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Mary G. Montgomery football isn’t being overhauled, it’s being created

Zach Golson didn’t come down from the heights of Semmes — it’s only a couple of Alexander Shunnarah billboards above sea level — clutching a sacred playbook to show Mary G. Montgomery the way to the promised land.

Golson isn’t that presumptuous but, then again, he is not merely reviving the Vikings’ football program since there was nothing to revive. He is presiding over its creation in a football version of Genesis.

At MGM, just winning a game once seemed as far away as the moon. Other programs won state championships. Now, Golson and his players are shooting for it with an audacious fervor.

After starting 0-4 last fall, the Vikings had their first winning season and first playoff appearance in 20 years under Golson’s tutelage. But that is no longer good enough for what has been the worst Class 7A program in state history. Once so unfathomable no one dared dream it, they want a Blue Map with a stop in Semmes.

“We talk about it all the time,” said senior quarterback Jared Hollins, who has become one of the state’s best practitioners of his craft. “That’s the No. 1 goal around here but we’ve got to take it one play at a time, one game at a time. If we do all the little things right and keep going down the path we’re on, we definitely have a shot to compete for it.”

Golson, the state’s reigning Class 7A Coach of the Year, doesn’t dissuade such talk although he isn’t promising how long he will stay. He is emphatic about building a foundation for lasting success and it’s a work in progress, much like the unfinished plywood shelves in his office, not that he spends much time there. Golson’s office is the field, the playboard and the cafeteria, where he holds devotionals every morning, often led by Hollins. If they didn’t know it already, MGM’s players are learning how powerful prayer is, especially when backed up by motivated, well-coached athletes.


‘They deserved more’


That is in stark contrast to what came before. For a community known for growth — both in its neighborhoods and its soil — MGM football had rotted on the vine, fodder for a succession of 0-10, 1-9 and 2-8 finishes. The Vikings have had more losing seasons (51) than any other 7A team and the school has been a graveyard for coaches. Counting Golson, MGM has had nine in the last 20 years, again more than any other 7A team. The program had all the staying power of Kleenex at a funeral and the players went through the motions with all the gusto of a man about to stick his head under a guillotine.

“There was no energy,” senior offensive lineman J.D. Moore said. “It wasn’t fun like it is now. We were slopping around. We would just be working the drills and saying, ‘Why are we even doing this?’”

It wasn’t Skol Vikings but scarred Vikings.

“Saying you played for Mary Montgomery, you’d think, ‘Do I really want to say that?’” a former player recalled. “We were a laughingstock.”

Then-principal Marlon Firle was weary of the program struggling to cast off its façade as a loser.

“The community and the players deserved a change,” he said. “They deserved more. I didn’t want just anyone. I knew if we could get the program going in the right direction, it would be a catalyst for change to be a beacon of light in the community.”

Firle met with Golson, who acquired his coaching chops under Prattville’s Bill Clark, one of the state’s all-time greats, and won a Blue Map while an assistant coach at McGill-Toolen.

“What struck me with coach Golson is he told me football was his ministry,” Firle said. “He wanted to ensure young men would be successful on the football field and beyond. I saw passion and compassion. I felt we had the players in place and what we needed was somebody who was innovative who had past success and somebody who wasn’t just looking for a head coaching position. Coach Golson emphasized to me he was looking for the right position.”


Couldn’t win but did


Golson was told he could not win at MGM — “I heard that quite a bit, especially when I was hiring the staff,” he said — but was convinced he could change the culture.

“That’s what I had been waiting on, a place hungry to be successful,” he said.

Soon thereafter, Golson walked in the first day on the job through a gauntlet of MGM band members. Trumpets blared in each ear; it wasn’t Gabriel’s horn but it was close enough.

“My ears were ringing,” Golson said. “I was not expecting that. I thought I would just be meeting with the team.”

Only 42 players in one of the biggest 7A schools in the state were waiting to see him for the first time. Maybe he couldn’t hear at first but that came later. What he had to say was more important.

“I wanted to paint a picture for them,” Golson said. “We were going to love them hard and coach them hard and we wanted them to fight hard for us. I remember how focused they were. They were listening to every word. There was a hunger. They wanted to be successful and they wanted somebody to take them there. I think Mr. Firle told them he was going to get it right and they believed him.”

Graduated center Tanner Finlay said Golson first endeared himself to the rising seniors, who had just endured an 0-10 season, but the message applied to everybody in a black and blue jersey.

“He said, ‘We’re going to care for you all. Everything in the past, just forget about it. That was the old Mary Montgomery,’” Finlay remembered.

Golson then set about constructing a new MGM which is keeping its talent from leaking to other public and private schools. Pride is being built. And though it’s not talked about loudly, Semmes may someday have its own city school system, seemingly a prerequisite for success in 7A football.

“It’s changed the whole community just by winning some games,” senior defensive back Landon Urban said.


Breaking bad habits


Winning games started with losing bad habits. Before the Golson era, one player recalled each member of the team was given a Sharpie and a white T-shirt for summer workouts and told to write their names on them. There was no routine, no discipline, and the coaches argued in front of the players.

“When he came here, he flipped it all upside down,” Hollins said of Golson. “We had a purpose for everything.”

Moore said the players quickly learned loafing was for bread.

“With him, the first mistake we made was slacking and he said, ‘That ain’t it’ and we had to do up-downs,” Moore said.

The up-downs and the ups and downs have faded as the Vikings learned how to win.

“Last spring, I’d have to tell them to wear white jerseys and black shorts and they’d come out in red shorts and all sorts of other stuff,” Golson said. “It looked like 0-10. This year, I haven’t said a word about it. They know.”

Besides the fundamentals and the knowledge, Golson is acutely sensitive to the program’s aesthetics. He saw to it all the athletic buildings were painted the same color, new game and practice uniforms were rebranded with Michael Jordan and Nike — “You see those things and you think of excellence,” Golson said — and one helmet was chosen instead of three, showing off MGM’s black and Carolina blue, a favorite that ties to his North Carolina roots.

“You have a bad year, what do you do? Change the helmet,” he said. “We’re keeping the same one for the first time in a long time.”

They’re also keeping talent at home, which has long been troublesome for the Vikings.

“Keeping our kids in Semmes is huge,” said varsity assistant Scott Plair, who coached the freshmen to an 8-0 finish last year. “The last two freshman classes are basically the future of Mary Montgomery. There’s a ton of talent coming in and the sky’s the limit their junior and senior years. We’d be playing for championships at the park and middle school, then the high school would go 1-9 and 2-8. … There was talent but there was never any connection with the high school until coach Golson got here.”

Finlay wishes that connection had come sooner.

“I always tell people if coach Golson had been here when I was a freshman and sophomore, we had freak athletes who were juniors and seniors and we would have been playing for a state championship,” he said. “With this group of freshmen he got last year, by the time they’re seniors, they’ll be something.”


City school system next?


MGM also needs to keep its financial resources at home, so it seems only a matter of time before Semmes establishes its own city school system to do it.

The estimated enrollment of the high school, Semmes Middle School, Semmes Elementary School and Allentown Elementary School is 4,500 — bigger than 52 other city school systems in Alabama, including Saraland’s (3,200).

The most successful football programs are in city school systems which give them the resources to build top-quality facilities and retain players.

“Sometimes you feel like you have gone into a gunfight with a knife with the facilities,” said Golson, who feels an upgraded locker and weight room and a covered practice field are necessities.

“It gets back to development,” Golson said. “Other teams can practice in bad weather, so they can develop their guys better. … We’re going to get a turf field and they’re working on a Jumbotron. It’s almost an arms race for building facilities and you’ve got to have them to develop players.”

Principal Chip Menton feels the long-range plan for facilities will come to fruition.

“With the support we have in the community, we’ll be able to make things happen,” said Menton, who added the City of Semmes has been generous in funding the athletic department’s requests.

Former Vikings coach Scott Lesley, who before Golson had MGM’s last winning season in 2002, said being in a single-school city system is a huge advantage.

“The Mobile County system is more difficult,” said Lesley, who is now retired and living in Biloxi. “It’s not that they don’t care but they have to spread the resources around to 13 schools. The city school systems can pretty much do what they want and give the programs what they want. You roll them off — Auburn, Phenix City, Hoover.”

Lesley learned fertilizing a winning program at MGM is a massive undertaking.

“To be able to hold that at Mary Montgomery, it’s a 100-hours-a-week job,” he said. “We had to keep our better players from going to private schools or other public schools. It was an in-house constant struggle. It’s a difficult place to maintain.”

Golson seems big enough for the job, to make it far better than he found it.

“People are grateful for the type of program we are running,” he said. “There is an expectation the kids have now to win. And our people have that walk about them where they expect to win.”

Whether or not the Vikings are one day No. 1 after all the games are played will be left to history but one thing is certain — what Golson has brought to Semmes is something every small town in the South with a high school football team wants to have.

“A few people have made the comment that we’ve made it cool to be a Mary Montgomery Viking,” Golson said.

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