North Gwinnett had won only two state playoff games in its 45-year history before Bob Sphire became head coach of the metro Atlanta school in 2006. North Gwinnett's record since is 34-7, and the Bulldogs made a trip to Georgia’s Class AAAAA final in 2007, losing to Lowndes of Valdosta.
On Saturday, North Gwinnett scored its most important victory on a national stage, winning 14-11 over Prattville, the No. 5 team in MaxPreps’ preseason national rankings. Prattville is the three-time defending champion in Alabama’s Class 6A.
North Gwinnett is impressive for its balance, but the most conspicuous features of the team Saturday were 6-foot-5 junior quarterback C.J. Uzomah and tackles Austin Shepherd and Ja'Wuan James, who have both committed to Alabama.
Sphire, who won a Kentucky state championship at Lexington Catholic before coming to Georgia, talked with MaxPreps' Todd Holcomb on Monday about his team’s victory and what it takes to build a successful football program.
What does this victory mean to your program?
‘’This is a marquee win nationally. People will take notice now. People in the state recognize us as a program really competing at a high level, beating some good teams, but also knocking on the door of potential greatness. As far as national significance, this is a game that, now, all of a sudden, the green light goes on when you think of North Gwinnett. We want a nationally respected program.’’
What was your analysis of the game?
“It was a hell of a football game. We played, I thought, really, really well on defense. We held them to 16 plays in the first half, three yards, no first downs. I don’t think anybody would’ve anticipated anybody in the country defending them that well. That quarterback (Sam Gibson) is extremely dangerous. They have phenomenal athletes in skill positions. Our offense really executed at the right times. We had a 14-play drive and an 11-play drive. Our offense kept them off the field. Our two tackles (James and Shepherd) are very, very physical. That’s the reason why we were able to sustain drives. Our punter pinned them down two or three times. We did all the little things you have to do to win a big ball game. … To get on a national stage like this, to be considered in the category of a mythical national championship kind of team (such as Prattville), you have to have a team effort like that. We can’t be a one-man show.’’
Was there anybody who stood out?
‘’Our new quarterback (Uzomah); there’s no question that he put on a show for a first-time starter. He showed his athleticism. He managed this game so well. It was incredible. He was 11-for-14. He only threw for 63 yards, but he made the right decisions. He scrambled when he needed to scramble. He rushed for 64 yards.’’
Will he be a quarterback at the next level?
“He’s got big-time potential. There’s so much upside. He’s got a big, big arm. Our ability to go vertical now in our system is incredible. People have to look at him being one of the top quarterbacks in the country. Even as a junior, he managed the game, took the little throws where he needed to, executed the option game. To do that for his size (6-5, 220 pounds) at this stage is a real bonus.’’ (Uzomah played receiver last season, when North Gwinnett was led by Boise State-signee Mikey Tamburo.)
You built Lexington Catholic into a state power in Kentucky. You’ve built North Gwinnett into a power in Georgia. What are the essentials to winning high school football?
“I don’t care what classification you’re in, where you are in the country -- it starts with staffing. You’ve got to have the support of your administration and the school system to be able to develop the staff. That was the support I got when I took this job. I felt great about the staff I assembled to teach these kids how to play the game. They’re tremendous teachers and role models. Coaches can get too much credit and blame at times, but there is no question that coaching separates. I was blessed with the staff I was able to bring in. Then you have to have great players, but more than any other level, high school players can be developed. You put them in a regime and routine year-around, and guys can be developed into players.’’
How do you sell the community on it?
“That’s been a growing pain. You tell them that you want a championship program, and people in a meeting are nodding their heads, but the amount of work that goes into it, there are some people that are going to think, 'I’m not sure we want this.' I can’t forget our first year. We had a big old lineman, and it wasn’t too far in until he quit. He told one of our coaches, ‘I don’t understand why we’re not OK with going 5-5. If we were OK with it, I’d still be playing.’ People have to decide if they want to be champions. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it. That goes for players, administrators, parents and the community. How bad do they really want it? Do they really want their kids working out year-around, playing all summer in 7-on-7 tournaments, raising money for summer camps?”
Prattville was nationally ranked. You beat them. Should you be a nationally ranked team now?
‘’I can’t really control voters when it comes to that, but I know one thing: Prattville is one of the best programs in the country. That win speaks for itself. I don’t know if there was a better quality win out there in the country last week.’’
Todd Holcomb produces a free e-mail newsletter called the Georgia High School Football Daily. To subscribe, click here.