Terance Mathis, sporting a Pinecrest Academy polo and a grin that was on more than it was off, surveyed the crowded gym and snapped a few selfies. As he took questions from parents, he swayed back and forth in his chair, his excitement turning into motion.
Mathis, a former Pro Bowl receiver with the Atlanta Falcons, was introduced as Pinecrest’s new head football coach on Friday, capping a rapid coaching search that began last week, when Todd Winter resigned to take the job at Holy Innocents.
For Pinecrest, this hire comes with more star power than most. But as Mathis introduced himself and told his story, the message was one of humility and perseverance, even with the decorated past of the man delivering it.
"I probably need Pinecrest more than you need me," Mathis said.
Mathis doesn't come to the Paladins without prior coaching experience. He was offensive coordinator from 2011 to 2012 at Savannah State of the Football Championship Subdivision, and he worked as freshman offensive coordinator and a consultant and wide receivers coach for the varsity team at Lambert, where two of his children attend.
But Mathis has been trying for 10 years, he said, to get a job like the one he now has with the Paladins. He has applied at schools of all levels, including three in Forsyth County before Pinecrest.
When the position with the Paladins opened, he heard about it through a parent at one of the boot camps he runs as a personal trainer. He had lunch with Pinecrest athletic director Chris Kane last Friday, met school president Fr. David Steffy and toured the school on Monday, and was officially hired on Wednesday.
Mathis' name likely generated more excitement with parents than players, as his stint with the Falcons ended in 2002, before some of the Paladins' squad was born.
Pinecrest junior Brooks Binkley recognized Mathis when he saw the coach in school on Monday, though, and teammate Nolan Stafford knew Mathis’ name meant something.
“The minute I heard his name, I was like, ‘That’s amazing – we’re getting an NFL player at Pinecrest?’” Stafford said. “I was shocked that he would even want to come here.”
Many players were in the gym on Friday, with a few seated in the front row and the rest in the bleachers along the side, and Mathis made sure to address what his hire would mean for them.
He announced that Winter's triple offense was gone – which drew a smattering of applause from the players – and that the Paladins would run an up-tempo pro-style offense in its place.
As for defense, Mathis envisioned a flexible look, something along the lines of a 5-2 or 4-3 alignment. He named Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll as one of his major coaching influences – Carroll was defensive coordinator with the New York Jets while Mathis was playing there – but it was clear that the influence was as much in attitude as it was in scheme, reflecting Carroll’s fun-centered philosophies.
He brought up changes in the practice schedule: The Paladins will now go for four days, rather than five, and practices will be one hour shorter than they were under Winter.
“You do something well for a certain period of time and it resonates and stays in,” Mathis said. “You do things for a long period of time, you can find a shortcut from doing it and now you’re just saying, ‘I’m just going to get by today.’”
“I know it’s going to be less time, but it’s going to be double the intensity,” Binkley said.
Mathis didn’t go without mentioning his connections among the higher levels of football, from his friendships in the college game to how his time in the NFL would shape the Paladins.
“I told (the players), ‘On Sunday, when you’re watching football, you’re going to hit your daddy and say, ‘We run that play, dad!’” Mathis said.
The conference was about Mathis, after all, and he made sure the crowd knew his story, not as much of his successes but of the doubts that preceded them.
Mathis told the crowd of the time his mother brought him to football practice when he was nine years old and the coach said he was too small to play. He told them of the time his football coach at Redan High School in DeKalb County said he couldn’t play quarterback. He told them of the coaches who doubted his potential, like the one at the University of Tennessee saying he needed more size, and the ones in the NFL saying he needed more speed.
And when he wanted to get into coaching himself, Mathis said, he had to shrug off criticism about his lack of experience. On Friday, though, he looked at the enthusiastic group of parents and students that had come to greet him and smiled, contemplating the next step in his story.
“One day, I might write a book,” he said.
He has one large task at hand to focus on, though, and Friday was the start of that. At the end of the press conference, Mathis looked up, stretched out his bulging arms and yelled to the ceiling.
"I'm a coach, officially!”