Patience, leadership help Conn build Rams

Grayson's Mickey Conn 

Grayson's Mickey Conn 

LOGANVILLE -- Four years to the date of their first meeting, Mickey Conn proposed.

He was in his late 20s. Halie just her 20s. They had met at church in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Mickey waited for her to finish her degree. Already an assistant coach under T. McFerrin at South Gwinnett, Halie knew saying yes meant not just a new last name and Mrs. replacing Miss, but also becoming a "coach's wife." During the pair's courtship, others helped initiate Halie. On weekend trips to see Mickey, Halie made friends and sat with the wives of now South head coach John Small and Mill Creek head coach Shannon Jarvis, at the time both South assistants, in the stands in Snellville.

"That was a very special time," Halie said.

Halie never joined the group as one of the South Gwinnett wives. Before her and Mickey's June wedding he took the Grayson head coaching job, agreeing to build a program from scratch.

"That's been the story," Halie said. "Grayson football ever since."

"Let's see what you can do"

Mickey Conn grew up near where he now coaches. He graduated from South Gwinnett High School and worked his way onto the football team at Alabama as a walk-on. After graduation, he worked as a graduate assistant coach for two seasons before taking a teaching and coaching position at his high school alma mater. Two seasons later, Grayson administrators named him head coach.

Conn's mother worked with Grayson's first principal Mike Moody and Moody took an interest in Conn's career after high school. When hiring time came, Moody interviewed the young Conn among other candidates.

"I thought I might have a chance, that it might be a long shot," Conn said. "It being a new school and trying to build something, I was hoping he would take a shot at a young guy with not very much experience, no experience as a head coach that's for sure."

After presenting his report to members of Grayson's administration, Moody told the athletic director at the time Mike Phillips he was going to offer the job to Conn. Phillips remembers supporting the choice.

"We were looking for people that we felt like, No. 1, wanted to be at Grayson High School and, No. 2, wanted to embrace the opportunity to start a new school and I just felt like Mickey brought intangibles to the program as far as his character," Phillips said.

Conn took the job with energy to belie his youth. There were few mentors for him to mimic, few ears to bend.

"I really didn't know enough people in the coaching circles and frankly I don't think I was a popular choice of people because of my inexperience," Conn said. "I didn't have a lot of people that were lending a helping hand to me. It was pretty much, 'All right, let's see what you can do.'"

In his first act as head coach of a brand new football program, Conn called the Gwinnett County School's office to figure out how to get stands for what would be his new stadium.

'Winning breeds winning'

Gwinnett County opened Grayson High School under its former building plan, one absent of football facilities now included for all new high schools. No stadium, no fieldhouse, no weight room, no concession stand. Until make-good funding from the county helped build the Rams' current fieldhouse, complete with office space, locker rooms and a weight room, all construction at Grayson came from money raised by the school, booster club, alumni association and community.

What are now the visitors' stands went up first and opposing fan bases sat next to each other on one side. Concession stands followed and slowly the stadium blossomed.

But in those first years, the team shared locker space with the school's gym classes, worked out with minimum weights, augmented by tires and boxes cobbled together by Conn.

"We had to go through those years of trying to survive without all of those things," Conn said. "We could have done our own P90X video with all the stuff we had to do without weights. It was crazy but we survived it."

They did more than survive.

Conn's Rams won three of their four varsity games in the team's first year. Eight games the next season. They were Region 8-AAA champions in Year 3 and made the playoffs again in Year 4 in AAA. Conn fought for the JV, non-region start, he didn't want his young program to face off against the Class AAAAA programs in Gwinnett before the players were prepared, confident, mature and strong.

"You don't want to start out losing, winning breeds winning," Conn said. "That is what we wanted to get into."

'We took our lumps'

Grayson leapt into the deep end in 2004, joining Region 8-AAAAA and taking on one of the state's best regions in its biggest classification.

Yet instead of sticking to the stroke that worked in the lower classification's pools, Conn changed. He went away from the comfortable wing-T offense and base 3-4 defense. The results changed too. In 2004, Grayson finished at .500 for the first time and the next year ended with its first losing record.

Conn clung to the equity built by earlier successes, but the pressure grew.

"It was a little rocky there in '04 and '05, but they believed in me enough to stay right here and do my job and I think it's worked out," Conn said.

"Was it tough? Yeah, it was tough," said Phillips who retired in 2008. "There were some difficult times, but all of that is part of growing pains. It made the program stronger because of those growing pains we went through."

Conn and his staff, some of whom have now been with him for a decade, realized they needed to return to their backbone, to the system installed by Conn one his first day. A system the players learned in youth football, cultivated by Conn.

"We took our lumps those two years and we came back in '06 and said 'Let's go back to the formula we had before, let's get in the wing-T, let's play good against the run on defense and let's not complicate things,'" Conn said. "The kids I had there in '06 to where we are right now, they were just great kids and willing to do what we asked them to do to be successful."

'Due time'

It's been 12 years since Mickey Conn married Halie. On Saturday she'll be in the stands in the Georgia Dome with their two sons, Brodey, 8, and Spencer 5 as they watch dad go for win No. 100 and Grayson's first state title. Win or lose, they'll meet him after the game on the field with hugs, like always.

In those 12 years, the Conn's roots in Grayson grew deep. Brodey has a jersey on his wall of former Grayson player and current Vanderbilt linebacker Tristan Strong. Halie taught at least five of the varsity players when they were in second grade at Grayson Elementary School.

"That was my plan from the beginning," Conn said. "I am not one that looks at the greener grass on the other side of the fence. I want to get my philosophy in place and I want to instill it in my youth and instill it in my high school kids. I want to see it recycle itself over and over again."

Grayson runs its wing-T with the emphasis on run. Over the course of the season upwards of 15 different players will take a handoff. The offensive linemen open holes as wide as their beards are thick. Drives span nearly whole quarters, punishing run after punishing run. But on the season's biggest play, Nick Schuessler, a quarterback Conn compares to former Georgia and South Gwinnett quarterback David Greene, threw for the winning touchdown to send the Rams to the state title game.

Twenty-eight seconds and Conn trusted his quarterback. Once a youth player watching games from the stands, Schuessler put in time and work. Was patient and trusted himself. Nothing came quickly or easily. He never complained or tried to leave. He just kept working, kept winning, kept believing.

"That is just due time, due time," Conn said. "He showed up big for us."