By David Friedlander
SUWANEE - In a way, Bob Sphire coaches a football team in the same manner Gen. George S. Patton commanded his army during World War II.
No, the second-year North Gwinnett coach will never be confused with "Ol' Blood and Guts," with his often salty language and crusty personality.
However, Sphire's coaching philosophy shares an important trait with one of Patton's most famous standing orders - never dig in. Always be advancing.
Whether it is his wide-open spread offense or his blitzing 3-3-5 defense, Sphire has instilled in his Bulldogs the idea that they should always be moving forward.
It's a philosophy that apparently fits the North Gwinnett program well as Sphire has the No. 5 state-ranked Bulldogs in position for their first state championship as they prepare to take on No. 4 Lowndes in the title game tonight at 7:30 in Valdosta.
"Really, (the defense) is the same philosophy as our offense and the same attitude - attack, attack, attack," the 50-year-old native of Brandenburg, Ky., said.
The Bulldogs have apparently taken that approach to heart as they have gone from a solid, upwardly-mobile program that had been a combined 16-7 with two playoff appearances in the two seasons leading up to Sphire's arrival to a juggernaut that has rolled up a 24-3 record since, including this year's 13-1 mark so far.
They haven't always seemed that receptive to Sphire's philosophy, however.
That took a little convincing by the coach, especially last winter during his first full offseason with the program, which was somewhat different from what the players were used to.
And considering they had gone through their third coach in as many years after Sphire's inaugural season in 2006, there was a major adjustment to be made - something that seemed still in progress through spring practice and this year's preseason preparation in August.
"It was a fist fight in January to get them to understand how important (the offseason work) was," Sphire said. "So many things still needed to be established. In spring, my gosh, I wasn't sure we'd win a game. It wasn't during preseason practice (that the team showed signs of progress). It wasn't during the (preseason) scrimmage against (defending Alabama Class AAAAAA champion) Prattville.
"During the course of all those tests, we persevered and figured out where our strengths were. That helped us come together."
That work has paid off according to several North players. Of course, Sphire's track record of rapid success didn't hurt either.
After establishing a new program at Lexington Catholic in Kentucky in 1991, he guided the Knights to the state playoffs in their first season of eligibility in 1993, and they haven't missed the postseason since, culminating in a Class AAAA state title in 2005 before he accepted the job at North.
"We had no other choice but to believe in him," Bulldog senior linebacker Eloka Anyaorah said. "From what I'd heard, he was the best around. When he first came in, he was tough, but I just worked hard and did whatever I could to help the team. He made me into a better person."
Still, there were logistical adjustments to make to Sphire's system, which blended his experience from not only from coaching high school football at Lexington Catholic and Knott County (Ky.), but also from his three-year stint as head coach of the Lexington Horsemen of the United Indoor Football League.
His indoor coaching job was one he held at the same time he was coaching at Lexington Catholic, which made life rather busy for himself.
"I couldn't have done it another four or five years," Sphire admitted. "I probably could've made another year or so, but the experience was invaluable. I learned a whole lot working with guys like (Horsemen and former Kentucky Wildcats quarterback) Dusty Bonner - guys who were always out to make plays in the clutch and put the pedal to the metal."
That experience also helped the players look past the complexity of Sphire's offensive and defensive systems and buy into them.
"(The adjustment to Sphire) was kind of strange at first," Bulldogs senior linebacker Tom Martinez said. "But we knew we'd do well because he had a plan. We just had to execute it."
So far, they have done so quite nicely.
SideBar: The Sphire File
' Name: Bob Sphire
' Position: Head football coach at North Gwinnett
' Age: 50
' Career record: 170-58
' Education: Graduated from Meade County High School (Ky.) in 1975; graduatedfrom Eastern Kentucky University in 1979 with a psychology degree; has master's degrees in guidance and physical education from Western Kentucky University
' Coaching background: Started Lexington (Ky.) Catholic football program as its first head coach in 1991; led team to the Class AAA state championship in 2005; guided Catholic to 13 straight playoff appearances (every year the program was eligible) and five straight district championships; also served as a guidance counselor at the school; coached the Lexington Horsemen of the United Indoor Football League from 2002-05, accumulating a 26-9 record; was head coach of Knott County Central (Ky.) in 1989 and 1990; was an assistant at three other high schools as well as a graduate assistant at Western Kentucky
' Family: Wife Marian; daughter Danielle, 16, and son Hayden, 12