When Oneida takes the field at Harriman on Friday, Tony Lambert will mark his 100th game as the Indians’ head coach.
The milestone places Lambert, who has been at Oneida in some capacity since 2005, with the exception of one season, in elite company. Only two other coaches in the program’s storied history have coached more games — Jim May and Ben Daniel.
Daniel coached at Oneida from 1962 to 1971, with a record of 75-26-2 (.728 winning percentage). May was at Oneida from 1981 until his death in 1997, with a record of 140-55 (.718). His tenure included a state championship in 1992, and four appearances in the state semifinals. Lambert currently has a record of 73-26 (.737) and one state semifinal appearance.
Lambert is shy about talking about the numbers. He’s two wins away from becoming the Indians’ second all-time winningest coach and, in terms of winning percentage, is at the top of the list by a slim margin. But those aren’t facts he’s likely to acknowledge. The numbers, he says, can be left to the people who talk about the game; his job is just to coach his kids.
“Those are two fine men, two fine football coaches,” Lambert said of May and Daniel. “Just to be honest with you, it’s an honor to be mentioned in the same breath as them as football coaches.”
Lambert, who graduated from Scott High in 1985 and as a senior helped lead the Highlanders to their first district championship in 1984, cut his teeth as a coach with Bill Hall and the Oneida Middle School program before joining the staff of Larry Kerr at Anderson County.
Lambert returned to Oneida in 2005 after a long stint as Kerr’s defensive coordinator. He was defensive coordinator at Oneida for two seasons under Jim Burchfield before taking over as head coach in 2007. His 2008 season saw the Indians win their first 13 games before falling to Trousdale County in the state semifinals.
When Kerr retired at Anderson County after the 2008 season, it was assumed that the Mavericks would knock on Lambert’s door, and it was also assumed that Lambert would have a difficult time saying no. Both assumptions were correct, and Lambert left Oneida to return to Anderson County. But after a short time on the job, he realized the new assignment wasn’t for him. By that point, Lambert’s offensive line coach — Oneida alumnus John Brewster, who is currently in the same role at Knox Catholic — had been named his successor. Lambert served as defensive coordinator under Brewster for one season before making the leap to his alma mater, Scott High, in 2010.
Lambert was defensive coordinator for Keith Shannon for one season, then Shannon turned the reins over to Lambert in 2011. In his lone season as head coach in Huntsville, Lambert guided the Highlanders to a 5-5 regular season record and a berth in the state playoffs.
Following that season, Oneida dismissed Brewster and made a strong push to bring Lambert back. Again, it was assumed that Lambert would have a difficult time saying no. And, again, the assumption was correct.
Seven seasons later, Lambert is entering his 100th game as head coach of the Indians. It comes one week after Oneida honored May by revealing new signage on its stadium, which was named Jim May Stadium last year.
“I appreciate what he did for this community and what he did for this football program, and what he did for this ol’ boy right here as a football coach,” Lambert said of May. “We think we’re trying to carry on that philosophy that Jim May had, that you can do things right and still win.”
May’s son, Jimmy May, is Lambert’s offensive coordinator.
“I ask Jimmy all the time, do you think your dad would think we’re doing it right?” Lambert said. “And Jimmy will say, ‘I think he would.’
“To be here 100 games at Oneida as a football coach is an honor,” Lambert added. “And I ain’t done.”
Highlanders are close: “There are no moral victories,” says Scott High coach Josh Terry, “but at the same time we were so close (against Stone Memorial and Clinton) that if we can just, as a unit and as a team, me and everybody else, just clean up one or two things in either of those games it’s a different situation right now.”
Terry’s sentiment echoes what this column concluded last week: that the Highlanders were inches away from being 2-0 instead of 0-2 (now 2-1 instead of 0-3).
“That’s the way football is,” Terry said. “It’s unforgiving. It’s a game of inches and it’s a game of opportunities, whether you take advantage of them or not.”
As last week’s column pointed out, everyone is familiar with the adage about ifs and buts, candy and nuts and merry Christmases, and last year’s Highlander team was also very close to having good things happen — but those good things never materialized.
Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the toughest part of the Scott High’s schedule is in the rearview mirror, although there are certainly no slouches waiting to face the Highlanders the rest of the way, and preseason goals of a winning season and a playoff berth are still obtainable.
“We’re pretty close going forward,” Terry said. “We’ve got some games down the stretch where I think we might be able to turn a corner if our guys can get that look in their eye in practice and compete the way they did this week.”
From the Pressbox is a weekly sports column by Independent Herald editor Ben Garrett.