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The Coach's Coach
Lovejoy head man Al Hughes celebrates 31 years on the sidelines in Clayton County

By Rory Sharrock

rsharrock@news-daily.com

Flashback to the year 1977.

Former peanut farmer turned governor, Jimmy Carter, was elected as the 39th president, defeating incumbent Gerald Ford. The sci-fi epic Star Wars was the highest grossing film of the day, pulling in an estimated $270,918,000 at the box office. Slugger Reggie Jackson was dubbed "Mr. October" after smashing four home runs to lead the New York Yankees to a World Series title over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

While these stories were making national headlines, here in the Southern Crescent, the seeds of a historic career were being planted for a future newsmaker as Al Hughes was hired as an assistant football coach at his alma mater, Jonesboro High School.

Cue up the time machine and travel to the present where the world as it was known in 1977 has a few similarities, but overall seems like ancient history.

Carter, who years after his presidency won a Nobel Prize, is no longer involved in politics. The latest installment of the Star Wars saga, The Clone Wars, hit the theaters on Aug. 15. Jackson stands as a Hall of Famer with 563 career home runs.

During all these changes, both locally and nationally, one thing has remained as constant as the sun rising in the east - Al Hughes coaching football in Clayton County.

When the 2008 season kicks off statewide on Friday, Aug. 29, Hughes will mark his 31st year on the sidelines as his Lovejoy Wildcats take on the Mt. Zion Bulldogs at Twelve Oaks Stadium.

This life-long Clayton County resident has witnessed several changes during his tenure from the district's population explosion and creation of new schools, to the free-fall coaching carousel that has become a yearly tradition, either from resignations or firings.

He's seen it all, beat them all and still has room on his plate to feed his competitive hunger with the sweet taste of victory.

Hughes' legendary coaching career began following a successful stint as a linebacker at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala.

After graduating in 1977, he immediately returned home inspired to make a difference in the lives of the county's youths by giving back to the community.

Hughes attributes men like former Jonesboro head coach Weyman Sellers, who led the Cardinals from 1973 to 1981, as a person who helped him reach his full potential and teach others to do the same.

"I was in college playing football, but I had no idea what I wanted to do after college. Somewhere along the line I heard the calling. I knew I had some coaches in high school who meant a lot to me. I felt like if these coaches touched me, maybe I could do the same for somebody some day," said Hughes.

Following Sellers' final season at Jonesboro in 1981, Hughes turned in his resume and application to be the head coach for the Cardinals.

However, his youthful age was a turn off for school officials and he was forced to work as an offensive coordinator where he ran the Wing-T under Joe Pittman.

When Pittman left in 1985, he applied for the head coaching position again, but was turned down in favor of Rick Tomberlin, who led the team from 1986 to 1988.

Throughout all these changes, it would've be easy for Hughes to throw in the towel and move to another school. However, he remained steadfast and in 1989, he finally took control as head coach at Jonesboro.

"When Rick Tomberlin left Jonesboro and I applied for the job and got it, I was very humbled. Being a head coach at your old high school and at the time I was married to my old high school sweetheart - everything seemed to be going well," he said.

This storybook tale began with a bang as Hughes earned a win in his debut, blanking North Clayton 31-0 on Saturday, Sept. 2, 1989 at Tara Stadium.

The following week, Jonesboro went on to beat Forest Park 24-7 to give the Cards a 2-0 mark and a new star was born.

However, due to it's strenuous region with schools like Newnan and LaGrange, combined with the opening of Lovejoy and Mt. Zion, Jonesboro's enrollment fell and Hughes posted consecutive 5-5 seasons. Nevertheless, he still received high praises throughout Clayton County.

"We were in a real tough region with some great teams. We went 5-5 those first two years and for a minute, I thought they were going to make me mayor of Jonesboro. That was great football back then. We played great teams and it was very competitive," he said.

However, during his next three seasons with the Cardinals, from 1991 through 1993, wins were far and few between as he went 1-9, 2-8 and 2-8 before parting ways with the school.

Hughes returned as a head coach with cross-town rival Lovejoy in 2001 and made his presence felt not only in the county, but statewide.

The 2001 Wildcats clawed the competition en route to a 10-2 record and an appearance in the state playoffs, where they lost to Lowndes in the second round.

Lovejoy was a well-balanced machine, averaging 29.1 points per game. The defense was just as dangerous, posing four goose eggs on the scoreboard.

Hughes went on to lead Lovejoy to four-straight playoff runs from 2001 to 2004 and produced multiple collegiate student-athletes, who played football on campuses all over the Southeast.

As the community continued to expand, new schools arose like Mundy's Mill, which pulled resources from Lovejoy's enrollment. As a result, the Wildcats hit a low note, going 3-7 and 4-6 in 2005 and 2006.

Last season, Lovejoy clinched a berth in the playoffs following a late season 41-16 triumph over Westside-Macon and coaching colleague Robert Davis.

In their playoff game against Whitewater, the Wildcats led 14-10 at the half, but fell 23-21. This game was bitter-sweet for Hughes, who lost to his former Jacksonville State teammate turned head coach Amos McCreary.

During his 13 seasons as a head coach at Jonesboro and Lovejoy, Hughes has compiled a 65-64 record with five playoff appearances and four region titles.

He's seen everything coaching high school football has to offer from studying game footage on a film projector, to analyzing scouting reports on DVD and a palm pilot. He's witnessed the changes in recruiting when college reps would come only once a year, to players signing on as juniors.

As the sport evolves with technology and bigger players, the basic formula of winning will stay true to form.

It is with this mindset that men like Hughes will continue to push for the ultimate goal of producing more points than the opponent at the final gun.

"It's not the Xs and Os, it's the 'John'ies and 'Joe's. If your 'John'ies and 'Joe's are better than my 'John'ies and 'Joe's, you got a pretty good chance of beating me. If my 'John'ies and 'Joe's are better than yours, I got a good chance of beating you. We've always tried to get the best athletes out and coach them as best as we can," he said.

Along with his coaching duties, Hughes serves as co-athletic director at Lovejoy with James Stanford, who once worked as an assistant coach under him.