New Walker Valley coach Drew Akins got to celebrate his first head coaching win after his Mustangs defeated Knox Karns last Friday to snap a 13-game losing streak. (Photo: Nikki Swafford)
Tonight's "County Conflict" provides a unique meeting between a pair of coaches put in very similar situations.
The difference is Bradley Central's Damon Floyd has successfully met his challenge, while Walker Valley's Drew Akins is just starting his.
Both were assistant coaches hired to turn around programs that only had one victory the previous two seasons in their first heading coaching opportunities.
Both came out of the gate swinging to earn wins in their inaugural games — a then 27-year-old Floyd in a 21-7 home win over Warren County in 2006 and 32-year-old Akins a 42-40 nailbitter in Knoxville over Karns last Friday.
The pair will square off tonight at The Corral in the annual "County Conflict" as the Bears head to the Mustang race track tonight at 7:30.
"I couldn't walk through the halls yesterday (Monday). From our band kids telling me congratulations and how much fun they had, to our teachers doing the same thing. I've heard from every single sports program in our school congratulating us," related Akins of the revived 'Stang spirit.
"That's something we've talked about since I got here. Having a school-wide renewal. #Altogether has been our hashtag. It takes everyone pulling in the same direction. To hear from all the other sports, the band and everyone congratulating us and our kids, has us very excited. It wasn't a 'me thing' for the football team, it was an 'all of us thing.'"
With the exception of the very successful Feisty Fillies softball, which was the 2018 state runner-up, plus the wrestling, track and girls' soccer programs, the school has had a turnover in head coaches in all other sports within the past two seasons.
Akins came on board last December after winning six straight Offensive Coordinator of the Year awards to go with region championship three-peats at both Ooltewah and Red Bank.
Having learned under guidance of his very successful coaching father Robert Akins, as well as several other top-notch coaches along the way, the new Mustang "Trail Boss" became a highly sought-after head coaching prospect with his offensive prowess.
Under his guidance the past three seasons, Red Bank averaged 32.2 points per game (39.3 ppg in 2018) to go with a 30-8 overall record and a Class 3A semifinals appearance in 2017. Red Bank was 3-8 the season before Akins arrived on staff.
While at Ooltewah, where he was first hired by local coaching legend Benny Monroe in 2009, the Owls were 60-23 with a state quarterfinal run in his final season (2015).
"This (being a head coach) is something I've been preparing for for a long time, going back to my high school days," he stated.
Playing for his dad at Boyd Buchanan, the Akins duo led the Bucs to three straight (2002-04) TSSAA State Championship games, including winning the crown in 2003.
After his prep playing days, the younger Akins played for legendary coach Ken Sparks at Carson-Newman, the winningest coach in NCAA D-II history. He also coached for a year under Sparks after graduating.
In his decade as a high school assistant, Akins' team made the TSSAA playoffs nine times, including the 2017 state semifinals and a pair of state quarterfinal contests. In all but one case his team advanced at least to the second round. He is guaranteed at least two more playoff berths as Walker Valley is in a four-team region (4-5A) for the next two seasons before TSSAA realignment.
While all that success came while on staff for somebody else, last Friday was extra special.
"The game (against Karns) was the easy part. The emotions pregame, the excitement post game was something I had to deal with inside myself. The game was like any other game, except my name's on it now," Akins related. "I haven't had a ton of time to set back and relish my first win as a head coach.
"There were some times of emotion in the pregame when I looked up and saw my wife and kids, my mom and friends that had come to the game. People who have meant so much to my life — teachers and students of mine, who came for emotional support."
Taking over a program that had won only two of its previous 24 games, he knew the first challenge he faced was getting the program into the right frame of mind.
"The excitement comes from having a chance to bring a program at its lowest point and helping them become a winning program," Akins said after being hired. "I am excited to see what we can do."
Akins has instilled a "Believe" attitude that his Herd has bought into and will bring into tonight's county rivalry battle with Bradley.
"Although it's Bradley coming in this week, we have to continue to only be concerned about us. Our sets. How we perform on offense and defense," he explained. "Our goals are never to win ball games. Our goals are if we do these things, it will put us in an opportunity to win ball games.
"Our focus is to win the day when it comes to practices. Every single day you have a choice whether to win that day or to lose the day. So our focus is to win every day leading up to the game. To play with passion. To play for your brothers. To protect the team. Those are our team goals. If you do those things, the win will take care of itself.
"We obviously have to look at Bradley's scheme, the way they play the ball game, but in the end, we just have to focus on ourselves," he assessed.
Floyd can relate to what Akins is trying to do as the Bears had just one win in their previous 22 games when he took over the program.
A record-setting running back when he played for Bradley, and a state wrestling champion, Floyd went on to a stellar college career at UT-Chattanooga before returning to his alma mater as an assistant coach.
After three years, he became the youngest head coach in Bradley history and is the second-winningest coach (80-64) in the Bears' 103-year history.
Posting as many wins (4) as the program had the previous three years, Floyd began a turnaround that has had Bradley in the TSSAA playoffs nine straight seasons.
Entering his 14th season at the helm, Floyd will face his fourth Mustang head coach this evening in Akins. Later this season he will be battling his fifth different Cleveland High coach in Marty Wheeler.
While the "Big Brother" Bears are favored this evening, what Floyd has been able to do on the southside of the county is a good example for Akins and the northside Mustangs to emulate.