When facing a complete rebuilding project, the key for any prep football coach is the ability to turn rock bottom into the granite-solid foundation for the program's future.
An unusually large number of coaching changes happened in the Chattanooga area since last year as 15 programs hired new head coaches, and nine of those teams had losing records last season. Among those with the biggest rebuilding projects were Boyd Buchanan and Walker Valley — both coming off winless 2018 seasons.
Coming into this season, Walker Valley's Mustangs were mired in a 13-game losing streak and the Buccaneers had lost 11 games in a row. It didn't take long for the new leadership at both programs to snap those daunting skids and pump new life into the teams as Jeremy Bosken guided Boyd Buchanan to a season-opening blowout of North Georgia and Drew Akins led Walker Valley to a dramatic 42-40 win at Karns in Knoxville.
"When I got here, our kids were just so beat down," said Akins, who earned his first career win in week one when the Mustangs stopped a 2-point conversion attempt with just eight seconds remaining. "The joy of football had been taken away. They had gone through so many tough losses — not just getting beaten badly but the close losses that really take a lot out of you emotionally. It's tough to build that back.
"I told them after it was over that we would stay on that field for as long as they wanted. It was a total school celebration, which was awesome."
Both coaches agreed the mental hurdle from their teams' recent futility was the biggest obstacle. Knowing how to respond — lining back up to make the next play successful after a mistake or a bad break — has to be learned through experience.
Changing the culture and on-field expectations at both programs actually began long before either of the new staffs installed a single play. It started with simple steps like cleaning the locker rooms, ordering new uniforms and creating a team-led accountability leadership group.
"We wanted to instill pride in our facility and everything about the program," Akins added. "We preached to them about doing the little things right, whether that was during workouts or at practice or even just putting things away to keep the locker room looking nice. Eventually, though, you have to have some success.
"You can preach all you want, but if you don't have success it can fall on deaf ears. That's why we talked as a staff about how important that first game was for our whole season and how it could dictate how everything went the rest of the way. Now the monkey is off our back. All that stress from the losing streak is gone, and now they can go out and have fun and play football."
Akins had seen the amount of work it would take to build a program. His father, Robert, turned Boyd Buchanan from a struggling program into a perennial state contender beginning in the late 1990s.
Bosken had firsthand experience in turning around struggling programs, something that was a big selling point in helping him get the Boyd Buchanan job. Previously he took a Crockett County program that had been to the playoffs just once in its 44-year history to the postseason five straight years.
He inherited a Bucs program that was outscored 492-52 last season, hadn't won a home game since Oct. 14, 2016, and finished the year with 17 players on the roster. The Bucs, now with a roster of 46, are 2-0 heading into Friday night's Division II-AA East Region opener against Knoxville's Webb.
"To look at last year's results, you would think the program was in horrible shape," Bosken said. "But when I got here and went to watch the basketball and baseball teams play, I realized we had talent here. We just got as many of those kids to come out as we could and built off the success they had experienced in other sports.
"After that, the big question mark facing the kids was just learning how to close out a game for a win, because they didn't have much experience with doing that. They have a tradition of being good here. We've got a gold state championship trophy and some silver trophies from playing in other championships, so my job was to just get us back to what had been built here before me."
Eli Evans, a three-sport athlete who can play any skill position on either side of the football, grew up watching the Bucs pack their stadium and contend for championships. Now a senior leader, he admitted the previous two seasons took a toll on him personally.
"We needed this," Evans said. "People look at us differently around school now, and we can walk the halls and hear everybody congratulating us and saying how excited they are to come watch us again.
"It's big for me personally because, growing up around the program, the game wasn't fun for me as a player for a while. Now it is again. I want the kids who come to our games now to get to experience what I did as a kid and see us being really good from now on."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.