Steve Pennington is no stranger to the rarefied air at the top of Class AAAA, but despite getting the opponent’s best shot with each passing week every season, the Blue Devils have stood the test of time and are unquestionably one of the elite football teams in the GHSA.
In Georgia high school football, it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to reach the top of the mountain.
Of course, when a school is able to achieve that, it quickly finds that staying there is even more difficult.
With five state titles to hang its hat on and coming off of a season in which it was just inches away from playing for a sixth, Statesboro is what many schools strive to be — a football factory.
Much of the credit has to go to Pennington, the head Blue Devil since 2004, and his coaching staff. Whereas professional teams can find the ideal players for a system and hang on to them for years, Pennington and company must rework and retool the blueprint every season to keep up with players coming and going.
“It’s a constant process,” said Pennington. “Even when there are a lot of upperclassmen on the field, our preparation stretches back to their first season here at Statesboro. We like to stress the fundamentals from day one and get that to be second nature, even with our freshmen. That way, when kids are a little older and it’s their turn to play, we can build from there and not have to start at the beginning.”
Nowhere is this process more evident than in the production at running back — the heart and soul of the Blue Devils’ wishbone offense.
Statesboro has continued to dominate on the field despite having a new leading rusher in each of the last four years.
The Devils’ preparation and depth was tested last year as injuries forced them to reshuffle their ball carriers, but where one player went out, another stepped in and now returning starters Michael Summers and Quan Daniels are poised to lead the charge in 2011.
But finding a steady flow of talent and athletes isn’t what sets Statesboro apart from the other perennial powers in Georgia. Instead, it’s the comparatively relaxed mood that seems to surround the Devils regardless of whether they’re facing fourth down in a playoff game or just passing the ball around at practice.
For so many programs, a whiff of success leads coaches, parents, booster clubs and players to work at a near frenzied pace to improve before the next season.
The Devils certainly know the value of hard work, but also derive their focus and organization from a “slow and steady” type of preparation.
“We have sort of a system, especially as it pertains to the spring and summer,” said Pennington. “We aren’t going to be running ourselves to death every day. We have a focused set of objectives that we concentrate on and it all leads up to being prepared for that first game.”
The Devils don’t host statewide clinics and the team doesn’t ship off to far away colleges for grueling two-a-day practices.
While many coaching staffs believe that the only way to contend each year is to be totally engulfed by the game — even in the offseason —Pennington is far more hands off with his players, but continues to reap the rewards that other nose-to-the-grindstone coaches seek.
In fact, Pennington preaches a mantra that might seem blasphemous to some in the football factory world.
“We don’t stress to players that football has to come first,” said Pennington. “In the spring and early summer, we want our guys to be relaxed and have fun on their break from school.
“We don’t tell them that they have to eat, sleep and breath football. All we ask is that when we do suit up and get down to business, that they give us a maximum effort.”
Sounds so crazy that it just might work.
In fact, it already has been.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.