach Clack," he said. "This is not my phone. Who are you trying to call?"
The phone had been turned into Clack after a meeting with freshmen parents last Wednesday. Two days later it was ringing off the hook. I could hear a woman’s voice on the other end, probably a mom, and in the brief conversation they determined who the phone belonged to, but the woman apparently wasn’t clear on who she was speaking to or where he was.
"West Forsyth," Clack reminded her. "This is Coach Clack from West Forsyth."
It struck me: for Clack and Lambert’s Louis Daniel, the county’s other first-year head football coach, this past season was a reintroduction of sorts.
Yes, they were familiar faces to their programs. Both were long-time assistant coaches promoted this offseason after the departure of the only head coach either school had known since it opened. Both had been embedded in the school’s culture and the program’s philosophy.
When Sid Maxwell resigned at Lambert and Frank Hepler departed West – both to either the puzzlement or shock of everyone – it made sense that Daniel and Clack were announced as their replacements, respectively. That’s what successful high school programs do, right?
But it seemed to me that Clack and Daniel were under a uniquely sharp microscope for first-year coaches. Again, they were replacing the only guy either school had ever known. They were taking over programs with annual playoff aspirations.
The microscope revealed coaches with acumen and poise, first-year leaders that were put to the test with disappointing losses, injuries and transfers, and yet both unquestionably passed.
Clack’s degree of difficulty was higher. He dealt with the loss of 60 starts on the offensive line. Three players transferred out of the program who would’ve been starters. An all-region linebacker decided not to play his senior season. Injuries decimated the Wolverines’ secondary (including one suffered during a school pep rally). He had to shuffle every assistant coach to a new position group.
Even so, West went 6-4, the seventh straight winning season in program history.
"There were so many opportunities for things to have gone sideways, and this coaching staff and these kids kept us on track long enough to figure things out," Clack said. "Without a doubt, the last five weeks of the season we played great football. That was the heartbreaking thing about not making the playoffs, because I thought we truly were a playoff team."
Daniel’s degree of expectation was higher. He had two impactful transfers in defensive end Trevon McSwain and running back Trevor O’Brien that seemed to bolster Lambert’s potential. He had more time and continuity with his coaching staff.
Even so, Lambert went 7-4 and hosted a playoff game for the second straight season after a 1-3 start.
"I had a good group of leaders in this senior class, and the rest of the team responded," Daniel said. "You have to be patient, believe in the process and keep working."
There’s no question now that Clack and Daniel were the right choices for their respective school. The only question now is, where can they go from here?
Clack has to replace his quarterback, best wide receiver, best linebacker, best defensive end and best cornerback, but Clack says he’s less worried about the program’s personnel as he is fostering better team chemistry. He’s seen the talent of the last two freshmen classes to enter the program. He’s seen the eighth grade talent at Liberty and Vickery Creek middle schools.
"I’m as excited about the future of West as I’ve ever been," Clack said. "…The idea of buy-in is being highly stressed. When we get that buy-in with those guys, sky is the limit."
Daniel, meanwhile, has to replace his quarterback, top running back, top linebacker, top two defensive linemen and top three defensive backs, but he’s less worried about the team’s roster than he is improving accountability within the program. He sees returning an entire offensive line group, a playmaking wide receiver in Tanner Hall, an emerging standout linebacker in Mac Redmond and plenty of young talent.
"You really hope that it’s the next guy up," Daniel said. "The next goal – this is a premium goal – is to win a playoff game. You’ve got to win one. You never know what happens unless you win one."
Clack and Daniel have the keys to their programs now. Where they go is up to them.
As it should be. They’ve earned it.
Brian Paglia is sports editor of the Forsyth County News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 770-205-8976 and on Twitter at @BrianPaglia.