Coaches are often the unsung heroes of great programs. Great teams are most frequently tied to great leaders who imprint their character on the individual players. Here we recognize the local coaches who have been highly successful for many years in both endeavours: winning games and playing in the postseason, and creating lasting bonds with their players.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This list consists of coaches in the BLITZ-era (2009-present) only. (Alpha Order)
Brian Allison is one of the greats, coaching 25 seasons as a head coach at two schools. He has been at Union for two spans (’96-’01) and again from ’09-Present. In 2018, he guided the Panthers to his 100th career win at Union, and has 142 total entering 2020. His career also includes a stay at Winder Barrow from ’02-’07, where he won 25 games. He has 117 wins at Union.
He’s made 8 playoff trips, and in 2019 won his first-ever playoff game in getting Union to the Sweet 16. Allison has coached 15 All-State players, and is a coach that players rally around.
Frank Barden was only at Stephens County for a short time (2014-17), but went 29-15 at his third stop. All told, he currently has, prior to 2020, 201 total wins in 26 seasons. He spent two years at Pickens (1994-95), 18 at Cartersville (’96-’13), four at Stephens (’14-’17), and now at St. Francis (’18-Present). The bulk of his wins came at Cartersville (154), including seven region titles and a State Championship (1999, Cartersville, 15-0 record). He led Cartersville to a region title from ’98-’01 (four straight), and another three there in ’06, ’12, and ’13.
Barden has coached 40 All-State players in his time, including an AJC Super 11 player at Stephens County, lineman Ben Cleveland. His time with the Indians was short, but he got them to the playoffs in three of four seasons, going 1-3 in such games. Barden is 11th among active coaches in wins.
Buster Brown was only at White County for a few short seasons, but his resume is impressive to say the least. He came to the Lady Warriors basketball program with 502 wins, and after three seasons, left White County with a career total of 542. Brown successfully got the Lady Warriors to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade when he guided the girls there in the ’12-’13 season, which included a #7 state ranking.
Prior to White County, he was at Lakeview from 2000-10, and got the girls team there to the Final 4 in ’04-’05. He coached for more than 35 years, which included a brief stint at Truett McConnell University.
John Brown was a legendary coach before he ever came to Georgia. Before coming to White County, he coached for 35 years at University Christian in Jacksonville, Florida, compiling a 645-274-3 record with three state championships and 10 Final Four appearances in baseball. He was inducted into the Florida Coaches Hall of Fame in 2000.
He came to White County and took over the reins of the baseball and softball program. He won 110 games for the Warriors baseball team from ’08-’14, giving him a grand total of 781 wins as a baseball coach in 42 seasons, third-most all-time.
In coaching the Lady Warriors softball team from ’08- ’10, Brown made White County a State Champion in his final season over softball after going 30-6 and a share of the Region Title as well. He closed with 75 softball wins to go with his 755 baseball wins, earning him over 800 total victories.
Thad Burgess has coached 20-plus seasons and has about 400 career wins going into the 2019-20 season at Oconee County HS. He spent a large portion of that career at Dawson County after coming from Alabama (he played basketball at Auburn University), where he was Alabama’s youngest head coach in Class 6A, at 24 years old.
He has coached both boys and girls basketball (currently both for Oconee County) for over 20 years, and more than 10 as a head baseball coach, and another 18 years as an assistant football coach. He has a fiery passion for the kids and the game of basketball especially. That was often evident at Dawson County, where he guided the Tigers program to its first-ever Elite 8 in ’11-’12, and tallied over 150 wins. He took the boys to the playoffs seven times in his stay in Dawsonville, including punching the first playoff ticket in over 30 years when they got there in 2007. From ’09-’10 until the ’13-’14 season, the Tigers enjoyed 104 wins, a #1-state ranking, a region title, and four 20-win seasons.
Burgess departed Dawson after the ’15-’16 season to make the move to Oconee County, where he has continued to find success.
Tim Cokely hasn’t been at White County very long, but he fits this mold very easily with 168 career wins between White County, Colquitt County, and GAC, and 17 seasons in the state of Florida racking up the Ws. Cokely has made a splash early for the Warriors too, as his first year he took over a 1-9 program and guided them to a stunning 7-4 turnaround in year one, making the playoffs.
Cokely overall has 25 seasons of experience, 16 of those years making the playoffs. He won six state titles in Florida, including four straight from ’98-’01. He has coached 10 10-win seasons.
DeeDee Dillard has won 297 games at Rabun County and no sign of letting up on that anytime soon entering the 2019-20 season. The Lady Cats under her guidance have gone to the playoffs for 12 out of 13 seasons, reaching the State Title Game in ’16-17, the Elite 8 six other times (’08-’09, ’09-’10, ’10-’11, ’15-’16, ’17-’18, ’18-’19), and the Sweet 16 two other times than that (’12-’13, ’13-’14) and three times ending in the first round.
Dillard has pocketed eight regular season or region tournament titles. Perhaps what is more impressive, aside from her stellar basketball IQ, is her ability to lock and reload a roster despite churning a high turnover of talent year after year.
Tommy Knight has made two stops at Jefferson (’94-’96) and again from 2004-Present. He’s racked up exactly 401 wins (entering 2020) for the Dragons in that span, including winning a State Championship in 2018. In his 19 seasons, he’s gotten the Dragons to the playoffs 15 times, also finishing as State Runner-Up in 2015, and making the quarterfinals twice (’94, ’08) and the semifinals one other time (’07).
Knight has pocketed 10 region championships, including four in a row from 2007-10, and combined with his other coaching stops in his career (one of which was at Sumter HS for four years) he has nearly 500 career wins. Between his Jefferson stays, he was head coach at LaGrange College and Southern Polytechnic State University.
Jed Lacey wound up leaving us far too soon in a tragic car accident in the summer of 2017. There’s no questioning his passion and zeal for the game of soccer, and for the kids he coached. Lacey built Dawson County into a soccer powerhouse program for both the boys and girls.
Lacey guided the Tigers to over 100 wins, making the state playoffs every year from 2010-17. This included a pair of Elite 8 trips (’15-’16), and a Sweet 16 finish (’14), as well as a region title (’14). His boys’ teams were almost every year ranked in the top-10, rising as high as #2 in the state.
On the girls’ side, Lacey guided the Lady Tigers to 95 wins from 2011-17, getting them to the playoffs every year from 2012-17. His girls advanced to the Elite 8 in 2012, 2015, and 2016, and finished in the Sweet 16 in 2014. He garnered a pair of region titles (’12, ’16), and saw the girls ranked as high as #2 in the state. Each year from 2012-17, the girls were ranked in the top 5 in class 3A. All told, Lacey finished north of 200 career wins, three region championships, 14 playoff runs, five state quarterfinal appearances, and dozens of college players developed.
Jeannie Ledford made Towns County a State Champion…exactly five times! It didn’t exactly happen overnight though. Ledford spent years building relationships, pushing kids to be their best, and it all paid off. After finishing 17th and 18th at state in girls cross country, and not a single boy repping either year in 2010 and 2011, 2012 began a five-year historic run for Ledford and Towns County.
In each season from 2012-16, Ledford hoisted the 1A Public State Championship trophy for the girls, and closed her coaching career with a 3rd-place finish in 2017. The boys also hit new heights, and it started with an individual representing in 2012. By 2013, the boys came in 6th at state, and were Runner-Up finishers in 2014, 3rd in 2015, 6th in 2016, and 11th in 2017. In short, Ledford created a cross country dynasty that included the five state titles, four area titles, and countless memories and lives impacted. She retired from coaching following the 2017 season.
Kendall Love is a prodigy of Doug Thurmond (below) as a former Jefferson assistant coach. He took over the Commerce program in the mid 2000s and it’s been booming ever since. After a 7th place finish at state the first year (’06’-07), he improved the program to back-to-back 4th-place finishes, followed by a few more years in the top five. What came next was epic.
The Tigers’ wrestling program won state six years running, heading into the 2019-20 season. The six straight in traditionals and duals gives Love 12 State Championships, and dozens of individual state champs. This train isn’t stopping anytime soon.
Sid Maxwell is a 26-year head coach, who has a brilliant football mind and a running total of 170 wins (19th among active coaches entering 2020). His coaching stops include 15 years at Sequoyah (’94-’08), 5 years at Lambert (’09-’13), and 6 years at Dawson County (’15-Present). He tallied 97 wins at his first stop, 31 at his second, and 42 wins to date for the Tigers. He guided Dawson to its first-ever Quarterfinal in ’15 (he also took Sequoyah to one in ’04), and has gone 11-16 in 16 playoff runs overall, and has two region titles (’03 at Sequoyah, ’15 at Dawson). Maxwell led Dawson to its first 10-win season in school history in 2018.
Maxwell has coached some 25 All-State players, and has made it very easy for his players to buy in to his philosophy. He builds character in his guys, and is a player’s coach. The Tigers love to play for him, and he’s shown many times that he puts the guys in a position to succeed, and once they have put in the work, he can trust them to do their job.
Tom S. McFerrin was a head football coach for 34 seasons in Georgia and 38 seasons overall. In Georgia, he compiled a record of 317-84-4 (78.77%), one of only 13 coaches to win 300 or more games in the state. His 317 wins is ranked ninth in the state, tied with Bill Chappell (317), behind Barney Hester (340), Ronnie Jones (329), and Luther Welsh (323), and ahead of Wayman Creel (312), Nick Hyder (302), and Rodney Walker (300).
His winning percentage of 78.77% ranks 18th among coaches with at least 100 wins in the state. He won 12 region championships and two state championships. McFerrin is best known for his ability to win at multiple schools. He is the only Georgia head coach to lead four GHSA schools to the state finals, five to the state semifinals and seven to the state quarterfinals. He is the only Georgia coach to lead seven GHSA schools to region championships. He is one of 14 coaches in the GHSA to win state titles at two schools (1995 Elbert County, 2012 Jefferson). At Jefferson (2009-12), he went 39-9 before retiring following a State Championship that season.
Overall, he won 341 games, and had 18 10-win seasons. He coached at Lithonia (’68-’70), Forest Park (’71), Sullivan Central (TN) (’72-’75), Peachtree (’76-’82), Southeast Whitfield (’84), Tucker (’86-’89), Elbert County (’90-’96), South Gwinnett (’98-’04), and Jefferson (’09-’12). McFerrin was inducted into the Georgia Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame in 2014.
Jim Melton completed 19 years as a head coach at Towns County. He handed over the reins of the girls basketball program following the 2016-17 season. He closed his career with 347 wins against 204 losses. That success included four region titles (’09, ’11, ’12, ’13), and led to 15 state playoff runs across 19 seasons.
The Lady Indians under Melton’s guidance made three Final Fours (’00, ’08, ’13) and two other Elite 8s (’09, ’14). He had nine 20-win seasons, and four 25-plus win seasons, and was named Region Coach of the Year on four occasions. He still resides in Hiawassee and is the acting Athletic Director at Towns County.
Dwayne Sapp has made a living out of earning Ws. He’s done it everywhere he’s been. Entering the 2020 season, Sapp has 485 victories and counting. He has been at Dawson County since 2016, leading the Tigers to a pair of playoff runs, including a Sweet 16 in ’16 and back-to-back 20-win seasons in ’16-’17.
Sapp’s baseball mind is up there with the best, and he took over a brand new North Oconee program in 2004, and guided it to the postseason in all 11 years he was there from ’04-’15.
Lee Shaw had nothing short of a storied career that spanned 22 seasons as a head coach and includes 163 wins. He spent five seasons at White County (’95-99), 10 seasons at Flowery Branch (’02-11), and seven years at Rabun (’12-18).
Shaw won six region titles – including five straight from 2014-18 at Rabun, and coached 42 all-state players. He coached a playoff team every year 2005-18 (14 straight trips), and recorded 10 10-win seasons. He reached the State Championship game twice (’08 for Flowery Branch, ’17 for Rabun County), and made the Quarterfinals or deeper eight times (four at Flowery Branch and four at Rabun).
Shaw was a no-nonsense coach, who led a very structured and tight routine for his players and coaches. It was all business, and his recipe for success hinged on the team uniting as a family, which was evident on the sidelines and on and off the field. At the time of his retirement, Shaw was among the top 25 active coaches in wins.
Jeff Steele has over 20 years as a head basketball coach and closing in on 350 career Ws. At Lumpkin County (’15-’16-Present), he has won 44 games heading into the 2019-20 season, making the playoffs in three out of four seasons. All told, the one-time Johnson coach who spent 16 seasons there, has five region championships, five Sweet 16 trips, and four Elite 8 runs.
He gets the most out of his players, and is not one who overreacts or loses his patience. You can find him on game nights appearing calm and collected no matter what the circumstance. Steele’s immediate impact to Lumpkin was incredible, as he got the Indians quickly into a top-10 ranking (as high as #3) and a 19-win season, one of the best in school history. Among his top seasons also includes a 30-1 year at Johnson that ended in the quarterfinals after taking a third consecutive region title. Steele surpassed 300 wins in February 2017 with a win over Fannin.
Jessica Stewart coached a dozen years at Union County for the Lady Panthers softball program before departing after the 2017 season. She won 267 games from 2006-17. She got Union County to the State Finals in 2010 after a dream 32-4-1 season. The Lady Panthers advanced to the playoffs in 10 of her 12 seasons, and aside from the State Title game run, made the Elite 8 three other times (’06, ’09, ’15), the Sweet 16 three more times (’07, ’14, ’16), and Round 1 three additional times.
In Stewart’s era at Union, the girls were ranked in the top-ten in all but two seasons, and she coached numerous All-State players and next-level college athletes.
Steve Sweat takes it year-by-year at this point, but his love for basketball and making life-long relationships with his players keeps him coming back for more. Following the 2018-19 season, Sweat has exactly 553 wins as a head basketball coach for Dawson County and West Hall. Among his 30-plus years of coaching, Sweat has coached at Dawson in two stays (’84-’94; ’06-Present), and had a 12-year stay from ’94-’06 at West Hall.
In Sweat’s time, he has coached two undefeated regular seasons (one at West Hall, one at Dawson County in ’14-15), and has appeared in the State Championship twice (Dawson ’12-13). Sweat’s resume includes now seven straight playoff runs for the Lady Tigers. His Christ-like persona and family-first mentality rubs off on his players, who now has included kids of players he coached years ago.
Doug Thurmond is a legend on the mat, coaching from ’87-’95 at Johnson and ’96-Present at Jefferson, where he has amassed well over 500 career wins in over 30 seasons.
His resume includes coaching nearly 100 state champion wrestlers, and was inducted into the Georgia Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2009. At Jefferson, he has won 19 Traditional State Championships and 18 Dual State Championships prior to the 2019-20 year.
Ric Wallace currently has 165 career wins heading into the 2020 season over the Habersham Central boys soccer program. That mark includes nine double-digit win seasons, seven region championships, and 11 state playoff trips, where he has an 11-11 overall record.
Wallace’s region record is stunning (90-30), and he guided the Raiders to region titles six years in a row (’06-’11) and again in 2019. Perhaps his greatest season was in 2007, when Habersham went 21-1, winning the region title and advancing to the Final 4, earning a #4 ranking and #10 NSCAA Regional Ranking. Under his leadership, the Raiders made a pair of Semifinals (’07, ’10), a Quarterfinal (’15), and three Sweet 16s (’09, ’10, ’19). In his 14 years as a head coach, his team has failed to make the playoffs only three times.
IN THE FUTURE….There are many on the cusp for future consideration, including the following. There are also many young coaches who will be added as time proves their success.
- HABERSHAM: Lindsay Herin, Don Ledbetter, Chris Akridge, Stephanie Thomas, John Hood
- WHITE CO: Mark Carroll, Sam Borg
- STEPHENS CO: Greg McCall, Chad Bridges
- JEFFERSON: Gene Cathcart, Kacie Bostwick
- LUMPKIN CO: Don Brock, David Dowse, Brian Matthews, Alan Hogan
- DAWSON CO: Chad Pittman, Jimmy Pruett, Jeff Lee
- UNION CO: Tim Hunter
- BANKS CO: Mike Cleveland, Jim McKinney, Steve Shedd, Jerry King, Tony Bowen, Kelby Cronic
- COMMERCE: Steve Cottrell, Michael Brown
- TALLULAH FALLS: Brandy Corbett