SANDERSVILLE, Ga.– Joel Ingram lounged back in his office chair in the field house adjacent to Washington County’s stadium, which is known as the House of Pain.
He was on a conference call with Georgia Public Broadcasting, offering tidbits about his team that may be used on the broadcast of the GHSA Class AAA championship game. His Golden Hawks will play Buford, the state’s winningest football program over the past decade, for the state title at 5:30 p.m. today at the Georgia Dome. He spends an hour on the phone, talking about his players and telling stories of his upbringing as the son of a football coach in Arab, Ala. He seemed relaxed. He also seemed confident for a coach preparing to face the football machine that is Buford, which has played for the state championship seven consecutive years.
“I’m more confident because we have a really good football team,” Ingram said. “I’m sure Steve Spurrier was a lot more confident at Florida than he was with the Washington Redskins. A good football team can make you pretty confident.”
Ingram has plenty to be confident about. His team has won all 13 games it played this season. Only one of those wins – a three-point overtime victory against Lovett – has come by fewer than 25 points. A senior-heavy team with a few outstanding juniors sprinkled in has given the Golden Hawks a trip to the Georgia Dome for the first time since 2006, Ingram’s rookie year as a head coach. The appearance capped a run of 11 seasons of 10 or more victories over a 14-year span. That included three state championships under Rick Tomberlin and a run of future college and professional standouts like Takeo Spikes, Robert and Terrence Edwards, and Josh Gordy.
Ingram won early and often, taking the Golden Hawks to the Georgia Dome in 2006 before they lost to eventual champion Peach County. For a vocal minority, Ingram’s honeymoon was short-lived.
Sometimes, in a football-crazed community, even winning games isn’t enough.
The phone calls started coming in 2007.
The Golden Hawks lost four of the first five games that season, but none were as bad as a 7-0 loss to Cross Creek, an Augusta school with two winning seasons in 15 years. WACO was 4-6, suffering its first losing season since 1989.
Ingram, then a 30-year-old second-year head coach at Washington County, would come home to calls from people who wanted to drive him out of town, which is about 60 miles east of Macon and 60 miles southwest from Augusta.
Ingram, a surprise choice to some when he got the job after Tomberlin left for Valdosta, rebounded to lead the Golden Hawks to the playoffs four consecutive years. But in 2010 and 2011, the Golden Hawks suffered losses in the opening round of the playoffs.
“That’s when the wolves came out,” said Ingram, who is 71-23-1 at WACO.
After the worst of complaints came following a loss to Stockbridge in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, Ingram filtered the negativity out. He had a good group of seniors coming back in 2012, and his focus was building a tough nonregion schedule to get his team ready for the playoffs.
The success came in 2012, when the Golden Hawks opened with a thrilling road win over eventual Class A private champion Eagle’s Landing Christian. They won the next seven games and finished the regular season 9-1. The season ended with a five-point road loss to St. Pius X in the quarterfinals.
That run galvanized his team during the offseason, and they set an even bigger goal of winning a state championship in 2013. Ingram now brushes off any criticism he receives.
“I stopped worrying about the negativity because I learned that it didn’t really matter,” Ingram said. “The people whose opinions mattered supported me, and that always meant so much. Those people stood by me, took some bullets, and we’re all standing here together with this big game in front of us.”