On the surface, Friday night’s football game between Lower Richland and A.C. Flora at Memorial Stadium appears normal.
In the parking lot before kickoff, fans paint their chests with school colors.
In the bleachers, the bands create a chaotic medley of rhythms aimed at heightening team spirit.
On the field, coaches bark instructions. Victory is on the line, and both teams need one.
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But there is an underlying battle taking place, one that’s hidden by the florescent barriers that light Memorial Stadium on this fall Friday night.
It’s a battle that is fought every high school football season across the state. It is a battle of philosophies:
On one side are the outsiders, who only see what goes on between the sidelines on gamedays; they often have unrealistic expectations of the team and a win-at-all-cost mentality.
On the other side are those who are involved with the program, the ones who are responsible for keeping the program on track. They believe high school athletics is about much more than wins and losses.
“Winning and losing is not what it’s about,” said Paul Cash, a former A.C. Flora booster club president who spent most of Friday’s game working in the concession stands. “The main thing here is the education of our kids, and sports is a part of that.”
Lower Richland, which has had a losing record throughout most of the 2000s, begins Friday’s Region 4-3A opener in dominating fashion. Nicholas Smith drives the Diamond Hornets deep into A.C. Flora territory on their opening drive. Fans of both teams stand and cheer each play. Lower Richland’s drive stalls inside the 20-yard line due to penalties.
There is grumbling in the crowd.
“People want immediate results,” said A.C. Flora coach Robin Bacon, who 10 years ago took over a Falcons program that had won nine games in 11 years. “But you’ve got to have a thick skin. You’ve got to have coaches who are willing to take criticism and not let them (the critics) affect what you’re doing.”
But that’s a hard thing to do.
Summerville football coach John McKissick has won more football games than any coach on any level in the nation. He has one losing season in 54 years. Yet he hears criticism from fans.
One season, someone suggested Summerville plant corn on its football field to make better use of the space.
“A coach can go home after a game and still hear about it,” said McKissick, whose team is 4-2 this season. “My wife missed three games the entire time we’ve been here — to have our babies and when my father died. I can remember, even as loyal as a wife (as) she is, her asking me why I did this or that during a game. I would have to ask her, ‘Is that your observation or is that somebody in the stands?’ We can’t let that bother us.”
The way you do that, Bacon said, is to set goals for your coaching staff, players and parents.
“You can’t listen to a lot of people. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing and stay with the plan you put forth,” Bacon said. “Some coaches want to do what’s popular. No person on this planet knows more about the kids than the coaches who are in the weight room every day working with him. You got to work hard, be positive at all times.
“What we say is, ‘This is our goal. We’re going to stay focused on that goal. We’re only worried about turning the program around.’ “
At A.C. Flora, the community is responding. The line of people waiting to get into Memorial Stadium on Friday is long. The barbecue being sold by the school’s booster club is a hot item. All of this for a football program that never has won a state championship.
“I won a state championship (as an assistant at Richland Northeast), and that was great, but for me now, if my kids graduate, go to college, that’s good for me,” Bacon said. “So many parents think their kids are going to college and will get (an athletic) scholarship ... that shouldn’t be what a parent is thinking about.”
Debbie Teague is the new president of the A.C. Flora Athletic Booster Club. Her daughters, Lauren and Amanda, play tennis and run track at the school. Teague has a vested interest in the success of athletics.
But Friday, Teague, who is 50 and shares booster-club responsibilities with her husband, Chip, didn’t pay much attention to the scoreboard when her team trailed Lower Richland early. Instead, she looked at the fans trying to enter the stadium and those seated inside.
“We always have a good crowd,” she said as booster-club members tied red and blue balloons to her arms. “We’re like a family. It’s an A.C. Flora family, all of us.”
Teague said people who criticize coaches during a game or after a loss are missing the point of athletics.
“This is family supporting family out here,” she said. “This (sports) is a great way to bring people together from all walks of life. This is not about wins and losses; it’s (about) being a part of a team.”
Carlos Smith, Richland District 1’s assistant superintendent and athletics director, echoes Teague’s point.
Smith, a former high school basketball coach who overseas the operation of the athletics programs in Richland 1’s seven high schools and nine middle schools, said parents and fans need to understand how athletics fit in a child’s education. And, he added, coaches play a vital role in the development of children.
“Our (Richland 1) mantra is “coaching is teaching,” and we have to see every failure as a teachable moment.
“I don’t know if parents and spectators truly understand all that goes into building a program. Coaching is a tough profession. No team has ever won every game, no child has ever been totally without a loss in something. It’s part of the teaching and learning experience.”
Friday night, A.C. Flora was headed for its third loss of the season. If there was ever a chance to teach life lessons, it was now.
Early in the fourth quarter, A.C. Flora, pinned near its end zone, fumbles the ball and Lower Richland recovers for a touchdown to put the game out of reach. And while Lower Richland fans cheer from across the field, a handful of A.C. Flora fans throw their hands in the air in disbelief.
Football allows for instant evaluation.
Recently, The State has received letters to the editor criticizing the coaching staffs of high school teams.
Gary Fulmer — who is the director of athletics for Richland School District 2, whose high schools include Blythewood, Richland Northeast, Spring Valley and Ridge View — hears the complaints too.
Spring Valley is in the midst of a 18-game losing streak. It has a second-year coach, Quay Farr, who is trying to rebuild the program. Fans, some outside observers say, need to give Farr time.
What can not happen, Fulmer said, is for negativity to seep into the psyche of the coaching staff.
“You don’t get a lot of negatives on high schools in the paper compared to college and minor leagues, but they do hear it,” Fulmer said. “That’s when the people complaining don’t know how hard a coach works or how difficult it is to compete. No one wants to win as much as our coaches and players.
“We’ll listen to anybody’s complaints, and we remind them that winning and losing is very similar to life — it is not always going to be fair.”
McKissick understands when a fan is upset if the team plays poorly. He even says they have that right — but there is a limit.
“The way I see it, he paid his money to watch, so he can complain all he wants to just as long as he keeps it in the stands,” McKissick said.
“Parents, I think, have a right to want the very best for their schools, programs, for their children,” Smith said. “But they still have to understand that coaches are human also, and we have feelings and we’re doing our very best.”
Bacon understands as well.
Following his A.C. Flora team’s 19-3 loss to Lower Richland, Bacon gathers his team in one of the end zones for a postgame talk. He points out areas in which the team could have done better. He points out the areas in which it played well. There are three games remaining in the regular season, and the Falcons have a lot to play for.
It’s another teaching moment that goes unnoticed by most.
Reach Davis at (803) 771-8442.