Listen to practice at Midland Valley and you get an understanding of the difference that interim coach Rick Knight has made to the Mustangs this season.
There's laughing. There's joking. There's jabs from coaches at players, from players at coaches, from players at other players.
After one linebacker bobbles a possible interception, tipping it in his fingers repeatedly before seeing it drop, Knight's cutting humor isn't far behind.
"If that was a doughnut I think he would have held on," he says to offensive linemen watching.
This is how the Mustangs are basking in the school's first Region 4-AAA title and preparing to host Manning, a state finalist a year ago, at 8 tonight. A little humor may help Midland Valley go a long way.
"We're all in a good mood," senior Pele Williams said.
Yet there was no fun and games Sept. 15, the day when veteran coach Clayton Chriswell abruptly retired after three games. It was an unexpected twist to a season of high expectations that began 1-2, the two losses dismal defeats to North Augusta and Aiken.
For Knight, who spent 20 years of his coaching life as Chriswell's assistant at Chesterfield, Silver Bluff, Lake City and Midland Valley, the idea of not working with one of his best friends and his football mentor felt like a dropkick to his stomach.
Yet with the disappointment came opportunity, the chance for the longtime defensive coach to make his imprint indelible.
Asked the difference between the two, more than one Mustang described Knight as "a little less volatile" than Chriswell, making practice and games that much more enjoyable.
"When we make a mistake, Coach isn't running to get in our face," one player said. "He's a little more understanding."
Said Knight: "There's a fine line that you walk between getting the job done and being hard on the kids. This is no reflection on Clayton, because none of us would be in this position without what he's done for this program. But there was many a day that we played good cop/bad cop."
Knight played, and still is, the good cop.
"It's all about coaching to a personality," Knight said. "Some days you've got to be a bit heavy-handed, others it's OK to be a little loose."
Other than bringing a brevity to practices, Knight also re-emphasized tackling, a necessity he said was brought about by losing three of the first four games this season.
"I told the team there'd be a few changes, but that they'd be expected to perform and contend," Knight said. "There's too many seniors here not to expect that."
Together, Chriswell and Knight came to Midland Valley nine years ago looking to revive the Aiken County school's football program. After an 0-11 season in 1991, the Mustangs will make their sixth playoff appearance this decade, their first as a No. 1 seed. Two years ago they went three rounds into the playoffs, and a year ago Midland set a school record for wins.
"I know Clayton is very happy for us," Knight said. "This is what he came for, to see this program turn around and make the community proud. This is all bittersweet for him."
Knight and Chriswell watched film together Monday, the first time the old coach returned to the football offices since his resignation. The two talk football at least twice a week.
The one thing Knight would like to change is his interim title. Aiken County is accepting applications for the job until the end of December. A committee will interview candidates and hire a permanent coach by February.
You'd think a region title and a possible deep playoff run by Knight's team would cement his spot. And if that's not enough, he's got another in: Knight's also the athletic director.
Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.
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