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North's Sphire recalls move from Ky. to 'big-school football'

When Bob Sphire accepted a job six years ago, roughly 400 miles away from the Catholic high school in Kentucky where he built the football program from scratch, he raised eyebrows in not only a few ZIP codes, but several area codes as well.

Like Sphire's pass-happy spread offense, which has since gained in popularity, the notion of successful high school football coaches positioning themselves for high-profile, tradition-rich programs has become accepted.

The North Gwinnett High School football coach's career arc has shed light on the regional and national nature of high school football. Sphire started the program at Lexington (Ky.) Catholic High School at a time when its field didn't have lights or goal posts, and was a converted soccer facility.

But when Sphire left 15 years later, Lexington Catholic had the first field turf surface in Kentucky, a new fieldhouse and a new stadium. Those items were listed as long-term goals when Sphire started the program.

"From a facility standpoint, from a staffing standpoint, from a nuts-and-bolts standpoint, everything I wanted to accomplish with that program was in place," Sphire said this week. "When I got that call, with the opportunity to come to Georgia, it was big-school football. A whole lot more so than Kentucky. Take a challenge on here, I never had one regret leaving that program, and it was well-stocked."

Sphire's career move is a clear reminder that the high school football community is so close-knit, coaches in Kentucky are aware of the historic traditions of Brookwood and Parkview. And schools like Valdosta would fly the coach from a private Catholic school football power in Louisville, Ky. to interview for its head coaching vacancy.

Sphire himself, two years after taking the North job, received a phone call from Hoover High School in Alabama on his way to church -- the day after the Bulldogs lost to Lowndes in the state championship in 2007 -- to interview for its opening.

"If you're really committed to this career like you are, Hoover's had one of the best programs in the nation, you've got to go listen," Sphire said. "You owe it to your family, you owe it to your career. I really wasn't looking to make a move, we loved it here, just played in the state finals. Sure, I'll come over and just listen."

The day after he interviewed, Sphire removed his name from consideration. But the interview itself put the thought in some football fans' minds that he's a job seeker, or a job chaser.

"I was never really a job search guy," he said. "I never have spent my time seeking jobs. A lot of people here don't think that."

Sphire said it's like being at South Carolina when Alabama calls, though North people probably wouldn't appreciate that comparison.

"But Hoover had a much longer length of tradition and success," he said. "It's not at all a knock on North Gwinnett, but I had to listen."

What Sphire has learned as he enters a seventh season on the Bulldogs' sideline is Georgia high school football has one of the deepest talent pools of any state in the country. When compared to Alabama and Kentucky, which each have a handful of elite programs, but a significant dropoff, Georgia has talent everywhere.

"There's no dropoff," Sphire said. "All across the state. I didn't know it was that strong in all classifications."

While some North fans may worry that Sphire might one day leave for an even bigger program, consider his previous job. I asked him why he didn't hold out for one of those elite handful of jobs in Kentucky. That's when he brought up an ironic conversation he had with another Kentucky high school coach. They talked about the regions of 7-AAAAA and 8-AAAAA where there were quality teams from top to bottom.

"We knew about the kind of football that was played down here in this area of Georgia," he said. "Wonder what it would be like to coach in that kind of league where everybody is serious about it?"

So while there may be a bigger job, or better job for any coach, it's difficult to find the week-in, week-out talent that Gwinnett provides.

Keith Farner covers Suwanee for the Daily Post. Reach him at keith.farner@gwinnettdailypost.com.