But the program didn’t appear headed to a memorable finish six weeks into the season. In fact, it felt like things were moving in the opposite direction.
“Well, 3-3 might not sound too bad for some people, but at our place 3-3 is like the end of the world,” Bulldogs coach Al Lown said. “It was an unusual year to say the least.”
Lown, The Augusta Chronicle’s South Carolina high school football coach of the year, led a historically proud football program that took a few humbling shots in 2011. First came an embarrassing shutout at the hands of a Midland Valley team that went winless the rest of the year. Then Class AA rival Strom Thurmond delivered a low blow with a 52-7 romp. The most damaging was a six-point loss at Swansea to open the Region 5-AA schedule that ended up snapping Silver Bluff’s streak of five consecutive region championships.
Injuries were part of the problem. Senior quarterback Cordrea Tankersley, who committed to Clemson, and lineman Jimmy Holmes hobbled through minor aches and pains, while tailback A.J. Washington was lost for the season to a knee injury.
While three-game losing streaks have been rare in the 19 years that Lown has been head coach, giving up in the middle of a season has yet to happen. The veteran coach took drastic measures.
“We went back to the basics,” he said. “Tackling, blocking, defense. I think we ran maybe seven different plays on offense that next week, and that’s it. It was all fundamentals.”
Lown also paraded his team through the gym and halls of the school where banners and trophy cases reminded the current Bulldogs of their predecessors’ high standards. Silver Bluff’s assistant coaches also chipped in.
“I’ve got Keith Radford and Eric Hofstetter. Those guys have been with me for 19 years, and all but one of the other coaches played for me,” Lown said. “And they didn’t panic. They knew what to do, and we did it.”
Lown and his crew dug deep to find some type of inspiration. Midway through the season, something clicked.
“We talked about when you lose a game, you find out who you can count on,” Lown said. “I told them they were in a ditch and no one was going to stick a hand out to help them up. They were going to have to get up on their own, and it was a good life lesson that I think a lot of them took to heart.”
Silver Bluff found renewed strength and rattled off six consecutive wins in a dominant second half of the season. The offense averaged 27.5 points per game. The defense allowed less than a touchdown per game.
The unlikely turnaround didn’t end until the Bulldogs reached the Lower State finals and ran into private school power Bishop England, which eventually won the state title.
Such highs and lows in a single season can age a coach. Lown, who became a first-time grandfather this fall, puts in long hours as a head coach, athletic director, and psychology and sociology teacher.
“I don’t know how long I can keep doing all three of those things, to be honest with you,” he said. “Teaching to me is equal with football coaching. And the football part I could keep doing that for a good while, I think. But I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing the athletic director and football coach and teaching.”