PETTICOAT JUNCTION — For much of last season, many in the know about high school football held the belief that longtime Silver Bluff head coach
Al Lown would retire after the season. Those assumptions only grew stronger when Lown guided a senior-heavy team to the Lower State championship and the Class AA, Division II state title game.
Although the Bulldogs came up 13 yards and five points shy of winning their third state crown under Lown, now 58 years old, it still seemed like the perfect opportunity for the coach to walk away from the game. He could leave on a very high note.
Then came the offseason. During that dormant period, three Aiken area football teams changed head coaches. But none of the coaching moves involved Silver Bluff or Lown. As the school year came to a close and spring gave way to summer, it became clear that Lown wasn't going anywhere.
On the brink of the 2014 high school football season, Lown is returning. He'll again be a fixture on the Bulldogs' sideline, doing everything he can to get the school in Petticoat Junction to return to the playoffs, where he'll try to make another run at a state title.
Why he's back
Although the predictions that Lown would walk into the sunset following last season weren't realized, the coach admitted he came very close to retiring. He said there was a very good chance he wouldn't return this year, his 22nd as the Bulldogs' head coach.
“I changed my mind,” Lown said of the original plan to retire. “I didn't make the decision until mid April,” not officially announcing his return for more than a month after that.
He said that he was considering retirement for reasons that had nothing to do with his role as head coach. It was issues that demanded his time that needed to be resolved before he would commit to coming back.
“Two things changed,” Lown said from behind his desk in his office, located in a double-wide trailer adjacent to the high school's football field, better known to many as 'The Bluff'. “My daddy died four years ago, and since then I've been taking care of my mother. She's fine physically, but I wanted to spend as much time with her. About a year ago, she said she wanted to try staying with my sister in Greenville. That's worked out, and she's there now and it's made a huge difference.
“I love my momma and miss her to death. But staying with my sister has allowed me to have more time.”
The other drain on Lown's time – and energy – was work related. But it didn't have anything to do with coaching the football team or teaching his psychology or sociology classes.
Lown said he was feeling overwhelmed by the demands of his role as Silver Bluff's athletic director. Of the many ways his job and high school football have evolved over the three decades that Lown has been Silver Bluff's head coach, he said the requirements of the athletic director are one of his least favorite. There is so much documentation required on each player, that Lown was swimming in paperwork.
He has to deal with everything from player eligibility to health-related issues, as well as general rules and regulations protocols and parent/guardian permission forms. Factor that by multiple sports teams for three seasons of activity, and it's clear to see how the paper piles up.
“As athletic director, I was worried about the amount of paperwork. It's not much fun. … I was getting burnt out,” bemoaned Lown, who has received help from two of his top assistants to keep him going. “I'm still athletic director, but Coach (Keith) Radford and Coach (Matt) Hayes will do more after-hours duties now. Combined, it makes a big difference. The hours I put in, you get tired. Being able to spend more time at home was the thing that changed my mind.”
What hasn't changed
Lown's preparing to embark on his 22nd year as Silver Bluff head coach, and his 26th season with the school after spending four seasons as an assistant. Overall, this is his 34th year in coaching. For all of the things that have changed over the years, one thing remains true for Lown, and it might be the biggest reason he wanted to return.
“I still love the kids,” said Lown, adding that his affinity for the members of his coaching staff is another driving factor to keep him coaching, at least for now. “I'm going to leave it open,” Lown said of his approach to coaching vs. retirement, not committing to another season beyond 2014 but not ruling it out either. “If I feel like I can't put in the full effort, I'll retire. I'm going to go one year at a time.”
That team-first philosophy is a big reason why Lown's Bulldogs have won 200 games and two state titles. It hasn't changed either, as Lown said learning to be a part of a team is just as important to success as working on blocking and tackling.
It's about taking responsibility, and how a single player's actions have an impact on the entire team. It's a level of character that is expected not just of the football team, not just of the athletes at the high school but of all the students.
“We try to do things the proper way. It's a total school effort,” Lown said of the expectations that were established by the administration when the school was opened in 1981, bringing three different Aiken communities together. “I didn't create it. I just tried to keep it ingrained. It has been set in stone.”
Another aspect of this character is preparing the players for anything. That includes worst-case scenarios and how to deal with them. That's helped the Bulldogs endure through critical injuries, losing skids and large deficits in games. They haven't always come back, but they've rarely given up and have been equipped to overcome adversity.
“Bad things are going to happen – in football and life,” Lown said. “We practice how you respond.”
He shared a story from a few years ago that captured this spirit. Prior to a game, Lown was taking his traditional walk-through as his squad prepared to play. As the players warmed up, they ran drills, including kicking exercises.
Lown said he was walking around when he was struck in the head by a punt. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time but was knocked to the ground and out cold by the unexpected blow.
He said as he started to come to his senses, he could see a group of concerned players huddling around to see if their leader was all right. As he cleared away the cobwebs, Lown recalled hearing Radford, who has been his top assistant for all 22 years, telling the players to move on and keep going about their preparations. They had responsibilities that had to be met, even if the head coach was incapacitated.
Fortunately, Lown was OK, but his work as well as the efforts of his staff had hit home as the Bulldogs didn't miss a beat and were ready to play.
“I'm fortunate to have the guys I have coaching for me. It's not about one person; it takes a group,” said Lown, who also praised defensive coordinator Eric Hofstetter, who has also been with him 22 years. “It's amazing, but we all believe in the same values.”
Track record of success
The other side to Lown's staying power has been the quality of the players he's had over the years. While he has worked to instill values, priorities and football fundamentals in his players, he's quick to point out that he's been very fortunate to coach some tremendous athletes and many more determined young men.
“Obviously, we've had a good run of football players,” Lown said. “They can run, are tough and are not afraid to work. That's not anything that I taught them. I just tried to make sure the kids saw opportunities beyond today.”
That means the coach has tried to get his pupils to focus on the big picture. If they can do a good job of taking care of the little things, that will open up a world of big opportunities for them.
The success Silver Bluff has enjoyed under Lown is apparent, 200 wins, two state championships and two more appearances in the title game. He also has a good track record of preparing his players to compete on the next level. Lown estimated close to 40 of his players have gone on to play college football, with a dozen of them performing for Division I programs. That's close to two players a year in college football for a small Class AA school that has seen its overall enrollment drop to around 600 students.
“For a school our size, that's not bad,” said Lown, who has overcome even greater odds by having five of his players go on to the NFL.
According to calculations by the NFL Players Association, the chances that any high school football player makes it to the NFL are about 0.2 percent. That's based on the statistic that only about 215 out of 100,000 high school seniors who play football every year make it to the NFL. Only about 9,000 people of the original 100,000 make it to play at the college level.
Those figures are a testament to what Lown and his coaches have achieved. From little old Silver Bluff, D'Wayne Bates, Corey Chavous, Marcus Lawrence, Troy Williamson and now DeMarcus Lawrence have all gone on to play in the NFL. While Lown is more focused on the fact that most of his players won't go to the NFL or D-I college programs, he uses the success stories to show what's possible.
He said they have signs in the weightroom as positive reinforcement that great things are possible when the players are going through some of the hardest work. He said he and his staff talk about the players who have come before the group they're working with, reminding them that some of the guys who made it to the pros did it at a different position than the one they played in high school, but they were prepared for anything and had the drive to succeed. Perhaps most significantly, the old players come back to Silver Bluff. They speak to and work out with the current Bulldogs and reinforce what Lown has insisted is possible.
Just this summer, Cordrea Tankersley was using the school's weightroom to prepare for the upcoming college season. Tankersley was a star quarterback and defensive back for the Bulldogs and is currently slated to start for the Clemson Tigers as a cornerback. The young men looking to make the Silver Bluff football team know who Tankersley is and what he's achieved. It motivates them to continue the tradition at Silver Bluff, to write their own chapter.
“Kids coming up can see what can happen,” Lown said. “It has made a difference that we've had people that have had success beyond here. It spurs kids to want to get there.”
If there are any future NFL players on the Bulldogs' roster, it's not obvious at the moment. In fact, if there are any All-Region players, it isn't obvious.
What was clear to Lown and his staff was that this is going to be a rebuilding year. They lost a lot of four-year varsity players from last year's squad, including four All-Aiken Standard first team selections. But the work of teaching a new group doesn't scare Lown. If anything, it's what he wants to do.
He's not preoccupied with attending coaching clinics, installing offenses in the spring or competing in as many passing camps as possible. While he's cognizant of not letting the game pass him by, he's assured by his track record of doing things a certain way, with integrity.
“I'm not worried about wins, whether I have 200 or 210, it's not going to change how people look at me,” he said. “What's best for the kids, that's our main goal. I'm more worried about maintaining the way we've run our program than victories.”
That won't change, and neither will the tried and true offensive and defensive schemes Lown and his staff have been mastering for decades.
“Some people say we're boring, but it boils down to we teach fundamentals. It's like building a house it's not the paint or shutters we're worried about. It's the foundation, the foundation of football is blocking and tackling. We work from the ground up. Some years we blossom, some we're in a shell. But we're always a fundamentally sound football team.”
Like everything else with Silver Bluff football, that starts with the head coach.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.
Aiken Standard file photo Longtime Silver Bluff football coach Al Lown has instructed his team in three successful decades. Lown had considered retiring but is returning to lead the Bulldogs for the 22nd season and looking to add to his total of 200 wins.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Longtime Silver Bluff football coach Al Lown, with hat, addresses his team during practice. Lown had considered retiring but is returning to lead the Bulldogs for the 22nd season and looking to add to his total of 200 wins.×