Football coaching legend Earwood says it’s time to retire

Football coaching legend Earwood says it’s time to retire

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One of the state’s all-time winningest high school football coaches, Mike Earwood has decided to retire after 37 years in coaching. (Staff Photo by Christopher Dunn)

Football is family, but, for coach Mike Earwood, it’s time to focus on his family at home. One of the state’s winningest all-time coaches with over 200 wins, he is calling it a career and retiring.
“I’ve always been told by my coaches through the years that have retired that you’ll always know when it’s the right time, and it’s just the right time,” says Earwood, who is looking forward to traveling and spend time with his wife, Susan, his children, Jason and Leah, and his four grandkids. “It’s a chance for me to shift my focus from other people’s families to my family.”
Earwood won’t say he’s 100 percent done for good, saying he would take at least a year away, but he thinks this is the real goodbye.
“If I’ve got the itch and just can’t live without it, but, right now, I’m not feeling that way.”
He’s content to leave it to the next generation of coaches, including his son, who is the defensive coordinator at River Ridge High School in Woodstock.
“He’s keeping up the family business. As a dad, that makes you proud.”
There are scores of his former players just like Jason that have followed him into coaching, and that’s one thing that makes him beam.
“That’s what makes you proud, when you go to a clinic and these guys you used to coach are walking up to you, and they’ve got their coaching shirts on. That’s very special.”
When you talk about coaching trees, there aren’t many sturdier or with more branches than Earwood’s. So many of his former assistants have gone on to success at other stops, many as head coaches themselves. Whether it’s Hal Lamb, who has turned Calhoun High into a perennial contender and a title winner, or Chad Phillips, his successor at Starr’s Mill, or Lee Belknap at McIntosh, himself a former player under Earwood, there are plenty of head coaches around the state that count him as a major influence, but don’t think he doesn’t appreciate everything they have meant to him in return.
“Bear Bryant said you’re only as good as the people around you, and that is so true. I’ve been very fortunate to have some great coaches around me all my tenure as a head coach,” says Earwood, who didn’t try to name them because there are so many he couldn’t possibly remember them all. “I’ve been surrounded by a lot of top-shelf quality people throughout my career.”
His head coaching career started back at Cartersville High School, and had a brief stop in Upson-Lee, but Fayette grew to love him as the coach that build the Starr’s Mill football program from the ground up. After retiring from the public school system, Earwood would move to Our Lady of Mercy and turn the Bobcats in a formidable squad, including consecutive playoff appearances.
All along the way he has met people that became part of his football family.
Back in junior high, he met a neighbor and teammate named Glenn Griffin, who would go on to become a lifelong friend and a tremendous coach of his own. Griffin was an assistant under him many years, starting at Cartersville and through Starr’s Mill, who would also have a successful run as a head coach at McIntosh before retiring from the public schools and rejoining Earwood at Mercy.
“Anything I’ve accomplished as a head coach has been a result of what the other people around me have contributed, and he has been the biggest contributor to my career through the years,” says Earwood. “His work ethic is unbelievable. The kids love him. He’s done a great job everywhere he’s been. When we had an opportunity to get him here at Mercy, you’re doggone right I was going to get him here because I know what kind of football coach he is. I would not be sitting here 37 years in coaching and had the kind of successful career that I’ve had if it hadn’t been for Glenn Griffin, without a doubt.”
Playing at North Clayton High, he came into contact with three more important figures, all on the coaching staff. Jim Clepper would later give Earwood his first coaching job, Clint Burton stayed a lifelong friend until his untimely passing, and Bob White, would later help build the successful feeder program for Starr’s Mill.
Still, it wasn’t always a sure thing that he would find his own way into the coaching ranks. After high school, Earwood went to Lenoir-Rhyne college on a football scholarship as an offensive lineman. In the summers, he worked for the Ford Motor Company in Hapeville.
“It was that assembly line that convinced me I wanted to finish and get my college education because that was some grueling work,” he remembers.
He was in line to enter the management program at Ford when Coach Clepper called and offered him his first job.
“I was honored, and I didn’t want to let my old coach down. I jumped into it not really knowing a whole lot about coaching, but he got me started, him and Clint Burton,” he says, adding that reading the book “I Believe” by Grant Teaff would soon change his whole outlook. “After I read that book, I knew I what I wanted to do, and I wanted to go as far as I could go in that profession.”
His path would take him next to the collegiate level from 1980-85 at West Georgia, a run that included a national championship. He loved his time there, but ultimately too much time on the road had him ready to be back home more.
“It is different on the college level when you’re an assistant. You have to coach your guys up, and they better be good. It’s about recruiting, selling yourself to a family and being able to get a good player to come to your school,” he says. “I was really a young coach, and my family was sacrificing too much. I was gone all the time with recruiting.”
In 1986, he would leave the college ranks to take the head coaching coach at Cartersville High School. They would win the first state championship in school history in 1991.
“Cartersville was a pressure cooker. There were some mornings I peered out through my blinds to see if there was a for sale sign in the yard,” he jokes. “It’s also one of those places where you can win state championships.”
After one year at Upson-Lee with turmoil over school consolidation, Earwood jumped at the chance to build a football program from scratch with the opening of Starr’s Mill.
“There are very few opportunities to ever start a school from scratch and get it right from the beginning. We did not have to go in and undo anything that had been done,” he notes. “We built that program right from the very beginning with the help of great assistant coaches, the boosters, and the community. It was a phenomenal group of people down there that started the program.”
It took little time for the Panthers to compete. In Earwood’s 12 seasons at the helm there, Starr’s Mill reached the playoffs six times. They had signature wins on the road at top-ranked Warner Robins and at Brookwood, but there was one in particular that is especially memorable that came in 2000, only their third year when they made it to the state semifinals.
“The one moment that kind of sticks out in my mind is after we won to start 10-0,” remembers Earwood. “They dumped the cooler on me, and my sons walks out to midfield with me with his arm around me to shake hands with the opposing coach. It’s when it just dawned on me at that time, this is a really special moment. You’re 10-0, and there’s your son right there playing. That one particular moment is when I knew we had arrived as a program.”
Earwood left Starr’s Mill after the 2009 season when he retired from the public school system, leaving the program in the hands of Chad Phillips, who would lead the team to a state runner-up finish in 2010.
“If I had let my ego get in the way, I would’ve stayed down there with those 32 seniors, but I don’t know that I would’ve taken them as far as Coach Phillips,” says Earwood.
After losing that terrific group of seniors, the Panthers hit a couple bumpy years, but Phillips has returned them to their lofty standards with consecutive playoff appearances, including an 8-0 start and a 10-2 finish this year.
“The true test of coaching is when you have some rough years, and then you bounce back,” praises Earwood. “What makes you proud is seeing a program sustain itself the way that one has through the years. It hasn’t been a flash in the pan. That program has held strong.”
Moving down to Class A and Our Lady of Mercy was a bit of a shock at first for Earwood, but it didn’t take long to adjust. He has been especially impressed by the quality of athletes at that level.
“When I came to Single A private, I had no idea what I was walking into. I will you tell you now that I have seen more division one players on this level in six years than I saw in 13 years at Starr’s Mill,” he says, noting that Mercy once had to face an ELCA team with nine signees. “We never saw a AAAAA or a AAAAAA team stacked with that many division one players. The skill guys are unbelievable on this level.”
Though the change was great in moving down so many levels, he had the Bobcats whipped into shape quickly. In year one under Earwood, Mercy went 7-3, the first winning campaign in program history and part of three straight winning seasons. They would drop to 5-6 with a brutal schedule in 2013, but even that would be part of two straight playoff appearances. They would be kept out of the playoffs in 2014 despite a 6-4 mark, and would finish 4-6 this year with an extremely young team. In his six years at Mercy, the Bobcats posted 34 wins, compared to just 10 wins in the six years prior to his arrival.
He is confident that the school will continue the progress, saying it is a “much more desirable job now than it was in 2010 for a lot of reasons.” There is plenty of talent in place, and more on the way, so the foundation should be set for continued success.
Some of his favorite parts of coaching involved working with the kids playing simply for love of the game, the ones that aren’t blue chip prospects heading to a big college, a trademark of both Starr’s Mill and Mercy.
“To me, that’s what true high school football is all about,” he says. “The thing that you always feel good about is the kid that you’re able to take who may not be a college football player but you can program. He’ll run through a wall for you. You get him strong in the weight room, and you watch those guys have success on Friday nights. That’s the love of high school football right there, watching that kid get better and make a contribution.”
With so much accomplished, Earwood is at peace with his decision to walk away. Whether it was the chance to stay at the college level or maybe even staying longer at Starr’s Mill, there’s no doubt in his mind that he’s taken the right path.
“I feel like I’m walking away from a situation in a very positive light with a great career behind me. I feel very positive about the whole thing,” says Earwood, saying simply he has no regrets. “After 37 years, coaching has been very good to me.”

Christopher Dunn

Managing Editor Christopher Dunn has been with the Fayette County News since 2011, in addition to running Fayette Victory magazine. He is a graduate of Fayette County schools, as well as a graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism. Follow him on twitter @fayettesports.