Staff Photo: John Bohn Norcross head coach Keith Maloof has his program in the state championship game for the first time ever. The Blue Devils play Lovejoy in the Georgia Dome on Saturday thanks to the leadership of Maloof, whose 107 wins there are the most in school history.
For nearly 30 years, Norcross' Keith Maloof has looked at the football state playoff bracket at the end of the season and wondered "What if."
His teams were always knocked out a few weeks shy of the state championship game, leaving Maloof to wonder what he could have done differently.
"For 28 years I've been in this game mentally, but now I get to go do it physically," Maloof said. "It's something as a coach you're going 'Woulda, shoulda, coulda' and now we get to go do it. Now we have to finish it."
Maloof has Norcross in the state finals for the first time in the school's 55-year history. The Blue Devils will play Lovejoy in Saturday's championship game, ending a long wait for the program and for Maloof.
"Dad always taught me if you keep getting there (in the playoffs), eventually you're going to knock it down," Maloof said.
Maloof is in his 17th year as a head coach and 14th at Norcross, which is tied for the eighth longest all-time at a Gwinnett school by a coach. It shouldn't be a surprise he's stayed at the school so long considering his brother Kevin was at Dacula for 20 years and their father George was at St. Pius for 26 years.
"I knew once I got here, I wasn't going to move again because of my kids," said Maloof, who played for his father at St. Pius and was on West Georgia's 1982 national championship team.
Maloof took over the program in 1999 after three successful years at Tucker. The Blue Devils posted three straight losing seasons prior to his arrival. They haven't had a losing record since he became head coach.
"It was tough for the fact these kids didn't win for three or four years in a row," Maloof said. "We had to teach them how to win."
To put Maloof's impact on the program in perspective, consider this: The year before Maloof arrived, Norcross was beaten by Clarke Central 55-0. In Maloof's first year, it defeated Clarke Central 9-8.
Despite the Blue Devils' turnaround, Norcross didn't make the playoffs the first six years under Maloof. In a region that featured perennial playoff contenders like Parkview, Brookwood, Dacula, South Gwinnett and Collins Hill, Norcross was usually on the outskirts of the playoffs. But Maloof never gave up hope.
"You have to look at who we were playing, when and how," Maloof said. "Where our program was and where their program was."
Norcross finally reached the playoffs in 2005 and has been in the postseason seven of the last eight seasons. It won the Region 7 championship in 2006 and 2007, but couldn't get past the quarterfinals.
"I feel good about the development of our program," Maloof said. "Could we have been in it earlier than this? Yeah, certainly anyone can say that."
In the 37 years prior to Maloof's arrival, Norcross made the postseason just six times. The school has 297 all-time victories and Maloof has won more than a third of them with a 107-48 record at Norcross and 129-59 overall mark. Even more impressive in his 28 years as a coach, he's only been a part of one team that's had a losing varsity record and that was his first year at Loganville.
His track record is pretty good off the field, too. Under Maloof, Norcross has had more than 60 players sign college scholarships or be selected as preferred walk-ons. That's the second most for a Gwinnett school in that time behind Buford.
"I know we're doing things the right way and we would eventually get here," Maloof said. "Now we're here and we've got to get it done."
The biggest thing Maloof preaches to his players and coaches is family. Assistants Steve Sims and Jay Warren and athletic director Kirk Barton have been on Maloof's staff since that first practice in 1999. The rest of the staff has nearly 10 years of experience coaching with Maloof. It also includes Norcross grads Sean Milligan and Marcus Jackson.
Maloof's football program has helped unify Norcross, which is made up of a diverse student body. The school on the west side of Gwinnett draws kids from the affluent Peachtree Corners area to kids from housing projects to middle class kids in between. Maloof has blended them all into one big family.
"It's a big deal," he said of the family aspect.
Now the Norcross family -- coaches, players and community -- is in the state finals for the first time. They are undefeated, region champions and one win away from the ultimate prize. It's a journey Maloof knew would take some time, but he is happy to finally have the opportunity to play for a state title.
"You have to look at the overall picture and see what Norcross had done. They are the team people are always watching some point in time," Maloof said. "Are they going to get there? Eventually, I've always said this, when and how we're going to get there. Now we're here. We've got a great football team. A great bunch of players and coaches and team. We've got to take advantage of it."
Number of losing seasons Norcross has head since Maloof has been head coach
Region titles won by Norcross under Maloof
Number of playoff appearances by Norcross under Maloof, which made the postseason six times before his arrival62
Number of Norcross players that signed college football scholarships or were preferred walk-ons since 2000, the second most in the county during that time
Wins by head coach Keith Maloof, the most in school history