In Athens, life revolves around the four F’s: Faith, Football, Family, and Food (and not necessarily in that order). Pastors answer to two higher powers: The Lord and Lombardi.
A first date is not at a traditional restaurant or a movie theater. Instead, the date is under the lights on a Friday night. Athens has been a football town ever since The University of Georgia’s mascot was the “feared” billygoat. Saturdays are not for relaxing alone time, but they’re for fun times with 92,000 friends in Sanford Stadium.
Just 0.8 miles away from the heart of the University of Georgia’s main campus, Clarke Central High School athletics has begun to tell a story unfamiliar to the Classic City.
While its football program looks to rebuild, other sports such as wrestling, soccer, and boys’ and girls’ basketball have carried the torch for the program over recent years.
Clarke Central followed the “Athens Narrative” for quite some time. In 1970, Clarke Central was created from the merger of two high schools in the area, Burney-Harris High School and Athens High School.
Billy Henderson emerged as head football coach in the 1970s, and in less than a decade, he turned Clarke Central into a powerhouse football program. Henderson took the Gladiators from a perennial subpar .500 to a three-time state championship team in his tenure.
Henderson’s historical streak of consistency is arguably only rivaled in Athens by Vince Dooley. Dooley rebuilt Georgia in the late 1970s and won a national championship in 1980. Ever since then, Georgia’s team and fan base expect to compete for a conference championship every season.
Similarly, now, Clarke Central’s team and fan base expect to compete for a region championship and go far in the state tournament.
Dooley retired in 1988 after 25 seasons with Georgia. Henderson retired after the 1995 season after 23 years with Clarke Central.
Since, Clarke Central has experienced moderate success without Henderson. They have multiple double-digit win seasons. However, Clarke Central has experienced its lows as well.
Clarke Central has an 8-9 playoff record since his departure. Even more alarming, Clarke Central has won only four region titles and no state titles. In the first 26 years, the Gladiators only had two head football coaches. Since 1996, they have had five coaches.
“The football team just didn’t have the same sustained success in recent years,” said wide receiver coach Christian Norton. “We accomplished some stuff here and there, but it was not the same. I just think the team was a victim of the success it enjoyed earlier in its history.”
Following, a 7-4 season in 2013, Clarke Central looks to rebuild. Coach Ahren Self heads into his second full season as coach in 2014.
The Gladiators look to replace a talented senior class and work in a young group of sophomores next season. Self seems confident that the Gladiators can do just that.
“In practice now, it’s physical and fast-paced,” said Self. “We are making it hard, so it will be easy on Friday nights. We are getting these guys to be tougher and work harder whether that is on the football field or in the classroom.”
Meanwhile, this year alone, the men and women’s basketball team won their respective region titles. Clarke Central’s Cameron Johnson won the Region 8-AAAAA Player of the Year and his coach Andre McIntyre won the region’s Coach of the Year.
McIntyre arrived in Athens four years ago with a new system and new energy. Before his arrival, the Gladiators had not won a region title since 2005. In his past two seasons, Clarke Central has posted a 46-8 record, which is the best in the program’s history in over a decade.
Carla Johnson, the women’s basketball coach, has instilled consistency in her program. The girls’ basketball team has been to the state tournament every year since 2002, except once in 2003-2004 season. Johnson has posted four region titles as well (2006, 2008, 2011, and 2014).
This season, the swimming and diving team won the Habersham Invitational, and they placed third at the Area Championship meet. The Gladiators sent a total of five swimmers to state.
The wrestling team won the 2014 8-AAAAA Area Duals Championship. Additionally, the wrestling team won their second Area Traditional title in three years (the 2012 title was in 8-AAAA, this one was in 8-AAAAA).
The men’s track team holds three state championships, with the most recent in 2011. In 2010, the men’s team finished as the state runner-up.
Success has spread to other Gladiator sports as well. In fact, this past week, both the men’s soccer team and tennis team each qualified for their respective state tournaments.
This is anything but new for the men’s soccer team. In 1999, Clarke Central won the state and national title. The team has been to the state playoffs in every year since 2010, except in 2012. Last season, the soccer team won the region and made it to the Elite Eight in the state tournament.
After digging past the surface, Clarke Central is much more than a football powerhouse. Clarke Central has a total of ten state titles in various sports, only three in football.
Clarke Central has won over 70 region championships in its sporting program. It has two national championships, one in football and one in soccer.
Success of one sport often overshadows the success that other sports have in some programs. Football has done exactly that to numerous Clarke Central sports.
“I think the lack of sports we offered had a lot to do with the stigma that we are just a football school,” said assistant athletic director Dinah Posey. “Now, we offer over 13 sports and a lot of those have gained success in recent years.”
Clarke Central offered the mainstay sports of baseball, football, basketball, and track back in the Henderson era. However, other sports such as wrestling, volleyball, and softball were not there.
Other sports at Clarke Central draw a crowd, but some say the stigma of a football school is unfair because of the numbers football has, not just the popularity.
“I think football would always produce more attention just because of numbers,” said baseball coach Trey Henson. “There are more positions and players on a team compared to other sports. I think proportionally most of our sports are even and have been for some time now.”
One reason for the even field is the athletic department encourages its athletes to play more than one sport. This philosophy started with Billy Henderson and it has been adopted by current athletic director Jon Ward.
The department believes when athletes play multiple sports, they stay focused and in shape for the full calendar year. This factor leans toward the trend present at Clarke Central.
“We want to give students as many opportunities as we can,” said Posey. “Research shows that if they stay active and stay busy, their grades will go up.”
They “share the wealth” at Clarke Central. Now, the stellar athlete that plays football in the fall also runs track and shoots mid-range jump shots in the spring. No one embodies this “wealth” like senior Cameron Johnson.
In addition to winning player of the year in basketball, Johnson’s football teammates voted him team MVP for his work at quarterback last season.
“Our athletic department supports our athletes,” said Johnson. “They know you are a hard worker because they pushed you to be that. Excellence is everywhere in the building because of that.”
The rise of competitive schools in the Athens region and high school realignment have also contributed to the trend of Clarke Central becoming a multi-sport school. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, two schools dominated the Athens region, Cedar Shoals and Clarke Central.
During this period, the battles on the gridiron between the two were highly competitive, unlike in 2014 where Clarke Central has dominated the series recently.
Now, talent that stayed between those two schools has been absorbed by surrounding schools. North Oconee High School, established in 2004, lies just 12.9 miles from Clarke Central. Since 2004, the Titans, with the help of redistricting of school zones, have taken prime football talent from the Gladiators.
Clarke Central is now in AAAAA play with consistent contenders such as Gainesville and Flowery Branch. Recently, high school athletics, similar to collegiate athletics, has undergone realignment.
Schools have been reclassified based on school enrollment. In the 1980s until the middle of the 1990s, Clarke Central’s average enrollment totaled between 1,000-1,100 students.
Now, the enrollment nears about 1,500 students. A school that thrived in AAA competition is now featured in AAAAA because of the increase of students. The larger schools go in the highest classification, AAAAAA, and lower populated schools go in A.
According to the Georgia High School Association constitution, “Every two years, member schools will be placed in classifications for competition… based on the full time equivalent count for students in Grades 9-11 provided by the Georgia Department of Education for the fall semester of the second year of the current reclassification cycle.”
For those who know the program, Clarke Central is far from just a football school. However, for some, football will always be the topic of conversation.
On fall Fridays at 7pm, people will still pack Billy Henderson Stadium waiting to see the latest installment of the football under the lights.
“We can go on a win a state title in basketball, wrestling, and soccer,” said Gladiator Television analyst Buster Crumpton. “Regardless, we will still have everybody asking, what can we expect from the football team this season?”