As a 35-year coaching veteran, Clark Harrell has experienced his share of change.
Harrell’s first day as the head coach at Riverbend was Thursday as high school football practice kicked off across Virginia.
Harrell is one of six new coaches in the Fredericksburg area. The fresh faces are the result of an offseason that produced upheaval unlike any in recent memory.
“I played at East Carolina University for Pat Dye and I’m going to quote him on this one,” Harrell said. “He said, ‘Movement and change is part of football and if it wasn’t, everybody would still run the single wing.’ ”
Harrell joked that he’s old enough to have “helped Noah coach when everybody was on the ark.” He said that jobs open up in different parts of the state from year to year, and this just happened to be the Fredericksburg area’s season of transition.
“I don’t think it’s unique just to this area because I saw it down in Florida, both in Jacksonville and the Orlando area,” Caroline first-year head coach Doug Allison said. “I think the coaching industry as a whole is a lot more transitional.”
Allison noted that several years ago at the college level, coaches like Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno were revered as fixtures at Florida State and Penn State, respectively.
Allison believes the more transient nature of professional and college football has trickled down to the high school level. Allison enticed his former defensive coordinator at Hilliard (Fla.) High, Bryce Cox, to join him on the Cavaliers’ staff.
“Ten or so years ago there was Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno. Now those kinds of guys don’t exist,” Allison said. “Look at Florida State. Jimbo Fisher was supposed to be there X number of years and he goes to Texas A&M. I think it’s still neat and I hope to be a part of a program like James Monroe with coach [Rich] Serbay. I think that’s awesome. I wish we could do that here. I’ll work hard for us to have that kind of thing.”
Allison and Harrell will have plenty of company as first-year coaches in the area this season. But they’re the only two to come in from the outside.
Brooke Point hired former assistant Dwight Hazelwood, while Colonial Forge, King George and Louisa stayed in-house by promoting assistants John Brown, Vern Lunsford and Will Patrick, respectively.
Hazelwood served as the Black-Hawks’ offensive coordinator from 2015-17. He inherits a program that went 30-8 the previous three years under Tommy Buzzo, who is now an assistant at Emory & Henry College.
Hazelwood said he feels prepared to take over as a head coach for the first time.
“I’ve been telling everybody that the hardest about it is paperwork. There is paperwork on top of paperwork and meeting after meeting,” said Hazelwood, whose team will officially begin practice on Monday. “The easiest part is going to be actually coaching. I’m excited. Our kids are excited. They can’t wait to roll out this thing.”
At the other end of Courthouse Road in Stafford County, Colonial Forge first-year head coach John Brown said it’s “business as usual.” Brown took over as head coach after 11 years as an assistant under his father Bill Brown, who remains on the staff as the offensive line coach and defensive assistant.
“There really hasn’t been a major transition,” John Brown said. “Our whole staff stayed intact just about and that makes a huge difference.”
John Brown said his father has given up his head coaching title but still speaks up. It’s not the first time father has served as an assistant for son. John Brown guided the Freedom High program in Woodbridge from 2004-06 when that school first opened, and his father was on his staff for the final season.
John Brown noted that his father still has a vested interest in the Eagles winning their first Class 6 state title after going 108–36 in his tenure.
“He’s taken a step back but he hasn’t taken a huge step back,” John Brown said. “It’s still hugely important to him that we continue on the path that we’ve been on.”
Lunsford was the offensive coordinator at King George from 2015–17 under former head coach Jeff Smith. The Foxes are expected to continue with their Wing-T offense with the Spotsylvania graduate in charge.
Patrick has taken over at Louisa after an ongoing battle with cancer forced veteran Mark Fischer to coach his final season last fall as the Lions reached the Class 4 title game.
Each of the new coaches anticipated adversity, but for Harrell it’s come right away. He was greeted at Riverbend by news of the transfer of starting quarterback Madden Lowe to Colonial Forge and offensive lineman Teagan McDonald, an Old Dominion commit, to Massaponax, as well as other departures.
Still, Harrell believes his players are buying in.
“They seem to understand what we’re doing,” Harrell said. “[McDonald] left and a couple more left. But my experience has taught me that you better coach the heck out of the ones you’ve got and don’t worry about the ones you don’t have.”