The only sound in the West Forsyth football team’s locker room Thursday afternoon was the hum of a vacuum cleaner.
Shawn Cahill’s first season as the Wolverines’ head coach had been over for just a week since a 29-14 loss to Mill Creek in the first round of the Class 7A state playoffs. Any trace of a season’s worth of teenage revelry was gone. Lockers were empty. Shoulder pads were stacked. Cahill was sucking up the last trace of any mess.
“I doubt Kirby Smart had to do this after the Auburn loss,” Cahill joked.
Indeed, the life of a high school head football coach is certainly unique to its college or professional counterparts, and Cahill and the county’s other new head coach this season, Pinecrest Academy’s Terance Mathis, experienced it for the first time.
For the most part, the two new coaches’ journeys and outcomes this season couldn’t have been more different.
Cahill’s was perhaps the more conventional of the two. Hired in April from Lanier High, where he was an offensive coordinator the previous three years, Cahill met his team and assembled a staff in time to oversee spring practice. Even before then, Cahill knew he was taking over a program that was already on solid ground, a Class 7A team that had made the state playoffs six of the previous seven seasons and returned some of the county’s top talent.
He enjoyed many of the advantages associated with programs in the highest classification too. When he wanted the team’s seniors to experience an exclusive two-day training event conducted by former military service members, the booster club paid for it. Over the summer, the locker room was renovated with fresh paint in the school’s dark blue and gold colors along with wall graphics featuring motivational messages and manikins dressed in gameday uniform.
That seemed to make players more willing to comply with some of his new rules, like no cleats on in the locker room.
“They didn’t want to end up in the visitor’s locker room,” Cahill said.
In the end, West’s season was almost a carbon copy of its previous one. The Wolverines remained in contention for a region championship until the final game of the regular season and reached the state playoffs for the third straight time.
“It was a good start,” Cahill said.
Mathis was an unconventional candidate to begin with. Few NFL Pro Bowl wide receivers go on to become high school coaches, and few high school coaches are hired as late as June with less than three months to prepare for an upcoming season. Mathis had to scramble to hire assistant coaches and teach a new offense and defense to a team lacking varsity experience.
In the end, Mathis’ hectic hire and the Paladins’ lack of playing experience led to a winless season (Pinecrest’s final record was 1-9 after South Forsyth forfeited its 56-10 win over Pinecrest on Aug. 20) and an end to the program’s streak of three straight seasons in the state playoffs.
“The first year was basically getting to know each other,” Mathis said.
And yet, as different as coaches’ seasons can be, some things are universal, whether coaching 150 players or 40, whether given four months to prepare for a season or just two.
Both Cahill and Mathis found communication to be the most pivotal part of the job.
Cahill found that to be especially critical with his assistant coaches to make sure practices had his desired intensity. It was one of many pieces of advice Cahill got from his father, a long-time head football coach in North Dakota.
“The assistant coaches can’t read your mind,” Cahill said. “... It gets said way too much, but you can’t communicate enough.”
Mathis found communication to be especially critical to the big-picture unity of a program.
“You’ve got to make sure everyone’s on the same page, reading from the same book – players, coaches, administrators, parents,” Mathis said.
Both were able to enjoy the journey, as different as they were.
“I had a great time,” Cahill said. “I had great kids. I had fun. I had fun going out to practice with them.”
“I enjoyed every day,” Mathis said. “I’ve been on a team that went 0-11, 2-10. I’ve been there. Those were miserable years. But this didn’t feel like we went 0-10.”
And both got a deeper appreciation for their new communities.
“I’m out for Halloween with my kids, and there are people who I don’t know saying, ‘Good luck,’ or, ‘Can we win this week?’” Cahill said.
“(Pinecrest) is a special place,” Mathis said. “I never thought I would have so much joy driving in here. It’s a vibe, it’s a spirit. It’s just phenomenal.”
Next year has already started. Cahill made a depth chart with returning players and counted as many as nine players who could contribute at running back. He wants to coach a position group again. Mathis gets his first full offseason with the team, and he’s already constructed an itinerary up until next Aug. 3.
“Now, it’s time to build the process of where we need to be as a really good football team,” Mathis said.