Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bob Griffith: Hall of Famer

(published in the August/September 2011 issue of Effingham Magazine)
“My won-loss record isn’t very good,” claims the man whose teams won 211 football times, roughly two-thirds of the games in which he roamed the sidelines.  Still, the way Bob Griffith talks, he believes he could have won more had he not been rebuilding virtually all of the programs he led over his 30-year career.  Obviously, Griffith’s record was plenty good, and the man who turned Effingham County High School’s football team from one of the worst in Georgia to perennial playoff contenders has been rewarded with a plague in the Georgia High School Coaches Hall of Fame.

“It was the worst situation I had ever come into as a football coach,” Griffith says of his arrival at Effingham High in 1981.  “The facilities were atrocious.  The field looked like a cow pasture.  The stadium only seated about 600 people, and those seats were just slabs of concrete with no backs on them.”  Despite all that, Griffith wanted to be a Rebel  because the school system promised him that it wanted to build a winner, something for which Griffith had already demonstrated an aptitude as a head coach.

“I always wanted to coach football, ever since I was in high school.”  That was Atkinson High School in Louisville, Kentucky, and in 1966, a fellow Kentuckian would recruit Griffith to play college football at Virginia Tech, a man who subsequently would become the biggest influence on Griffith’s coaching career.  “Jerry Claiborne recruited me to play offensive guard.  A 190-pound offensive guard,” Griffith jokes, since most major college offensive lineman weigh 300 pounds or more these days. “I came into school at 220 pounds, and Coach Claiborne made me lose weight.”

His college years also brought Griffith the other major influence on his life; his wife Stella.  “We met in 1968 during Spring Break at Daytona Beach,” Griffith says, “and she’s been with me ever since.”  Stella would later help bring Griffith to Georgia, as the couple would eventually move to her hometown of Hawkinsville, down I-75 from Macon and Warner Robins.  That move would have to wait, though, as Griffith had a call from Uncle Sam to answer first.

“I was redshirted my senior year (at Virginia Tech), which led to me being drafted by the Army.”  That was in 1969, which for most soldiers meant Vietnam, Griffith included.  “Certainly, a lot of people were against the war, but I was very proud to serve there,” Griffith says, mentioning almost offhandedly the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal with V for Valor he was awarded for his service.  

While he was willing to move to Georgia because it was home for Stella after his stint in the Army was up, Griffith also had his career in mind when looking for a place to live.  “I knew that (high school) football was better, of higher quality, in Georgia than in Kentucky.”  In fact, moving to Hawkinsville meant that he was a half-hour away from two of the top football programs in the state at that time; Warner Robins High School and, the place where Griffith would be an assistant coach for the next three years, Northside High, also in Warner Robins.

Three years as an assistant doesn’t prepare too many people to be a head coach, but when the lead job at Appling County High School was advertised in 1973, Griffith says he thought he was ready.  “Playing major college football helped,” Griffith says of the coaching learning curve, and having played for a College Football Hall of Famer certainly didn’t hurt.  “Coach Claiborne (who, by then, was head coach at Maryland) called the school board and gave me a good recommendation, as did (Warner Robins High coach) Robert Davis, who I had a good relationship with even though we were on rival teams.”  

The state of football at Appling High wasn’t as bad as what Griffith would later find at Effingham High, but it was close.  “They had been playing football for about 50 years, and the best record the team ever had was seven-and-three.”  After a 2-8 first season, Griffith’s Pirates became the best and most consistent teams the school had ever seen.  “We went 7-3 (in 1974), followed by a 6-4 and again 7-3, and then 8-2 (in 1977).”  Unfortunately, thanks to the rules of Georgia’s high school athletic association at the time, Griffith’s Appling teams would not have any postseason success.  “Back then, only one team from the region qualified for the playoffs,” Griffith explains.  “We barely lost to Waycross during the (1977) regular season, 15-12, and Waycross went on to win the state championship that year.”

Rather than stay put, Griffith applied for the head coaching job on the other side of I-75 at Colquitt County High School, “mainly because it was a bigger school, and the opportunity to advance was better there.”  On field success was another matter, as Griffith went just 14-16 in his three seasons in Moultrie.  “At every school, you go through a period where the athletes just aren’t there,” Griffith says, “and the years I was at Colquitt County just happened to be that time.  We just didn’t have the athletes living in the area to build a consistent winner.”  Griffith would find those athletes soon, though it would be on the other side of South Georgia.

Despite the lack of facilities – “we didn’t even have a locker room, much less a weight room,” Griffith says of Effingham High in 1981 – the coach was excited to make the move because of what he was told would be coming.  Not only did the school board kick in the brick and mortar, “they allowed me to bring in six assistant coaches, which was pretty much unheard of at that time around here.”  On paper, his first season with the Rebels was much like most of the team’s previous seasons – two wins and eight losses, but Griffith and Rebel fans could sense a change.  “I remember we lost to Benedictine, which at the time was a football powerhouse, 36-13, and our fans were so excited because we scored more than one touchdown on them.”

Griffith’s second Rebels team not only garnered what at the time was the rarest of the rare for Effingham High, a winning season (6-5), it also brought the school its first ever trip to the playoffs.   A Rebels’ season that did not include the playoffs would become the rarity for most of the next decade.   After three consecutive eight-win seasons and a season with ten wins, Griffith’s 1987 team reached the pinnacle, almost.  Effingham won their first 14 games, among them two wins over Savannah High – like Benedictine, a football power at the time.  The first was a thrilling 35-34 victory at Savannah’s Historic Grayson Stadium, and the second was a 43-14 blowout in the region semifinals at Effingham High’s new stadium.

“I don’t believe a high school football team has been better supported than that one,” Griffith says of the ’87 squad, whose dream came to an end with a loss to Morrow in the state championship game.  Still, “the championship game set an attendance record that lasted for the next ten years,” and the 1987 team remains the best in school history.

A run to a state title game usually means a chance at a bigger pay check from a bigger school for the head coach, but Griffith and his family didn’t want to leave.  “We certainly had good job offers,” he says, “but we felt like Effingham County was a great place to raise our family.  We had a great working relationship with the school, which you have to have since you spend more than 80-percent of your time inside the school.  None of the other offers were as good as what we had here.”

 Success breeds expectations for more success, something Griffith found out the hard way the year after the Rebels’ state championship game appearance.  “We went 7-3 (in 1988), and everyone was asking us what was wrong.”  The playoff appearances soon returned, though, and mostly continued through the mid 90’s until the powers that be decided Effingham County was too big to have only one high school. 

“We had 28 seniors coming back from a very fine (1995) team, and they split those seniors right down the middle,” Griffith says of losing a chunk of his team to the new South Effingham High in 1996.  “We even lost the guy who had been our starting quarterback since he was a freshman.”  Griffith thinks both football programs would have been better off had South Effingham started with a freshman team, then gradually moved toward a varsity program.  “Instead, while both schools have won a little, both schools have struggled ever since then because of the way they created the South Effingham team.”  The drop in on-field success helped hasten what Griffith thought would be his retirement from coaching.

 Content with his decision to call it quits after 25 years as a head coach, Griffith was surprised to get a call from the school that gave him his start.  “The coach at Appling County left near the end of the (1999) school year, and that left them scrambling to find somebody.   A lot of guys who played for me there in the ‘70’s were very prominent in the community by then, and I guess I just couldn’t tell them no.” The move back to the Pirates meant that Griffith would close out his career a winner with 40 victories in four seasons, including a 13-1 record and a trip to the state semifinals his first season back.

After the 2002 season, Griffith was ready to retire again, and this time he would – sort of.  “Georgia Tech called and offered me a job as director of high school relations, and I enjoyed that job immensely.”   He even got to work for the Atlanta school while living in Statesboro, where the family moved when both of Griffith’s children decided to attend Georgia Southern.  

Already a member of Effingham High School’s Hall of Fame, Griffith was awarded the plague in the Coach’s Hall in Dalton earlier this summer.  “It is humbling to be among all the great coaches who are there,” Griffith says, again mentioning what he considers his inferior won-loss record.  He is more proud of a scholarship established at Georgia Tech in his name that is endowed by several of his former Effingham players.   Most of all, he is happy that Stella has stuck by him for more than 40 years.  “Sometimes, being a coach’s wife is the hardest job in the world.  People just don’t understand what they go through, especially when you aren’t winning.”  Fortunately for Bob and Stella Griffith, those times were few and far between for the winningest coach in the history of Effingham High.

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