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Zach Golson and Mary G. Montgomery are shooting for the moon

Mary G. Montgomery coach Zach Golson shows quarterback Jared Hollins (2) how he wants a play executed. The upward trajectory of the Vikings’ program has excited the Semmes community. (John O’Dell/Call News)

Today’s story is the first of three about the Mary G. Montgomery football program. The others will be posted in the coming days. Pick up a copy of today’s Call News for the series.



When Bill Clark was nailing together the framework of a Prattville football dynasty which would eventually win three straight state championships, a bold, skinny kid from Autauga Academy told him he wanted to transfer in, be the leader and play quarterback.

Zach Golson didn’t get the answer he wanted — “We already had a quarterback and we were winning,” Clark said — but Golson was taught a lesson he continues instilling as Mary G. Montgomery’s coach today.

Instead of quarterback, Clark put Golson at wide receiver, where he excelled.

“Sure, I was disappointed,” said Golson, who had to quash his desire to run a fast-paced, passing offense. “But that’s not how I was raised. I wanted to do whatever it took to help the team win.”

Prattville threw sparingly — Golson remembered catching the only pass thrown all night in a 21-0 playoff win over Opelika his senior year — but his sacrifice lodged itself in Clark’s conscience.

“He caught everything that was close,” Clark said, and ever since then Golson has demonstrated anything thrown his way is in good hands, including the once-moribund Vikings, who went 20 years without a winning season until last year.

At a recent spring practice, Golson imparted the long-ago lesson to his players.

“Wherever we put you, just compete,” Golson said. “Show up every day, compete and don’t quit.”

The players have seen the fruits of that philosophy.

“These coaches, if you listen to what they say, it’s going to work out,” graduated linebacker Colby Gould said.

Just as he did when he was a teenager, Golson, now 37, demonstrated his skilled hands by digging a program nose down out of the dirt and brandishing it aloft as a new player in the upper floors of Class 7A football in Alabama.

He tossed the 0-10 finish from the year before on the trash heap, set it afire and scattered the ashes, conducting MGM’s incredible metamorphosis from perennial losers to a 6-5 finish in his first season as an AHSAA head coach. That included a six-game winning streak to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Only seven times in state history has a team now in Class 7A followed an 0-10 season with a winning season the next year. Even Thompson — now the state’s dominant program — went 0-10 in 2014 before winning four straight 7A championships under Mark Thompson, so the Vikings have a blueprint to follow.

Golson learned from Clark, his mentor, how to build a program the right way. Clark did it at Prattville, then years later at UAB, where he brought the Blazers back from the dead after the program had been discontinued.

“Football is about people and processes,” Golson said. “If you’ve got the talented people and the right processes people believe in, you’ve got a good chance to be successful.”

And Golson believed he could convert MGM from a program with 51 losing seasons — the most of any 7A school in state history — into a winner, although other successful coaches got mired in quicksand there.

“He called me about it and that was a job that had challenges but he said it could be something really good,” Clark said. “My dad always told me as a coach himself, there is a reason a job is open and usually that means there are problems. But he wasn’t arrogant. He believed in himself.”

So did principal Marlon Firle and Semmes Mayor Brandon Van Hook, who convinced Golson the school had the elements to win if properly assembled. And while untested as a public-school head coach, Golson had an attractive pedigree — he had a connection to Clark, he was a former Alabama walk-on and he had a reputation as an innovative offensive coordinator for Daphne and especially at McGill-Toolen, where he was part of a state championship team and two runner-up finishes.

“Mr. Firle really made me believe in the vision for the program,” Golson said. “The vision was being committed to excellence in everything we do. Brandon Van Hook painted that vision. They felt the school was in a good place and other sports had been successful and with football, you felt it was possible.”


No rebuilding, just building


Golson had been warned, as were several of his predecessors, that he could not win at Mary G. Montgomery. But while the Vikings were considered easy prey, Golson saw something else.

“You’d turn the tape on and you saw they played hard and were physical,” he said. “They were blue-collar kids. They weren’t always in the right spot and didn’t use the most advanced schemes but we got in some battles with them at McGill. There was a grit about them.”

Golson was determined to succeed by flushing the past, bonding with his players and modernizing their playbook to take advantage of good athletes whom he persuaded to stay. He also didn’t have to contend with politics and power struggles which previously successful coaches cited.

“There was never any clear person in charge of the program,” said Chris Wilson, who coached Washington County to two straight state championship games, then was fired after going through the furnace of an 0-10 finish in one year at MGM in 2017.

For Golson, there was no rebuilding, just building. To help wash out the acerbic admission of many players who felt embarrassed to say they played for the Vikings, Golson started knitting their souls together in a devotional first thing each morning in the cafeteria.

“We’ve got 125-plus kids in there,” Golson said. “That’s been a pillar of what we’ve done. We’re here to serve a higher purpose. It’s got to be bigger than whatever your rat race is. We were able to make sure these guys care about each other.”

Star quarterback Jared Hollins, the unquestioned leader of the team, has witnessed it.

“Everything we do is for a bigger purpose,” he said. “The goal is to strive to make each other better.”

Golson hired a strong staff, including former South Alabama players Alex Page and Enrique Williams, Carlos Turner, Scott Plair, Jared Holloway, Devin Crawford and former Vanderbilt quarterback Kurt Page.

“In every position and every role, we’ve got the right men,” Golson said. “I am enjoying watching these kids be a reflection of their coaches because every one of our coaches are leaders. If we lead and do it right, they’ll lead and do it right.”

Golson installed his spread system, which fit his players better than the wing-T used by MGM to score only 93 points in 10 games the previous season; the Vikings surpassed that by Golson’s fourth game.

“We want to attack numbers in space and outnumber the defense,” Golson said. “We want to create space and windows for our guys to operate in, whether that’s running through that window or throwing through it. We want to play fast and create confusion. Honestly, with college football, everybody sees the spread and the RPOs (run-pass options). People were excited we were going to play that way.”

It distills to this: “Matching our best guys against their worst guys,” Golson said. “We try to be creative — motions, shifts, tempo, formations. It’s a puzzle. Most of it is the same plays, it’s how we present it that’s different.”

When Golson presented it to his players, they salivated with anticipation.

“From Day 1, they were chomping at the bit to get to work,” he said.


The difference maker


And then he found Hollins, the 6-foot-4 quarterback with a perfect 4.0 GPA who made Golson’s offense come to life.

After two academic quarters as a freshman, Hollins had left MGM for George County High in Lucedale, Miss.

“My brother’s senior year, it wasn’t a great situation here and we had to make a choice that was best for us,” Hollins said. “The program was struggling.”

But, guided by a higher power, Hollins said he decided to come back before Golson took the job.

“I prayed a lot, prayed every day over coming back, and everything worked out,” Hollins said.

Golson heard about Hollins over the 2021 holidays but had no film on him. When they finally met after school resumed in January, Golson took Hollins to the field and quickly realized this was one quarterback who would not be moved to receiver.

“We saw him throw and knew then he was going to be special,” Golson said. “He is a major difference maker. He’s a natural leader and a very gifted football player. His upside is through the roof. He has the potential to play at the highest level, from a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint. He’s got the arm strength. He checks all the boxes of intangibles.”

Hollins — who passed for 2,152 yards, 21 touchdowns and only two interceptions last year — has since been offered by North Carolina State, Boston College, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Marshall, Furman and South Alabama.

“Jared Hollins is going to be a name people will remember for a long time,” Golson said.


No longer a fantasy


Hollins is back for his senior year and surrounded by complementary talent, including All-State receiver James Bolton, running back Troy Flowers and a deep defense.

The potential makes Hollins smile and bare his braces, which are adorned in Carolina blue, one of the Vikings’ school colors.

This thought passed through his straightened teeth: “One of the first things I noticed about coach was he had a 7A football state championship and that’s the goal,” Hollins said.

Even if that doesn’t happen in Hollins’ last year, he appreciates being part of what would have once been considered an alternate universe at MGM. Making the playoffs, once a fantasy, is now considered a realistic part of the plan, like eating turkey at Thanksgiving.

“I always think anything happens for a reason,” Hollins said. “If what I do here gets the ball rolling in the right direction, then I’m good with that. I don’t spend too much time thinking about what could have been.”

Golson doesn’t dwell on what was or what could have been but it’s instructive nonetheless to appreciate where the Vikings are and where they want to go.

“A lot of people probably doubted we could win until they saw how good these coaches are,” senior offensive lineman J.D. Moore said.

MGM was shut out three times in 2021. By contrast, Golson has been shut out only twice in 12 years as an assistant or head coach at four schools.

“The big thing is studying and the willingness to work and staying on the cutting edge,” Clark said. “That is what I tried to do and I see those qualities in him. He is going to try to be the best.”


A sign of change


Golson said it took about five months of cultivation for his methods to take root in the fertile Semmes soil.

“They started to understand what was expected, how we wanted to practice and why, lifting and training and how it translates on the field,” he said. “Be on time. Cleaning up the locker room. Leaving nothing on the floor. We’re still not there but we’re closer. It’s an accumulation of little things. That’s football.”

Yet when Golson began studying his players, he came to an astonishing conclusion before the first season started.

“To be honest, when I looked at the roster and the way we were developing the players, I expected us to win every game,” he said. “I knew we had the pieces — the question was when it got tough, are we going to be able to handle it and we weren’t quite ready yet. We could have used a whole ’nother year last spring.”

But even as MGM started 0-4 — losing three of those by a combined six points, two in overtime — Hollins felt the reaction was almost one of jubilation, not resignation, a sign the program had changed.

“I think failure is a step toward success,” he said. “Our coaches knew we were better than that. After that fourth game, I told the guys in the huddle: ‘If we get this right, we’ll win the next six.’ It was like dominoes.”

The team huddle has dramatically expanded. In a school with 2,000 students, Golson started with 42 players and now has 33 seniors. He had 115 players in the spring with 75 freshmen coming in, numbers more appropriate for the state’s 11th-largest school.

“He’s got his numbers and that is where it starts,” Clark said. “You’ve got to have the big-school numbers and play one way and he comes from that. You’ve also got to surround yourself with good assistants and he’s done that. From what I’ve seen, they’ll have every opportunity to succeed.”


An expectation of success


A hungry team has goals and the Vikings want to break their 0-8 playoff record. When MGM finally got to the postseason last year, it saw the huge divide with the upper echelon, losing at Central-Phenix City 58-7 in the first round.

Hollins said the experience only prodded the team to go farther the next time, as if it is a fait accompli.

“Speed was the biggest difference and we knew it,” he said. “This offseason, we’ve been working on speed and we’ve seen the 40s go from 4.8 to 4.6. And the other thing is we will know what it’s going to be like when we get there.”

Golson doesn’t discourage such aspirations.

“They’re talking about winning championships,” Golson said. “I haven’t said anything about it. … Any pressure we put on ourselves is strictly that. All the pressure is really internal.”

That represents an expectation of success which has spread beyond the boundaries of E.S. Grider Field into the community after Golson stamped out a desultory psyche.

“It’s not just X’s and O’s, they’ve got to believe they can win,” principal Chip Menton said. “Everything is important in the program now and some things slipped by in the past.”

An array of players testified to the difference Golson has made in their lives on and off the field, in ways both seen and felt.

Exhibit 1 from graduated center Tanner Finlay: “He’s got everybody amped up and excited to watch football again. It’s hard losing constantly. It’s not fun to watch. He came in and said we’re going to do things different. People know something is going on here.”

Exhibit 2 from Moore: “He’s made me a better person, more disciplined on and off the field.”

Exhibit 3 from senior defensive back Landon Urban: “We knew he was going to be a really good coach. You could tell he knew what he was doing.”

Exhibit 4 from Gould, who praised Golson for helping his brother Kyle get a chance to play at UAB.

“My brother asked him for help and he helped him and he never even played under him,” Gould said.


‘A lot of reasons to stay’


MGM is far removed from the days when even good coaches languished to dig out from under a slagpile of defeatism.

Besides Wilson, Mike Dean took Charles Henderson to the state finals in 2013, then came to MGM the next year and was fired before the last game of his only season.

“I had a buddy call me and warn me about taking it,” said Wilson, who is now coaching football and baseball at Hoover.  “There was never any clear person in charge of the program … The kids were never the problem, though. The community didn’t have any expectation of winning. … I don’t hold any grudges. There were guys who worked their rear ends off. I hope it’s better for (Golson).”

Dean often delivered scathing criticism of the program in his scant months at MGM.

“You’ve been losing so long, you hate practice,” Dean said in a 2014 Call News story. “They don’t know how to practice. … When they come to us, they’re starting over.”

Golson and his staff are far beyond that and planning for the future instead of correcting past mistakes.

“Talent comes in waves but as coaches, we try to make sure we’ve got the next guy ready,” Golson said. “We’re constantly working on who’s going to play two years from now.”

But will Golson still be at MGM in two years? In 10? If he establishes the Vikings as a reliable contender, he has made no secret of wanting to return to college football. He was a graduate assistant at South Alabama under Clark, who was then the defensive coordinator.

“There is no doubt he’s got that kind of ability,” Clark said.

Golson said everybody on his staff was offered a job after last year but added he isn’t interested in lateral moves to another high school.

“I’m a climber,” he said. “We also know we have something special here, so why go somewhere else? I tell my own children and our coaches and players you’ve got to have goals. One day, I’d love to coach college football again. When I decide to make that jump, I’d like it to be from here. I feel like you have to seek first the kingdom and live the right way and make sure my family is taken care of.”

Menton is realistic, although he doesn’t want to imagine MGM without Golson, who this year could become only the fourth coach in school history to enjoy back-to-back winning seasons.

“He loves being here,” Menton said, “but you can’t predict the future and coaches move around. That’s been a problem here in the past. I’ve told him he’s got to be committed to the program and not use it as a steppingstone. But with success, he’ll have opportunities down the road. If we can lay the foundation, I hope we’ll build a program that will be successful for a lot of years.”

Golson feels the same way.

“Whoever follows me, I’d like them to keep it going,” he said. “I want to leave it better than I found it. But who knows when that will be? It could be two years, five years, 10 years, maybe 20 years. There are a lot of reasons to stay.”


  1. Brenda on June 21, 2023 at 8:13 pm

    As a 1977 MGM Alumni myself (then a parent of MGM students, and now a Nana of MGM students), we were sick and tired of losing and being a laughing stock for the other schools. Last year was nothing short of AMAZING, and I can’t wait to sit in those bleachers again this coming season and watch our boys reach for the stars!! We are so thankful for our entire coaching staff. They are teaching these boys way more than just football. SKOL VIKINGS!!

  2. Greg Miller on June 22, 2023 at 3:55 pm

    I played varsity football for mgm for Mac champion in 82/ 83 and for the late coach Tommy Davis in 84 and 85. We played 500 football in these days and we competed , we practiced hard, and we had discipline. Somewhere in the 1990s our community and school accepted losing as a football program. I enjoyed playing and watching the guys after me. But it’s been rough until Coach Golson and staff arrived. Thanks guys.

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