December 24, 2009 9:27:00 AM
WEST POINT — Dennis Allen had a dream to sell.
Problem was, not many people, even friends, were willing to come to West Point High School to help transform a football program that had fallen on hard times.
So Allen thought back to a golf outing in Ackerman when he met Chris Chambless. At the time, Chambless was in his first season at Caledonia High, and was known for his prowess as a defensive coach.
Allen approached Chambless after West Point played Caledonia in the spring and asked if he would be interested in joining his staff as defensive coordinator. He had to push hard to make the sell.
“He almost didn’t come,” Allen said of his first hire. “He was one of the few I could talk into coming to West Point.”
Years later, Allen can smile and look back on what he called a “good hire.”
Chambless, too, can be proud he has helped to build on what Allen, who helped lead West Point to a state title in 2005, brought back to Clay County.
Buoyed by a dominating ground game and a hard-charging defense, Chambless’ Green Wave rebounded from a season-opening loss at Shannon to win their final 14 games. A 35-14 victory against Wayne County in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state title game in Jackson capped a 14-1 season and helped the Green Wave capture their sixth football state title.
For his efforts this season, Chambless is The Commercial Dispatch Large School Coach of the Year.
Allen, who is now the athletic director at West Point, knew Chambless was the man to replace him after he stepped down following the 2005 season.
“Chris hasn’t expected any less from our kids than I did,” Allen said. “There was no bump in the road. It was just step on, here we go, we’re going to keep building and working and eventually, at a school like West Point, especially with a good administration and the support we have, we’re going to get to a state championship game because we do have talent here.”
Chambless spent one year at former Sturgis High School as an assistant coach and one year at Caledonia High as head coach in 1998 before joining Allen’s staff in 1999. He said he knew Allen was a good leader and that he had had success as an assistant coach at Starkville High and that West Point had a solid administration. All of those factors, plus the fact he knew the kind of players West Point had, led him accept Allen’s offer.
Head coach and defensive coordinator had plenty of “good times” competing against each other at practice. But their battles had a serious side: Their goal was to rebuild a program that had won four state titles under Bubba Davis.
Chambless said Allen set the tone and that he learned a lot from the man he replaced. Through the ups and downs of the 2009 season, Chambless remained stoic on the sidelines, trying to show his players the focus they needed. In practice, Chambless was the same fiery leader he was as an assistant, but his game face epitomized the Green Wave’s business-like approach.
“A wise man told me a long time ago, ‘You are what you see, and you become what you follow,’ “ Chambless said. “I want to be the type of leader who never panics and who does things the right way and doesn’t go crazy. I try not to go nuts. I have gone nuts behind closed doors, and I try not to do it in public, and especially not in front of the kids. I hope it helps our situation. It is one thing I tell our coaches: We don’t need to panic. If the kids see that, they’re going to panic. Regardless of what we’re feeling inside, let’s try not to show our emotion in a negative way, and I think we do a good job.”
Chambless said he learned that mind-set from Allen, his bosses at West Point High, and his father, a businessman, who always has been like that.
“You can’t blow up and go crazy and expect you kids to perform,” Chambless said. “There are a lot better ways to motivate than blowing up. I would head butt that wall if it would help them play harder, but I don’t think it does. Our young men expect to win and to go out and play well every game. That is just in them. We put that in them in practice, so the games should come easy for them. They just have to play hard.”
Grisham has seen Chambless work that way since he arrived in West Point in 2000. Hired as the offensive line coach, Grisham moved to offensive coordinator and has been devising bruising running schemes with Chambless’ blessing ever since.
"He does a good job of staying even keel most of the time,” Grisham said. “He cares about the kids. He always has their interest out there. He tries to make everybody happy. He is looking out for the players and his assistants, and it just trickles down from there.”
Grisham said he has seen just about every side of Chambless in their time together. He said Chambless is so effective as a head coach because he allows his assistant coaches to do their jobs and doesn’t second-guess them. He said Chambless really hasn’t changed any since he took over for Allen.
“It is just like when Dennis let him coach the defense,” Grisham said. “He lets me do the offense. He doesn’t bother me like Dennis bothered him. He trusts you, so it puts pressure on you to drive yourself and to get it right.”
Grisham was poking fun at Allen, but his sentiment is true.
Chambless said all of the West Point coaches push themselves because they understand the program has a high bar to meet every season. He said his job is to do what he can to keep everything together and to support the coaches and the players every way possible.
“I have no doubt everybody works hard, but you’ve got to believe you work harder than everybody else,” Chambless said. “When things are going rough on the practice field or in the summer pulling tires or in the weight room, you have got to remind them of that. When you see them on the verge of they don’t know if they can go anymore, you tell them, ‘Right down the road at Starkville guess what they are doing? They are working just as hard as you are, and if you want to win, you have to work harder than they do.’ They believe they do. That has a lot to do with being successful.
“I am sure the hours we put in will match or beat anybody else. I promise you that. From Saturday morning until late on Saturday nights, there are going to be members of our coaching staff who are going to be working. It is the same with Sundays, or both days.”
Allen sees the same Chambless today he saw in 1999. He said Chambless never shied away from doing anything that helped free him up to do other things. He said Chambless’ hard-working nature sets the tone for the Green Wave.
“I think he does it sort of like all good coaches try to do it. It is like a family atmosphere,” Allen said. “We go off and do things together. We hang out together. He will have the kids over his house to create that family atmosphere and get them to bond together. It helps if you’re more like a family than an individual and you treat it like a job and you’re going to work.”
Despite all of the things he does behind the scenes, Chambless takes “zero credit” for West Point’s state title. Instead, he said the assistant coaches and the players deserve all of the praise for helping the Green Wave reclaim their place at the top of the pecking order.
“I am a defensive guy. It was hard for me to sort of step aside and let another man run it for me, but coach (Kendall) Pickens has done an excellent job,” Chambless said. “I have never had to worry about offensive stuff because coach Grisham and I have a great offensive staff. I have a great defensive staff, too, and I don’t mention them enough. All my trust is with them and they make the right decisions and do the right things.
“I don’t brag on myself. I would step back and say I did a good job of letting the coaches do their job and the players do their job without any interference besides trying to motivate them or patting them on the back for a job well done. When we win titles, I am not taking credit for anything. Those guys deserve
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.