By Jeffery Armstrong
Lovejoy Middle School head football coach Richard Simmons is on the brink of winning another county championship when his undefeated team faces Kendrick Middle School at Twelve Oaks Stadium tonight at 7 p.m.
Win or lose, it will be Simmons' last game on the gridiron as the long-time coach plans to retire from the coaching ranks this year. Simmons said the reason he's retiring is because it's time for him to leave school. Simmons said he's had to "answer the bell" for 54 years and it's time for that to end.
"I've been in the coaching business for 38 years," said Simmons, 59. "It's been enjoyable for me, but there comes a time when you need to graduate."
Simmons has definitely earned enough "credits" to graduate. The West Virginia native and Concord College graduate started his coaching career at Pineville High School in Pineville, W.Va. He coached there seven years and led his team to the state basketball finals.
"I was there for seven years and it was a good experience for me," said Simmons. "They say you can't go home again, but I did and it worked out for me."
Simmons' next stop was a high school basketball job at West Nassau High School in Florida. Simmons was head coach there from 1973 to 1976 and led West Nassau to the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8.
He came to Clayton County in 1977 and took over the reins of the Morrow High basketball team, where he enjoyed his longest tenure in basketball. Simmons led Morrow to the state tournament five times and the Mustangs made it to the Elite 8 three times.
Ironically, it was his son's love of basketball that caused Simmons to leave Morrow in 1989 and coach at Lovejoy Middle School.
"My son was about to play middle school basketball and he really needed my support at that time," Simmons said. "I said to myself that watching him play was more important than coaching the older kids."
Lovejoy Middle actually wanted Simmons to coach basketball, but he turned it down, preferring to have basketball season off to watch his son play. He then accepted the position as the head football coach and athletic director and won the county title in 1999 with an undefeated team with a few familiar faces ? current Lovejoy High starters Kisan Flakes, Keith Fitzhugh and Vernard Hoover.
Clayton County Athletics Director Bob Brannon is a good friend of Simmons and praised his coaching accomplishments.
"What people don't know is that coach Simmons was really good in basketball. Years ago when he was in high school, people compared him to [former NBA great and West Virginia native] Jerry West," Brannon said. "In the mid-70's, coach Simmons helped elevate basketball competition in this area and he now has made Lovejoy dominant in football."
Brannon also praised Simmons for being able to go from winning basketball games to winning football games.
Former Lovejoy High head football coach C.W. Campbell is also a good friend of Simmons' and said he will be missed.
"Clayton County is losing a heck of a coach. He has always loved to coach and he's done a tremendous job," Campbell said. "He was a great coach in both sports and he is very well-liked by all."
Simmons said he missed basketball a bit when he went to Lovejoy, but the fact he was able to coach made the transition easier. He said he really enjoys this year's Lovejoy Middle team.
"This group is very special. They have great chemistry with each other and I'm glad to go out with this group of players," he said. "I've also been real fortunate to have great assistant coaches."
Even though Simmons won't have to answer the bell, he will miss some aspects of coaching.
"The most rewarding thing about being a coach is being involved with some outstanding young people," he said. "I also enjoyed it when former players came back to see me or even sent e-mails and made phone calls. They don't have to do that, but they do and that feels great."
Simmons said for the first five or six months of being a retiree, he will "do absolutely nothing." He has made some travel plans with his wife Debbie for next year.
"I'm going to see former player Ethan Waters play when Columbia faces Harvard and see Darren Mitchell play at Notre Dame," Simmons said. "I'm looking forward to those trips."