By Sean Gorman
Register Staff Writer
It’s easy to notice the recent improvement of Gainesville athletics on the field, but to athletic director Eric Johns and head football coach Keith Hall, the program’s most important changes have taken place away from it.
For the coaching duo, being a Leopard means more than putting on a jersey and taking the field. The real focus for their players surrounds faith, family and academics.
The Leopard leaders talked about the discipline instilled into the program and the impact its made on the Gainesville athletic program at the Gainesville Rotary Club meeting Wednesday afternoon.
“The way we’ve been able to bring a new level of discipline to the program, it’s going great and we’ve seen it evolve over the last year,” Johns said. “The problems that Gainesville has seen before, the low numbers and the bad rap, had a lot to do with a lack of discipline. Our purpose here is to develop kids, the discipline comes first before wins and losses.”
The new approach has included forcing players to run a mile if they break the rules set by coaches, ensuring athletes receive tutoring each morning if they’re failing a class and varsity coaches creating a support system through working with junior high athletes.
Also working as the Gainesville boys head basketball coach, Johns said the addition of stricter rules and a stronger support system has also led to coaches staying at GHS longer. After hiring 11 new coaches in 2012, Johns had every high school coach return in 2013. For the first time in nine years, the Leopards football team returned its entire coaching staff.
“It’s a credit to the kids who have latched on and bought into what we’re preaching – discipline, acting with class and doing the right thing,” Johns said. “Stability is a big part of that. We now have students who volunteer to help clean up after football games, helping cook hamburgers on Depot Day and cleaning homes of the elderly for free. Those are the kind of students we want.”
The impact on the field speaks for itself: GHS football experienced the biggest turnaround in the state in 2012 and has gone 18-1 since last season while the Gainesville basketball, soccer and softball teams reached the playoffs last year.
Hall has worked alongside Johns in his mission of discipline since joining the Leopards a year ago. The football coach discussed the state of the program and his expectations for the players and coaches involved.
“Like Eric said, a big part of what we teach the kids is that faith, family and academics come before athletics,” Hall said. “When these athletes graduate, we want kids who are great citizens with a strong faith and are family people. I tell my team all the time that if they take care of that, they’ll win in sports and in life.”
To achieve results on the field, Hall said the team must embrace the work that comes every week before playing Friday night.
“Proper planning prevents poor performance – that’s something we try to get all the players to understand,” Hall said. “We had a great season last year, but we don’t talk about it. Our kids have really been buying in the last two seasons.”
Under Hall’s leadership, the Leopards have learned to appreciate not only the goal to win a state championship, but the smaller objectives leading to that achievement.
“You have to have little goals that pave the path for that ultimate one you’re trying to reach,” Hall said. “We want to go undefeated in district and non district play, reach the quarterfinals and regionals, and finally win state. Thank goodness we’ve already done a lot of that.”
Hall, who met Johns while the pair coached at Vernon in 1998 was hired last summer before the season. From the start, the pair has agreed on the same approach: discipline comes first.
“Rules are clear cut and there are no exceptions,” Hall said. “We’ve proven that the last two years with our players. But if a player is disciplined, we move on and continue to love them as their coach.”