Following a program-worst 0-10 season and a three-year stretch in which Statesboro High School won only four games, head football coach Steve Pennington resigned Friday.
Pennington, who took over the program in 2003, leaves with a 105-49 career record at SHS, four region titles and the 2005 state AAAA championship. That doesn't include the success he had as defensive coordinator under head coach Buzz Busby and a state AAAA title in 2001 as well.
In 2014, Statesboro was coming off a 10-2 season during which the Blue Devils reached the second round of the state playoffs. But the 2014 season began a string of three consecutive losing seasons, culminating with Pennington's resignation Friday.
"It's a bittersweet day. This is not a decision that was come to lightly or easily," Pennington said. "One of the toughest things for a coach or any competitive person is to decide to hang up the gloves."
According to Statesboro principal Dr. Ken LeCain, the two met early Friday, and after a long conversation, they mutually decided it was time for a new direction.
"I called him in, I initiated the conversation," LeCain said. "After about a three-hour conversation, we decided it was time to bring some new life into the program. As to who that is, we don't know who the heck it's going to be."
As for the current assistants, their fates will be decided by whoever is brought in to succeed Pennington. While those who are in teaching faculty positions with SHS will continue to teach, McCain said he thinks whoever comes in will choose to keep them on the football staff.
The new head coach - who will only be the third man in charge of the program since the new millennium - will have a full-time, teaching faculty position on the SHS staff. Also, the school will consider the possibility of the new coach bringing his own assistants.
"We have some leeway in the matter of bringing on new assistants," LeCain said. "But it's difficult to speculate on that because it all depends on what exactly the demands are by whoever interviews for the job. But we'll try to be as flexible as possible."
The next coach
LeCain and athletic director Chad Prosser want to make a quick hire. Both said that, ideally, a new coach would be in place by Dec. 18. The job posting went up Friday morning after Pennington resigned, and applications are expected soon.
"There's no doubt that the last few years have been a struggle," Pennington said. "After each season, I evaluate the team and what we've done. That also involves taking a look in the mirror. I want to do what is best for the team. I think that to stay on would have taken a complete change - an overhaul - in the way we do things. What might be better is for a new coach to come in and work with this program."
It's the first true head coaching search conducted by the high school since Busby was hired in 1999 to succeed Charles Webb.
LeCain noted that Pennington has been a role model for everyone who's come through the Statesboro program or knew him in any capacity.
"He's going to be a hard one to replace," LeCain said. "He cares about these kids, in and outside of football."
Josh Thompson, who was a defensive tackle under Pennington on the 2001 state title team and went on to play at Auburn, said Pennington will be dearly missed.
"He's a great one, for sure," Thompson said. "He always led us in the right direction. 'Do right' was always his saying, and he dedicated himself to the program."
The past three years aside, a 101-23 mark from 2004 to 2013 is where Pennington's legacy really resides. The 2005 team that capped a 15-0 season with a thrilling 13-10 win in the state championship game in front of nearly 18,000 people at Paulson Stadium included two future NFL players in Justin Houston and DeAngelo Tyson.
Statesboro's top notch football facilities were built under his watch and now offer another incentive for applicants to consider.
"I consider it an honor and a privilege to have had the chance to coach this team," Pennington said. "I'm very proud of what we have accomplished since I got here in 1999. The last few years haven't been the best, but I've been just as honored and privileged to be here for those."
Praise from a fellow coach
On the day he resigned from the program he called home for nearly a decade and a half, Pennington was mentioned in a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Tift County head coach Ashley Anders was asked which high school coach he would want his son to play under, and he said this:
"I have had the honor to work with and get to know a lot of great coaches in my career. There are two coaches who have impressed me with their philosophy, both on and off the field, that I would love for my son to play for," Anders said. "Former Valdosta and Woodstock coach Mike O'Brien and Statesboro head coach Steve Pennington. Both are great coaches and role models for young men."
Current players were not available for comment on the matter due to the emotional stress of the situation. LeCain said he saw many tears from the young men who played on the 2016 squad when Pennington met with the team this morning to let them know about his decision.
"I had a chance to talk to the guys," Pennington said. "I just wanted them to understand what we're trying to accomplish and what I think they can still accomplish. There is a lot of work to be done, but there are pieces in place for the future success of this team."
Even LeCain began to get misty eyed when talking about Pennington's departure.
"Morale is a lot happier around this place when the team's doing well," he said. "But the issues that came about were many, and they aren't hidden either."
Even while he didn't get to leave the Statesboro program on the terms he would have liked, Pennington's legacy and record will be tough to match for the next coach.
"In 1975, I was studying as a history major, and I was going to use that to go into the seminary. Instead, I was turned on to coaching, and I guess that's what the Lord had planned for me," Pennington said. "After 37 years of coaching, I can't say what's next or if there will be another coaching job for me. The Lord knows that. That works for me."
Chris Stanley and Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.