Photo by Derrick Mahone
Al Hughes coaches practice from a golf cart, thanks to knee problems, but has left lasting footprints on the Lovejoy program since taking over in 2001.
If Clayton County had a Mount Rushmore or a Stone Mountain of athletics, surely Al Hughes’ face would be chiseled in granite somewhere on it.
He is county-born, county-bred and his parents still live in the same house in which he was raised. If the county is to get its first football state championship since 1987 when Lovejoy takes on Tucker Friday night at the Georgia Dome, it’s altogether fitting that Hughes will be sitting on the sideline at the controls when it happens.
Now 56, Hughes has been coaching in the county for 35 years. His first state championship, in wrestling, came fairly quickly in 1981 at Jonesboro, his alma mater. Back then, in his green days, he figured winning state was fairly commonplace.
“Like all coaches, you think you can win it every year,” he said Wednesday.
Five years as head coach at Jonesboro, in which his team’s best record was 5-5, taught him otherwise. He went to Lovejoy as an assistant to C.W. Campbell the following season.
“When I got to Lovejoy, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Hughes said. “I’d never seen so many good athletes in my life.”
Campbell started the program at Lovejoy, but Hughes is the one who has nursed it to its current status.
Said Hughes, “We met with the kiddies, we told them he had created a monster ... and now it was my job to try and feed it.”
Campbell was comfortable recommending Hughes as his successor.
“He motivates kids,” Campbell said. “He’s a tactician, an individual who’s very dedicated — as you have to be — and he had the administrative skills to make sure the job gets done.”
As a result, Hughes became the county’s winningest coach when the Wildcats defeated Ware County 14-0 in the quarterfinals, passing former Riverdale coach Bill Kennedy’s 94 victories. After last week’s 21-6 semifinal victory over Warner Robins, Hughes is 96-78 at Lovejoy and Jonesboro.
Hughes couldn’t have done it without the aforementioned heavenly athletes. They kept coming and even now, years after they’ve departed Lovejoy, stay in contact with Hughes.
“That’s one of the reasons you do this — the friendships and the lives you influence,” Hughes said. “It’s definitely not for the money. ... I’m proud to be able to do this while I’m still young enough to enjoy it.”
He sits on the sidelines, rather than stands, thanks to double knee-replacement surgery that didn’t work out the way the recovery was diagrammed in the medical huddle a couple years ago. Hughes fell and ripped open the recovering wounds — “to the titanium and the teflon,” he said — and hasn’t been able to rehabilitate them properly since.
So he sits on the sidelines with protection that would make the Secret Service proud. Two players and a manager flank him at all times on the field. If the action comes near Hughes on the sideline, they spring into motion.
“One grabs my arm, the other grabs my chair and throws his body into the melee,” Hughes said. “We’ve got it all choreographed.”
He would love to be able to protect Clayton County’s image as easily. He can take the teasing — his school has been referred to by others as “the University of Lovejoy” since Jackie Green’s days at rival Mount Zion. But the county has endured more serious disparagings — not having won a state championship in 24 years, being referred to as a haven for soft football and even its school system briefly losing its accreditation.
So what is happening with the Wildcats now is welcomed in more ways than one.
“Al has been in Clayton County all his life — played at Jonesboro, went to Jacksonville State in Alabama and came back,” said former Clayton County athletics director Bob Brannon. “It’s easy to recognize the loyalty he has to the school system and Clayton County.”
Said Hughes, “I’ve seen Clayton County go through a lot through the years. Clayton County has taken a black eye over the years. I’m just pleased to be a part of something that can make a positive impact and I hope we can make a positive impact for the county.”
Whatever happens, Hughes has already left a lasting mark on Lovejoy.
“A program having only two coaches in 23 years is pretty phenomenal,” Campbell said. “Doesn’t happen too often.”
Campbell has been working in Fayette County as its director of safety, discipline and athletics since 2003. But he’ll be at the Dome on Friday, he and his wife, donning whatever old Lovejoy gear they had from back in the day.
“I hope he gets his first (football) state championship,” Campbell said. “Those kids who are playing don’t know all those they’re playing for. A lot of people who wore the Carolina blue and Navy blue will remember all the bumps and bruises they suffered, playing the Griffins, the Newnans. They’ll remember seeing a lot of homecomings and now they’ll be able to see the Georgia Dome.”