Posted: Friday July 14, 2006 1:57PM; Updated: Friday July 14, 2006 1:57PM
Rick Tomberlin can't wait to take on the job he was destined to have at Valdosta.
Tomberlin led Washington County to a 157-31 record with three Class AA state titles and a pair of runner-up finishes in 14 years. Washington County's home field became known as the "House of Pain," with the Golden Hawks going 91-10 there during Tomberlin's tenure. His 22-year career record at three schools is 200-80.
Tomberlin's new job is a homecoming of sorts. He served as head coach at Valdosta's other school, Lowndes County, for three years before being fired in 1991 after a 7-3 season. His firing prompted the student body to walk out in protest. Tomberlin is happy to make the triumphant return. "At times I felt I was going to retire here," Tomberlin said. "I was very happy, but this is a bigger stage. It's like being at the Fox Theater in Atlanta and then going to Carnegie Hall. It's a higher quality of life for my family. We have a lot of friends here."
Dubbed "Winnersville USA," Valdosta is a city of 60,000 that boasts a national-record 828 victories in 97 years of high school football. The Wildcats also have won 23 state titles and six national championships.
Two legendary coaches, both now deceased, won the lion's share of games for the Wildcats. Wright Bazemore posted a 268-51-7 record with 14 state titles and three national titles from 1941 to '71, and Nick Hyder compiled a 249-36-2 mark from 1974 to '95 with seven state titles and three national crowns before dying from a heart attack.
Valdosta has gone seven years without a state championship, its longest drought since the first title year (1940). Making Tomberlin's job even tougher is that fact that Lowndes is the defending Class AAAAA state champion and has 2,800 students, 1,000 more than Valdosta High. The Wildcats return only three starters on each side of the ball, but Tomberlin, who is installing a new offense and defense, is optimistic because he gave out 148 uniforms for spring practice.
"We're not going to do basketball on grass," the new coach says of his disdain for an air attack.
Nothing bothers the unflappable Tomberlin, not even ghosts. Legend has it that the ghosts of Bazemore and Hyder inhabit the Wildcats' 11,000-seat home field, which is named in their honor.
"I'm a man of faith," Tomberlin emphasizes. "They don't scare me. I wouldn't call them ghosts. They are angelic beings. They are a welcome presence."
He's not afraid of being fired, either. "The most important things in the world to me are my faith and my family," Tomberlin said. "I would never put my family in a place where they were at risk or not secure. They don't just run coaches off at the drop of a hat. They've only had 15 coaches. The only kind of pressure is what I put on myself."
Besides, Tomberlin believes he was destined to be the head coach at Valdosta because Bazemore gave him his blessing before he died. Tomberlin visited Bazemore in 1996 after the legendary coach had suffered a stroke. Though he was unable to talk, Bazemore -- with the help of his wife -- told Tomberlin he wanted him to be Valdosta's coach.
"Over and over again -- his wife translated -- he said he wanted me to be head coach at Valdosta High School," Tomberlin related. "He could speak some, but not real clearly. He nodded and had a big smile.
"It was like Knute Rockne telling me to go to Notre Dame," Tomberlin said. "I really revered Nick Hyder and Wright Bazemore. It's always been the premier program in the state of Georgia. Growing up, I always had them as the absolute pinnacle in the state and even the country."
Incidentally, Wright has been a candidate for the Valdosta post twice. He lost out to Rick Darlington the first time, then pulled out late this time around. "It was a great situation," Wright said, "but it wasn't just right for me."