November 8, 2017 9:51:44 AM
The phone call came as a shock. The disappointment in the caller's voice was palpable.
Randal Montgomery had placed the call to pass on the news he no longer was the head football coach at Columbus High School. He said he was out after four seasons because officials with the school district told him "they wanted to go in another direction."
It remains to be seen what direction that is and who will try to steer the program in that direction.
The news shocked Montgomery. It was an equal shock to a writer who has seen the last 35 Columbus games in person.
Yes, the 2017 season was bad. In the 25-year history of Columbus football, there have been bad seasons and there will be bad seasons in the future.
In the preseason, Montgomery said the team wouldn't use youth as an excuse. A winning expectation had been established and the team would enter each game with the mind-set that it was going to come home a winner.
Columbus started the season with the goal to make the playoffs for a third-straight season. While making the playoffs is a modest goal for some programs, it is a big deal for Columbus, which has rarely reached that status.
In Class 6A, there are no guarantees. Starkville won the 2015 state championship and missed the playoffs a year later. Oxford, which moved up from Class 5A, won eight games this season and didn't qualify.
That's part of the reason reaching the playoffs was a worthy goal but a challenging task.
Columbus missed its mark. After winning its Region 1 opener against DeSoto Central, Columbus lost its final six region games. Games against Tupelo, Horn Lake, and Southaven weren't close.
The Falcons played two games without starting quarterback Laterius Stowers. Stowers missed half of another game. He had limited mobility in two other starts.
Without Stowers, the offense was non-existent. The Columbus offensive line was overmatched on most nights.
However, the Falcons played hard. Columbus always looked disciplined and fundamentally sound. It always looked like it had a game plan and tried its best to execute that plan.
Kylin Hill led Columbus to a combined 14 victories in 2015 and 2016 to help the program make back-to-back playoff berths for the second time in school history. However, each season ended with a first-round loss (to Clinton in 2015 and Madison Central in 2016).
The largest senior class in the program's history left with Hill after the 2016 season. Many of those players signed scholarship offers, including two Division I signees -- Hill and Tahj Sykes, who went to Southern Mississippi.
Some felt the Falcons underachieved with Hill (along with Clinton's Cam Akers, the two best players in the state). Some felt Hill alone should have been worth more than six wins.
Others realize break-even and winning seasons haven't been the norm in Columbus. These folks realize building a program was going to take time.
Rusty Funk won state championships before coaching at Columbus and after leaving Columbus. The same could be said for Bubba Davis.
Tony Stanford -- Montgomery's predecessor -- also lasted four seasons. He led Columbus to two seven-win seasons. Those squads had talent but didn't play with the passion and enthusiasm of the last four squads.
When Montgomery was hired in 2014, he told me that it would be a slow build but that it would be done from the ground up. Rarely do coaches want to be at Columbus. There are other school districts with more tradition and better overall job appeal. Montgomery was different. He planned to start with the junior high and build from the ground up. He was a long-term guy in a school district where top to bottom has been rare.
West Point coach Chris Chamblee said Tuesday afternoon the news caught him off guard. He also said Columbus would contend for the Class 6A State championship in 2019.
Montgomery echoed those sentiments Tuesday. He said this season didn't go as planned but he felt good about the direction of the program. A ton of young guys earned experience this season. The future is bright. In the preseason, he said everyone on his staff was pointing at 2018 and 2019 as big years.
In the past four seasons, Columbus had record crowds. Thanks in large part to Hill, a dynamic offense scored a lot of points and re-energized the community. Columbus football never really was the "in thing" to do in the community. That had changed.
This season, Columbus played four home games but still drew large crowds. The Falcons could have loaded the schedule with smaller classification opponents. Instead, Starkville, Noxubee County, West Point and Vicksburg filled the non-region card. Each team is in the playoffs.
Stowers blossomed in victories against Vicksburg and DeSoto Central. The Falcons were beginning to hit their stride before a separated shoulder changed Stowers' fortunes and the team's season.
In 2014, Montgomery's first team was eliminated from playoff consideration in a 20-7 home loss to Northwest Rankin. In the game, Columbus committed seven turnovers and tempers flared. After the game, Montgomery chastised the team for close to half an hour. Montgomery told the team he would never be embarrassed like that again.
Montgomery was correct. Wholesale lineup changes took place. Columbus won 19 of its next 33 games. Those numbers wouldn't be good at West Point or Starkville, but they are excellent by Columbus standards.
In the end, it wasn't enough.
Next fall, Montgomery will coach again. The new community will embrace him. Most likely, it will be a program down on its luck that needs a new direction.
Columbus could be headed in a new direction. That might not be a good thing.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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