Photo by Derrick Mahone
Given time, many think that current Forest Park coach Don Williams can turn the once-proud program back into a winner. This is Williams’ first head football coaching job.
Larry Mortensen is entering his second year as the Forest Park athletic director.
But his 24-year career in Clayton County athletics — including stints at Morrow, Lovejoy and Jonesboro — has qualified him to diagnose the losing trend that Panther football currently finds itself in.
“Lack of consistency in coaching staffs and just not having the same person in place has been one of the biggest issues,” Mortensen said. “You’ve got to have someone in place to implement a plan, develop it and see where it leads in order to be successful.”
But Mortensen isn’t ready to put the entire blame on his current school as to why that hasn’t happened.
“Unfortunately, Clayton County as a whole has gone through a whole lot of changes over the last 10 to 15 years, both as a county and as a school system,” he said. “Some of that has definitely affected our program.”
Mortensen cited the county’s population shifts that occurred shortly after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the county’s recent housing crunch and the school system’s loss of accreditation in 2008 as factors that not only have injured Forest Park’s athletic programs, but probably a few of the county’s other schools as well.
And while many will point solely to Forest Park’s losing ways — the school is coming off of its 11th straight losing season — as the main reason why some of the city’s best middle school athletes opt out of taking their next steps at Forest Park, Mortensen believes otherwise.
“I just don’t agree that it’s all about the recent tradition,” he said.
“Clayton County has just been a very transient area in general. And we’ve lost more than a few athletes to other counties because of it. I think now, with the accreditation no longer an issue, you’re starting to see an influx of students and families coming back to the county overall, and not just to Forest Park. I think our county is definitely headed back in the right direction.”
Former head coach Mike Parris (1992-95) , who led the Panthers during the Hines Ward era and coached at the school for a total of nine years, has kept a watchful eye on Forest Park football, as well as the county — even from his perch atop the Jackson High School program.
He agreed that the instability of the county has trickled into the core of Panther football and has nestled there.
“I think the biggest thing is coaching stability there seems to be awful,” Parris said. “I don’t know what that is, but Clayton County is definitely a county in transition, I would say.”
The numbers speak for themselves.
Forest Park sits in the middle of a 12-year stretch that has produced a 23-96 record with no playoff appearances and a string of nine coaching changes.
“You look at the [Clayton County] school that’s had the longevity and it’s of course Lovejoy,” Parris said. “Al Hughes has been there. Those kids know what to expect.”
Not since Bob Smith’s six-year run from1997-2002 has Forest Park had a coach that has remained for more than two consecutive years.
Some of it has been coaches being fired. Some have voluntarily left to take other positions, while others got caught in the snag of securing Clayton County teaching contracts.
Whatever the case, former Panther Jamarco Clark is convinced that if the coaches don’t stick around, the losing will.
“The coaches aren’t getting enough time,” said the 2009 graduate and current Iowa Wesleyan football player. “Change doesn’t happen overnight. The seniors of this year are on their fifth head coach in four years. That really doesn’t make sense.”
Don Williams is the latest to take his shot at restoring the program.
Williams was hired last year by out going athletic director John Patterson to take over as head coach of the wrestling team. The former Lovejoy and Eagles Landing wrestling coach led Forest Park to its first-ever area championship.
“I did my homework on this guy, and he is phenomenal,” principal Derrick Manning said.
Mortensen needed no convincing that Williams — a devout Christian — was the right man to mold football players on and off the field.
“I’ve known of him and his faith for years,” Mortensen said.
“My only concern was why he waited so long to pursue his first football job. But the answer he gave me was the right one. He told me he wanted to take care of his family first. It turned out to be the right timing for him and us. He has an attitude that will carry over to the kids on the field.”
One of Williams’ immediate priorities will no doubt have to be creating a buzz around his program that entices Forest Park’s rising young talent to stay in Forest Park.
Williams will have to come with a strong sales pitch and some results on the field to buck the current trend.
During Clark’s senior year at Forest Park, nearby Babb Middle School won the county championship, and Forest Park Middle had a good season.
But because the high school didn’t produce on the field, it didn’t attract any of that talent.
“Those guys were supposed to be the next great things at Forest Park,” Clark said. “Half of them don’t even attend Forest Park High School.”
Changing the perception at the school will be a big chore, and Manning is keeping a positive attitude.
“We honestly want Forest Park High School to be a program where students and student-athletes will be asking and waiting in line to come here,” Manning said. “Any player who wants to play at the next level should be able to come and get what they need from our program.”
And as far as Manning is concerned, the last coaching change will be the last coaching change for quite some time.
“Our school, our administration, our community and our alumni are all committed to sticking with Williams and letting him see this process through,” he said.