Staff Photo: Brandon Brigman. North Gwinnett's Phil Daniel is in his second season as the head wrestling coach for the Bulldogs. He spent the previous 15 years as a coach at Ringgold, where he led the team to seven state titles.
Phil Daniel, 44, is in his second year as the head wrestling coach at North Gwinnett High School. Daniel spent the previous 15 seasons at his alma mater Ringgold, leading the Tigers to seven state championships. Daniel wrestled for three years at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he got his bachelor's degree in business administration and master's in special education.
In this latest installment of "Getting to Know ..." staff writer Brandon Brigman talks to Daniel about running and fishing, building the North Gwinnett program and coaching his son Dalton.
BB: Was it tough leaving Ringgold after all those years to come to Gwinnett?
PD: I wasn't really looking, it just kind of happened. It really fell in my lap. We took it as a sign from above. It was a good change. It was time. I had been at Ringgold all of my life. I was there at the beginning when our goal was top 10 and we got 10th and I was there when our goal was to win it and we won it. That's what I want to build down here.
BB: Is there anything you miss about Ringgold?
PD: There's places to run. The parks are a little bit more wide open. You don't drive five miles and it takes 30 minutes. I can ride my bike, go fishing a lot more. I've got some real good friends up there that I miss.
BB: How did you do in the half marathon on Thanksgiving last week?
PD: I broke two hours. I was an hour, 58 (minutes), so that was good. I ran it with my son. I wanted to run the marathon. I did it last year, but I woke up Tuesday morning with just way too many aches. I try to do that every year.
BB: So are you a big distance runner then?
PD: I like it. I run almost every day. I've run four full marathons, I like adventure racing, I do all that stuff. Mountain biking, I've got a road bike. I'm not really built to run, but I love to run. I'm short and fat and love to run for some reason. It helps get me away from this and takes the edge off sometimes.
BB: So what did you after the race for Thanksgiving?
PD: We went up to my mom's and ate. She lives in Chattanooga and we went up there. Actually Friday I went and watched some wrestling. I went and watched some of my old kids wrestle.
BB: Is there anything particular your mom has to make for Thanksgiving?
PD: Well, we have to have dressing. My grandmother made the wickedest coconut cake in the history of the planet. So she passed that recipe down to my mom and she makes it now, so we have to have that. I'm not a big turkey man. I'm a ham guy. I like the pork.
BB: What's on your Christmas list for this year?
PD: I want a stud 152-pounder. (laughs) No, really I haven't thought about it. I guess just some clothes. I need a new pair of sunglasses. Not anything really, really major this year. A lot of fishing stuff. I'm really big into fishing. Some new boots and new wrestling shoes.
BB: Where's your favorite place to fish?
PD: My favorite place to fish is Guntersville, Ala. It's hog heaven. When the season is over we'll go. Me and my son, we will stay there three or four days and then go to nationals. It's kind of the way we wind down. It's springtime, that's when the spawn hits. Now (this summer) we'll go to Texas with my cousin and catch those big giant ones.
BB: With all the success you had at Ringgold how tough was last year for you as North Gwinnett struggled?
PD: It's in perspective. I'm not going to say humbled, but I know what I do works. It is working right now. You can take average athletes and make them into really good wrestlers if they have the right mental frame work. It was real tough last year. It was frustrating because of what I knew we had, what was there at the beginning wasn't there at the end. Here the frustration is getting everybody to buy into that, which this year we've seen a lot of that.
BB: What's the biggest difference between Class AAAA and Class AAAAA wrestling?
PD: I think the consistency of competition that you have to face every day, every night. It's just a meat grinder. People are going to get hurt, it's going to happen. I think the biggest thing ... at Ringgold we never wrestled with a full team until state duals or traditional state. Never, not one year. In this sport you're never going to put your full lineup out there. If you do you're fortunate or you're Collins Hill. It's the competition and the availability of such great facilities to take kids to get really good. There's all kinds of training facilities around here that elevate the game.
BB: Did you have a great appreciation of Gwinnett County wrestling once you joined it?
PD: Oh yeah. We wrestled Parkview, Collins Hill, Peachtree Ridge, but I understand now. I was kind of a big mouth up north saying my little AAAA team could walk with any of them and I still believe that, but day in and day out it's hard to get that consistent level of competition. I have a great respect for the teams down here. There's a massive amount of talent in Gwinnett County. The best team in the state (Collins Hill) is in Gwinnett County, is in our region. I don't mince any words when I say that. They've got a great program and they do a good job. That's where we want to be and it's a work in progress.
BB: What's it like coaching your son Dalton?
PD: (Laughs) Don't ask me, ask him. It's hard on him. I've got to where now when we go to places he doesn't want me in the corner. I will go up and sit in the stands and one of my assistant coaches will coach him. If I'm the only one there then he gets me. I just get emotional, I'm not rational, but we've become so much closer in the process. We have become inseparable. He works so hard. He's just like me, he's driven to be excellent and do his best. That's all I ask of him. Sometimes the pressure of being my son makes it beyond possible to fulfill. He's his own man. He's going to be a rocket scientist someday, not a wrestling coach. I love him to death and I'm so proud of what he's done. Anybody that can live with me and be coached by me deserves some sort of medal just for doing that.
BB: How long do you see yourself at North Gwinnett?
PD: I told them this is my home. I didn't come down here looking for another job. I love North Gwinnett. Everybody here is my family. In a year and a half I've learned to love a lot of people that have accepted me. I go to work every day thinking if I can change one person, that's my goal, that's my life. I'm going to retire here. I'm going to build a program here and when we get it going real good I'm going fishing.