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Communication between sideline and upstairs box comes a long way

As the rain poured down at the 1995 Corky Kell Classic - held that season at McEachern - Brookwood assistant coach Mark Crews wore his customary headset.

A cable ran from the bulky device on his head down the visiting sideline, around the end zone and up to the press box, where the remaining Bronco coaches were seated for in-game communication.

"It rained so hard and here I am with a hose reel of cable from the press box to the visiting sidelines," Crews said. "I remember thinking, 'If there was a good little lightning bolt here, it could be all over.'"

The field to press box communication is much more advanced these days, leaving new coaches spoiled at the ease of information sharing. Younger coaches weren't around when those conversations were much more of a chore.

Jefferson head coach T. McFerrin, South Gwinnett's head coach from 1998 to 2004, began his coaching career in 1968.

He joked that "tin cans and string" were in use when he started. It wasn't quite that bad, but it wasn't a smooth process, either.

He remembers one state championship game when the only coach up high was on a crow's nest/deer stand up a pole, roughly 15 to 20 feet behind the sideline.

While situations like that made the view rough, the communication through the headset wasn't always great, either, depending on if your channel was interrupted.

"We've even had cases where we've been on the other team's frequency," McFerrin said. "I'm sure (the other team) heard us talking, too, over the years. You would get interference from police radios. All of sudden you get a police call (on your headset) that they're chasing so-and-so, and you can't get a play called because you're listening to the police."

When Crews began his coaching career in DeKalb County, coaches used common handheld telephones, like the ones in most households, to talk between the sideline and press box. One phone was on the sideline and another was on the press box wall.

If a different coach wanted to talk, you passed the phone over.

"In DeKalb, a lot of those cords were not long enough to go past the 35- or 40-yard line," Crews said. "And if a kid stepped on your cord, you were in trouble. We wore headsets like operators used to wear."

That's no longer an issue.

Sideline coaches now use wireless devices for communication upstairs. No more long, messy cables. No more interference from other channels.

Instead of running a cable around the field, coaches now just have to turn their headsets on in the proper order. Now, coaches can flip a switch and change from an offensive channel to a defensive channel.

"The technology's changed so much," retired Brookwood coach Dave Hunter said. "If I was in coaching again, I'd have to hire somebody to show me how to use the technology."

One fact hasn't changed much over the years. The coaches' eyes in the sky are just as important as ever. At field level, coaches don't have the vantage point to see formations in great detail. That's where the press box coaches come in.

Offensive coaches get the down and distance to the field as quickly as possible. They chart tendencies. One coach typically watches in the defensive front, another eyes the secondary.

Another group of defensive coaches monitors the opponent's offense in a similar fashion.

"The secret is getting the right people in the press box, people who are good at thinking one or two plays ahead, and giving you suggestions for plays or defenses," McFerrin said. "You don't want a whole lot of clutter. You don't want everybody talking at the same time."

And the coaches upstairs are every bit as important at the ones on the sidelines. A relationship of trust and cohesion must be built to the process to click.

"Ray (Allen) was always my guy up there and we were on the same page," Hunter said. "You want a guy with the same mind-set as the person calling plays or the person in charge. At Peachtree with Coach T. (McFerrin), I knew I needed to be on his game plan. That was critical."

Making sure the word got from the press box down to McFerrin in those days wasn't always ideal, though the coaches back then made it work. Now that process flows seamlessly Friday after Friday.

"These guys don't know what it was like," Hunter said of young coaches. They don't even use VHS (tapes) anymore. I remember when we used 16MM films."