In the critically-acclaimed television series “Friday Night Lights,” based on the movie and book of the same name, Eric Taylor, the head coach of the Dillon Panthers high school football team, is under constant pressure.
He deals with a myriad of problems that come with coaching teenage boys – girls, alcohol, drugs, grades – and also has to hear from school administrators, boosters, fans and parents.
After every game there’s a referendum on his ability to coach. Fans lavish him with praise or want him fired weekly.
His players have a lot to deal with as well.
When things are going well, the players are treated like gods. But after losses everybody in the community has an opinion, and it’s rarely positive.
While the show is fiction, it’s based on the non-fiction book written by H.G. Bissinger, a reporter who moved to Texas to write about the real-life Permian Panthers.
This fall a new high school football stadium is set to open in Allen,Texas that cost $60 million to build and will hold 18,000 fans. Officials expect the place to be filled every night and 8,000 season tickets have already been sold.
The popularity of high school football in Tennessee and Tipton County dwarfs all other sports by a wide margin in terms of money generated, attendance and media coverage.
High school football here is certainly not as big as it is in the Lone Star State, but the players and coaches do have to deal with some of the same things as the Panthers.
“I can tell you this,” said Covington head coach Marty Wheeler, who led the Chargers to the state semifinals last year after the program had struggled for a few years, “it’s a whole lot more fun when you’re playing and having the kind of season we had last year in a town like this. This is a football town. It’s been a football town for a long time. The community … They enjoy having a football team they can be proud of. We push that to our kids all the time. Not only are we representing ourselves, we’re representing this community and this school.”
Will Wolfe is entering his seventh year as head coach at Brighton.
The Cardinals posted impressive records from 2008 to 2010, but lost in the first round of the playoffs each year. Last season the team broke through, winning 10 games, a district title and a first-round playoff game.
After last year’s playoff win over Southwind, the phrase “monkey of your back” was uttered more than once by fans, players and coaches.
Wolfe said he gets support from the school’s administrators and positive feedback from the community, but admitted there is pressure that comes with the job.
“Is it stressful?” said Wolfe, whose team is predicted to win the district again. “Yeah, at times. I think probably most head coach pressure is what head coaches put on themselves to win. It’s a lot of pressure. It can drive you. It can drive you crazy … It’s a lot of fun. I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know where I heard it said, but coaches aren’t happy unless they’re miserable. So I’m happy a lot.”
Munford head Matt Saunders knows a little something about back monkey removing as well.
After going 5-15 his first two seasons, Saunders led the Cougars to a 5-5 regular season mark in 2011 and the school’s first playoff appearance since 2007.
With 14 starters returning, including the team’s leading rusher and a quarterback with a lot of experience, he knows there will be certain expectations this year.
“All the fans that sit up in the stands have their good opinions and have their bad opinions of what we we do,” Saunders said. “They’re entitled to their opinions, I guess. But small town football is, to me, kind of what the South is about. The towns shut down on Fridays. It’s kind of a given. What are you going to do on Friday night? Go the high school football game.”
Down at Tipton-Rosemark, head coach Dodd Gengenbach faces different issues than coaches at large public schools.
As one of the smallest schools in the state, he faces the challenge of playing teams with more depth and resources just about every Friday night.
The Rebels have won just five games the last three seasons.
“I’ll be honest,” said Gengenbach, who is entering his third year as head coach of the Rebels. “Coaching football can be a tough profession. But the rewards you get with the kids here, the support of the community, the administration and head master John Scott understanding what we’re up against, it’s been all positive.”
Coaches aren’t the only ones who can feel the heat generated by Friday night lights.
Johnston White, a senior Charger tailback, was relatively unknown before the 2011 season started. But because of an injury to another player he became the starter, rushed for over 2,000 yards and made all-state.
“Little kids always come up to me,” White said. “Older people that I don’t know, but they know me. It feels good … I feel a lot of pressure. I don’t want to underachieve, even though I had a real good year last year. Hopefully I can live up to my expectations.”
Covington junior T.A. Watson saw very little varsity action last year, but 2012 will find him as the quarterback of a team that was one win away from the state title game last year.
“I feel pressure most of the time because they haven’t seen me play yet,” Watson said. “I try and be as confident as I can … I hear questions from people like, ‘Y’all going to be as good as y’all were last year? Since you’re there, are y’all going to throw a little more?’”
“What people say and what we do can be two different things,” said Covington senior Andrew Miller. “People go out and say, ‘Are y’all going to do this, are y’all going to do that?’ My outlook on it is we’re going to do what we always do.”
Brighton quarterback Brady Stewart, who led his team to the second round of the playoffs last year as the starter, said he’s seen the “Friday Night Lights” show where the quarterback is a local celebrity.
He doesn’t look at himself that way however.
“People are always making a big deal like, ‘You’re the quarterback. You must be a big shot walking down the hall.’ It’s nothing like that. Everybody looks at you as the same. If you’re on the football team, you’re on the football team.”
Hunter Harden, the senior starting quarterback at Munford, knows what it’s like to receive the attention that comes with being the guy under center.
“There’s always some pressure,” Harden said. “If something bad happens on offense, it’s usually the quarterback’s fault … Around town, it doesn’t change much. I’m friends with everybody. I don’t have problems with people. Playing quarterback is a responsibility and I’m going to have to take it.”
Harden, Stewart, White, Watson, Miller and dozens of other Tipton County players are all about to begin yet another year of playing under the Friday night lights.
Over the next dozen weeks or so, tens of thousands of people will come through the turnstiles at Brighton, Covington and Munford high schools and Tipton-Rosemark Academy to watch teenagers play America’s favorite sport.
Teams will win. Teams will lose. Fans will cheer. Fans will complain.
When the season’s over, it’s very likely some coaches will be beloved, and some beleaguered.
But one thing’s for sure: people will be watching.
“Friday nights in the United States are very special,” Wolfe said. “From big towns to little towns in Texas, Alabama, Tennessee and West Tennessee, there’s something very special about Friday nights. As a kid I can remember attending the games and having some unbelievable football wars behind the stadium … But yes, I still get nervous. I’m a worrier. I’ll worry about this interview for two hours after we get done. Did I say something I shouldn’t have said? That’s just what I do. I worry.”
“It’s the same as it’s always been … playing, coaching,” Wheeler said. “It’s a little bit of a nervous feeling, but it’s anxious because you want to come out and play. That’s what makes it special. It’s a great feeling to wake up Saturday morning after you’ve had a successful Friday night. That doesn’t change. The day that does change, the day I walk out there and don’t have that type of feeling, that’ll be when it’s time for me to get out.”
Editor's note: This story, by sports editor Jeff Ireland, appears in The Leader's high school football preview section, which is included in the Aug. 23 paper.