December 24, 2012 10:25:29 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
CARROLLTON, Ala. -- Tradition.
When Pickens Academy asked John Gartman to take over as the school's head football coach, Gartman listed tradition as the No. 1 factor in saying yes.
"This is a football school," Gartman said. "They have always had a rich tradition. The program has been great for years. I knew what this school was about. I knew the people who went here and worked here. I knew this was something special, and something worth being a part of."
Gartman just completed his third season and the restoration is almost complete. This season, Pickens Academy (10-3) lost to Restoration Academy in the Alabama Independent School Association Class A state championship game.
For the team's accomplishment, Gartman is The Dispatch's West Alabama Coach of the Year.
"We knew we had a chance to have a really special season," Gartman said. "We had 10 seniors on the roster. Not only were those players who had been in the system, they were also players who played major roles on our team. We had six seniors in each of my first two seasons, so the experience factor was going to be huge."
The Pirates also benefited from a move in classification from Class AA to Class A. After winning only three games in 2011, the Pirates were determined to get back on top.
"Coach Gartman has been such a great influence," Pickens Academy quarterback Josh Lewis said. "He had a vision for our team, even when the players weren't totally sure of what we could accomplish. Every day, it was about hard work and getting better."
Gartman also saw a need to re-tool the offense. After running primarily out of option sets in Gartman's first two seasons, which included a 6-5 finish in 2010, the Pirates shifted to more of a Wing-T attack.
"I didn't think we had enough plays to run on offense," Gartman said. "In the first two years, it was mainly split back and veer. We just did not have enough options when we had trouble getting the option game going. I talked to (longtime Patrician Academy coach) Bill McNair. He is the Wing-T guru in the AISA.
"When we scored 55 points in our first game against Sparta (Academy), I knew we had a chance on offense. We did all of that without throwing a pass. The Wing-T really fit our personnel better, and the kids were really eager to learn the changes."
Lewis took off with the change in offense. While developing a passing game, the fleet-footed junior ran for 1,600 yards. Seniors Joel Pratt and Garrett Estes also carried the load out of the backfield.
"Josh may have been the best veer quarterback I have been around in 25 years," Gartman said. "When he got that first step, he had a good chance to take it to the house. After we started off the first game with a bang, things really went from there. We pretty much played well offensively every game this season."
While Lewis made the offense go, Gartman said the squad's biggest improvement came on the offensive line.
"We are not going to ask a lineman to line up manhandle the guy on the other side of the line," Gartman said. "It is about technique, scheme and doing a lot of blocking. The blocking is critical for success, so we have to have smart, dedicated players who want to make the offense go with just the right rhythm.
"I think the biggest advantage we have with that philosophy is it gives us a chance, even when we line up against an opponent that might have us outmanned."
The line included senior Hunter Booth at center, senior Chase Britt and junior Cody Scott at guards, and sophomore Jamison McCrary and senior Preston McGahey at tackles. The tight ends were seniors Phil Fikes and Reese McGlawn.
"We had a lot of starters coming back," Gartman said. "I was excited about this year because it was a chance to watch the seniors grow up. I inherited them as sophomores. When you see them grow up and become seniors and take ownership of the team, it is special indeed.
"The most growth you see in a football team is when a class of juniors becomes seniors. Players take it a little more seriously when it is their last go-round. A coach can only lead so much. When a group of players steps up and leads, it is special."
Next season, Lewis will be asked to take on that leadership role. Gartman feels the program is back on good footing and that next year's squad will be eager to build on this season's successes.
"Now we have a taste of what it is like to play for a championship," Lewis said. "All of the coaches really motivate us throughout the year. They stay on us and make sure we are always giving our best. Now, that we have played for the championship, we want to get back and do even more."
Playing for state championships was the expectation for Gartman when he took over the program. After a standout career at Wilcox Academy in Camden, Ala., Gartman played four seasons as a walk-on receiver for Mike Dubose at the University of Alabama. While at UA, Gartman learned the ins and outs of offense from then assistant and current Clemson University coach Dabo Swinney.
"I learned a lot about offense from Dabo," Gartman said. "He was my position coach while I was there, and that was really a unique experience. I learned a lot of things that we do today from my time with him. He was a big influence."
Gartman started his coaching career on the defensive side of the ball. Prior to coming to Pickens Academy, Gartman spent five seasons as defensive coordinator at Morgan Academy in Selma, Ala., and three seasons as defensive coordinator at Macon East Academy in Montgomery, Ala.
While those influences have shaped his coaching career, they pale in comparison to the influence of Robert Gartman, John Gartman's father. The elder Gartman coached at Pickens Academy in the 1980s and led the Pirates to a state runner-up finish in 1984.
"I knew first-hand about the tradition at Pickens Academy," Gartman said. "Some of the people that were here then are still around. That was a major draw to me. I knew some really good players coming up. I thought we had a chance to really do something special here."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter