HAMMOCK: Hard work, struggles get Conn, Simpson to this point

Will Hammock

Will Hammock

The dusty middle school field was covered in some current, many future high-schoolers. It was tough to call the kids out there football players, not yet.

Sure, a few knew what they were doing, but not many. Most had to learn football and build the new Grayson High football program, which had yet to begin play, from scratch. They had a successful first fall in 2000, but watching the kids from their inaugural spring practice it was tough not to wonder how they pulled it off with no pads and a few footballs.

Somehow Mickey Conn, then a young assistant without much experience, and his staff pulled it off. In the process, they laid the foundation for the Rams' current successes, including an appearance in Saturday night's Class AAAAA state championship game with Walton.

It wasn't the same situation up at Buford, but the Wolves didn't transform into their current dynastic four state titles in a row overnight. When head coach Dexter Wood arrived with one of his former Marietta players, Jess Simpson, as defensive coordinator, there were barely enough players on the roster to field a team.

There were more than a few moments when Wood and Simpson wondered what they had gotten into. Simpson took a shot as East Paulding's head coach in 1997, took an 0-10 record and came back to Buford.

Between those two, and the strong staff around them, they turned the Buford program around. Not just to the past glories, but well beyond them.

Simpson can lead Buford to a fifth straight state title Friday at the Dome, which would give the Class AA power the all-time mark in state history (it currently shares the record of four in a row with West Rome from 1982-85). Simpson appreciates these times even more because he remembers the struggles of the early days. He's reminded of the past when he celebrates each with his athletic director Wood, now retired as a football coach.

The Wolves and their coach are reaping the rewards of that past work now. Simpson is 96-3 as head coach there and Buford is no longer lacking for players, instead it's a destination where people from well outside the city limits want to drive to attend.

After its humble beginnings, Grayson had some AAA success before winning five, four and six games in its first three AAAAA seasons. Now Conn has his team on a run of fifth straight seasons of 10 or more wins. One more will bring his program's first state title.

And it will be that much sweeter for Conn, as it is for Simpson, when he thinks back to when his program wasn't at this level.

Will Hammock can be reached via email at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.