After succeeding the late Dennis Roland as Central Gwinnett's head football coach in February, Ed Stokes has been through a lot in his brief tenure.
In addition to helping his players cope with the his predecessor's death from cancer, the 37-year-old Stokes has also had to deal with many other obstacles, including separate offseason arrests - and subsequent suspensions - of two star players and a rough 0-5 start.
Through it all, Stokes relied on the work ethic and perseverance he learned as a walk-on player during his college days at Auburn, as well as his days as an assistant coach under such mentors as Roland and former North Gwinnett coach Tim Hammontree to set an example to his team.
That example has started to pay dividends as the Black Knights have won two of their last three games, and Stokes sat down with staff writer David Friedlander this week to discuss his first season as a head coach so far.
DF: The life of a walk-on college player is never easy, with little tangible rewards for a lot of work. Is the experience you had at Auburn something you like to use as an example to help your players through tough times?
ES: At Auburn, I got into a couple of games late, but you're never going to look in a media guide or program and find my name under a list of past letter winners.
I knew going up there and walking on was going to be tough. One thing I'm proud of is that I came as close to reaching my full potential as anyone there at that time, and I use that to remind the players that it's not how much talent you have, but how you use it.
So, yeah, I guess having that background gives me a little legitimacy with the kids.
DF: You had served as an assistant at three different schools - North Gwinnett, Flowery Branch and Sandalwood in Florida - before joining Roland at Central and eventually succeeding him. How do you feel that experience helped prepare you to become a head coach, and what did you take from each of the coaches you worked under before?
ES: I remember someone at North Gwinnett when I was there telling me before my first child - 4-year-old Ryan - was born that being a teacher and a coach will make me a better parent, and vice-versa. And it's true. Now I realized that every kid is somebody's son.
As far as my influences, I started working with my father-in-law, Bob Withrow, down at Sandalwood, and it gave me a chance to kind of bounce a few things off him and to hear his perspective. When I worked for Coach Hammontree, he was old school, so I saw that perspective.
Dennis came in with the new offense, and I'd not worked with the spread until then. So, that was a learning experience. And Dennis really preached character. With Matt Moore (who coached at North for a year between Roland's departure there and the arrival of current coach Bob Sphire), I learned overall organization. And when I was with Lee Shaw at Flowery Branch, I got a chance to watch the relationship he had with his son (current Georgia Tech quarterback Jaybo Shaw), and it embodied a lot of character. Being a coach was a personal relationship and not just all business.
DF: A lot has happened since you got the job as head coach, beginning with the rather unusual and sad circumstances under which it happened. How difficult did those circumstances make the transition?
ES: A year ago this time, I probably would've told you that I had no desire to ever be a head coach. I never foresaw anything like that in my future. But Dennis' death was made easier by Dennis himself. After he told the team the cancer was back, he was at peace with it. It was all of us he was worried about.
Now, there was a lot of (other) adversity we had to deal with - bringing in a new defensive coordinator and changing the defense, and then later having to suspend two of our best players. But kids are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for.
DF: You mentioned the arrests. That obviously had a dramatic effect on the team on top of everything else that's happened. How do you think the team - and specifically - those two individuals have dealt with it, especially since they've returned to the team?
ES: Hopefully, they've learned from it. As bad as it seems right now, if they learn from it, they can still get to where they want to go in life. They've just made the road a little tougher.
DF: Given that situation in addition to all the other adversity you've had to deal with, including the slow start, were there times early in season in which you wondered what you'd gotten yourself into?
ES: Sure, but it was not that different from a lot of years, like last year with the (new) offense really struggling at times. And yeah, when you're sitting at 0-5, you constantly question yourself and ask 'Is there anything I should be doing differently?'
The hard part is, the talent was there, but we were not playing up to our potential. It's been a trial by error, and part of it is, you've got to set precedents. The benefits may be unseen for the first year or two.
DF: So, it's got to really make you happy to see the way the kids have bounced back over the last three games.
ES: It's still kind of hard to say when you're sitting at 2-6, but at 0-5, they could've turned inward and started finger-pointing, especially coming in with as high expectations as we had. But the players have kept it together, and ... I'm really proud of them. If we can finish off successfully, obviously, it will be huge for the guys to build on.