Sports is one of the greatest molders of success and character in our young men and women. It teaches discipline, teamwork, responsibility, and so many other key pieces of winning at life. Those lessons learned on the ball fields and courts are instilled by coaches, people who give their own blood, sweat, and tears to their players, showing them the way to true victory. The spirit of leadership is embodied in two of the county’s longest-tenured and most successful coaches, the stewards of the basketball program at Fayette County High School, Andre Flynn and John Strickland. That pair has turned Tiger basketball into something synonymous with victory in all phases of life. Their impact goes beyond just the wins, of which there are many, and into heart of our community.
“I’ve never felt my job was to win basketball games – rather, that the essence of my job as a coach was to do everything I could to give my players the background necessary to succeed in life.”
– Bobby Knight
Andre Flynn, the head coach of the boys team, came to Fayette County by way of Kentucky, and it seemed like destiny that he would be here.
After a standout career at Woodford County High School outside of Lexington, Flynn went on to play for the Transylvania University Pioneers where he left his mark on their record books. He finished with 1,670 points, still good for top ten in school history, earned All-American honors, was twice named team captain and MVP, and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2010.
He knew early on that he would be a coach someday. Working with Big Brothers Big Sisters in Lexington, he found his calling teaching at clinics.
“I figure out I had a knack for dealing with kids,” remembers Flynn. “I thought I may end up liking this, and it just took off from there.”
His first coaching gig came at his old middle school back in Kentucky, but fate would soon call. In 1987, he was visiting his sister who lived in Stone Mountain. She had heard about an opening in Fayette County. He took a leap and interviewed with Gary Phillips, then an administrator at FCHS and now the executive director of the GHSA.
“My sister said they were looking for someone at Fayette County High School, and I grew up in Fayette County, Kentucky,” Flynn laughs, adding that both of his schools proudly wore black and gold. “All of these things were clicking.”
Phillips hired him, bringing Flynn to the new Fayette County that he has called home ever since. He started as a football assistant and a JV boys basketball coach before working at Flat Rock Middle School. Most people might not even know that, from there, Flynn became the first head basketball coach at Sandy Creek, building the Patriots from the ground up.
The Tigers brought him back into the fold in 2000, setting into motion a string of remarkable success. The team had finished 2-22 the year before his arrival. Since he took over, Flynn’s Tiger teams have never had a losing record or missed the playoffs.
It was a remarkable turnaround right out of the gate. In 2000, each region only sent two teams to the playoffs, and the Tigers drew the unenviable task of facing a top ten North Clayton team that had beaten them by 30 points in the regular season with a state playoff berth on the line. Fayette pulled off the upset and put themselves on the map.
“That was exciting. No one had ever really heard of us,” he says.
Next came expectations of greatness and frustration from not getting over the top. For six straight years, the Tigers could not get out of the first round at state. Finally, in Flynn’s seventh season in 2008, they busted through. Not only did they get out of the opening round, they played for a state championship, completing the birth of a proven winner. Flynn calls turning a 2-22 team into a state championship contender in just seven years one of his proudest achievements.
There’s a chance the Tigers may actually break that streak this year and miss the playoffs for the first time under Flynn’s watch, but that just makes the run even more remarkable. For the second straight year, he had to break in an entirely new team on opening night, but they just keep winning. As other county teams find their own winning ways, the Tigers are still there.
“We’ve built a tradition at Fayette County,” says Flynn. “It’s good that other county teams are good. That’s good for the county. But Fayette County is always there. I’ll take that.”
It’s that sustainable success that makes him really proud.
“I heard someone say it’s harder to stay on top than it is to get up top. That’s always my motivation,” he says.
“I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach. I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball.”
John Strickland, head coach of the Lady Tigers, also had a bit of familiar fate draw him to Fayette County. A multi-sport star at Brooks County High School in South Georgia, Strickland went to college to play football at West Georgia. He made his mark from 1984 to 1987 as a wide receiver and kick returner under a staff that included Mike Earwood. Fast forward to 1997 when Earwood was starting up the football program at Starr’s Mill High School. He hired Brent Moseley away from Clint Burton’s staff at FCHS, leaving a hole for a wide receiver coach.
“Earwood called him and said I’ve got the right guy for the job,” remembers Strickland.
After finishing at West Georgia, Strickland tried out life in the business world, but he was drawn back to sports. He had never been to Fayette County before he interviewed with Gary Phillips, earning that shot as a football assistant. He made Fayette his home, and it stuck.
He would soon add coaching the ninth grade girls basketball team to his resume. He worked on the staffs of three separate coaches before becoming the head girls basketball coach for the 2005-06 season. An overtime loss in the first round of the region tournament his first year would leave them with a final record of 12-13. Every year since, the Lady Tigers have won 20 games or more, along with nine straight region championship game appearances and six region titles. They won’t hit 20 wins this season for the first time since his opening campaign, but they should battle their way back to the playoffs.
Strickland’s crowing achievement came in 2011 when his team won the AAAA State Championship over Forest Park. It was the culmination of a stretch of three title game appearances in four years, the first two ending in losses to Southwest Dekalb.
“I kept saying I didn’t want to be the Buffalo Bills of this thing,” jokes Strickland about the NFL team that lost four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s. He got a bit of helpful advice from a fellow coach who had twice lost in the finals. “He said at least you had the chance to not win it. You know how to lose one, now you have to figure out how to win one.”
Win one they did, bringing the first ever state basketball championship to the county. They’ve been right on the cusp of winning another crown most years, including last season’s Final Four finish. It’s because they have built a winning tradition that never graduates. It’s a foundation of hard work, dedication, and devotion to defense.
“When you have a program and you do things systematically, you don’t waver on it. It’s solid. One of the girls could come back from the first team I had and they could probably join right in. We’re still a winning program because we’re doing it right,” he says. “We’ve got to go at every loose ball. We’ve got to scrap and claw. That’s what championship teams do. They’re going to go and play hard every night.”
“Winning is not a sometime thing: it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do the right thing once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.”
Though they are most recognizable on the basketball court, both coaches were first hired at FCHS as assistant football coaches. They both are still key cogs of the coaching staff for a Tiger football program on the rise, and Strickland is the head coach of the stellar track program too. That just hearkens back to their appreciation for the value of playing year-round for your school. There was football, track, basketball, and other sports and no club teams, and they miss that style of play. Be part of a school team and play well, and the scholarships will follow. Most of all, don’t forget that it is still a game, not yet a job.
“As a kid, do everything you can. Everybody’s trying to specialize in one thing,” says Flynn. “You’re never going to do this again. That’s what I tell my guys as we’re getting ready to wind down. Some of you seniors will never play organized basketball again. Have fun with it. Just embrace it.”
As the rest of the county catches up, Strickland is excited to see the growth of girls basketball around Fayette. This season, every county team is no worse than hovering around .500. It will make the rivalry games even more fun for the players that stay true to their schools.
“When you come out of this area, you’re going to be tried and tested,” he says. “Girls basketball is starting to get some life and commitment from all the teams. That makes it interesting. Those rivalry games become big games, and that’s what high school sports is all about.”
“What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player.”
For all the wins they’ve tallied on the court, there are victories that are more important to Flynn and Strickland. What means the most is setting up their players to succeed at life.
Flynn is proud that former McDonald’s All-American Noel Johnson plays professionally overseas and Brandon Boykin is in the NFL, but he really beams talking about a pair of brothers he coached. One is a doctor, and the other is in the Navy. He even has a former player on his coaching staff right now.
“If you just think about me as a coach for football or basketball, I’m doing a horrible job. I’m more concerned about you as a young man than as a player,” says Flynn. “This basketball thing is good, but the relationships you build with the young men, I wouldn’t trade that. It feels good when you make a difference. I get joy out of these guys coming back for a visit.”
Strickland has seen his share of players get a chance to play professionally overseas as well. He’s excited to have the younger sister of one of them on his current team in Sidney Sims.
“That’s my first bloodline,” says Strickland. “It’s fun watching Sasha come from the ninth grade up and then have a chance to coach her sister. It’s special to be around long enough to do that.”
One of his favorite success stories is Tessah Holt. She graduated from Boston College and made a special trip to the gym to show her old coach her degree.
“That’s probably a more rewarding moment when you see a kid come to the gym who has their degree,” says Strickland.
Even better, Holt has now followed Strickland into the coaching ranks. She is an assistant coach at Austin Peay State University and has dropped in on the recruiting trail. That off-court success in his former players is a big a point of pride for Strickland.
“I can safely say 80 to 90 percent out of the girls that played on those teams will go to college. The fact that they went on and got their college degrees is a testament to our program,” says Strickland. “The basketball will stop bouncing one day, and then you’ve got to go into the workforce. You can take the hard work and dedication you learned in basketball into the workforce.”
The love and dedication exhibited by Flynn and Strickland is appreciated by the community as a whole and especially in the halls of their school.
“Fayette County High School is blessed to have a number of talented coaches on staff. In basketball, Coach Flynn and Coach Strickland embody what it takes to coach young men and women not only to be successful on the court, which both have been, but also to be successful in life,” says Kelly Taylor, the athletic director at FCHS. “I am proud to be able to work with both of them.”
Fayette County, specifically our young athletes, is lucky to have them.
“Coaching is a profession of love. You can’t coach people unless you love them.”