As I wrote about Keith Shannon’s accomplishments as a head football coach last week, my mind flashed back almost 10 years, to conversations with former Scott High head coach Davey Gillum in the field house at Highlander Stadium.
Gillum, who coached Scott High for three seasons before heading back to his alma mater, Anderson County, spoke more than once of culture-building. To get to the next level, to convince athletes who were “walking the halls” and not playing football, as Gillum put it, a culture change was needed.
Fast-forward to 2017, and culture change has occurred. Postseason appearances have gone from a dream to an expectation for the Scott High football program. Players and fans alike expect to get to the playoffs each and every year, and have gotten there seven of the past nine years — including six of eight years with Shannon at the helm.
Shannon was a program-builder long before he came to Scott County. In four years as head coach at his alma mater, he led Sunbright to three playoff appearances, including an undefeated regular season and region championship in 2000.
There were critics, when Shannon was hired by then-Director of Schools Sharon Wilson, who said he left Sunbright too soon — that he saw the talent supply running a little short in 2001 and bolted north on U.S. Hwy. 27.
It was an unfair assault on Shannon’s work ethic as a head coach. After seven seasons as the Highlanders’ defensive coordinator, Shannon got his opportunity to lead the program when Gillum left, and he proved to be a rock-solid hand of guidance for the Scott program for almost a decade. Except for a single season in 2011, when he stepped aside to let Tony Lambert coach the team that he had helped to the district championship as a player in 1984, he has been the one consistent with Highlander football.
If Shannon wanted to get out when the going got tough, he had his chance in 2012. It was a dismal season for the Highlanders, who lost their first nine games before limping to a 26-21 win over wounded rival Stone Memorial in the season finale. Shannon stuck with it, and led the Highlanders to what was arguably the greatest era in the school’s history, beginning with back-to-back seven-win seasons in 2013 and 2014.
Scott High had made only four playoff appearances prior to Shannon’s tenure. The Highlanders would have made the postseason more often during the Jack Diggs era if the playoffs had been structured differently back then, but it was what it was. Under Shannon’s guidance, Scott went to the playoffs six times, had four seasons with at least seven wins, and won eight games for the first time since Bill Hall’s Highlander squad did it in 1999.
The culture change included a battle-all-comers attitude that started with Shannon. As head coach, he refused to make excuses about the Highlanders’ tough region. Instead, he insisted that his team was excited to play against the best teams in the State of Tennessee, looked forward to showcasing their skills against opponents like Alcoa and CAK, and would not back away from anybody.
The Highlanders never beat Alcoa or CAK, but they won a lot of their games that weren’t against those schools, and went to the playoffs year after year, because they displayed the mindset that their coaches drilled week after week.
Shannon would be the first to say that the Highlanders’ success in recent years was as much about fortuitous timing as anything; that it had more to do with Jimmys and Joes than anything. To be sure, there have been a lot of good players to put on the scarlet and silver in recent years, and there’s no denying that TSSAA’s experiment with playoff subclasses worked in Scott’s favor. But as much as anything else, Scott High won because of a coach who demanded excellence.
Shannon was more substance than style; never flashy, soft-spoken away from the field, with a workmanlike approach to the game. That isn’t a style that would necessarily fit everywhere. But it worked well at Scott High. It helped instill a culture of winning. And it earned him the respect of his peers in the coaching industry.
Replacing Shannon will be a tall task for Scott High.