When Oneida head coach Tony Lambert invited Derek Keeton to deliver his team’s weekly devotional, the subject and timing couldn’t have been more fitting.

Besides being a deacon at Lambert’s church, White Rock Baptist in Huntsville, Keeton — a former standout basketball player at Scott High who went on to excel at the collegiate level — is also an Oneida football father. His oldest son, Danner, a sophomore, is the kickoff specialist for the Indians. So, when he was asked by Lambert to attend Thursday’s practice for the purpose of bringing the team its weekly devotional, he had a message for the players: “It’s not about me.” 

The next evening, Oneida defeated Bledsoe County 10-0. It was the 76th win of Lambert’s tenure as the Indians’ head coach, moving him ahead of Ben Daniel and into second place on the school’s all-time wins list. Only Jim May won more.

Asked about the accomplishment after the game, Lambert downplayed its significance and echoed what Keeton had told his team the previous evening: “It’s not about me.”

“Derek Keeton’s devotional could not have been at a more fitting time. Because it’s not about me,” Lambert said. “It’s about these kids. It’s about this program. It’s about the players through the years. It’s about these coaches. It’s about our support staff.”

Lambert — who, like Keeton, is a Scott High alumnus; he was a part of the school’s 1984 district championship team — came to Oneida from Anderson County in 2005. There, he had been Larry Kerr’s defensive coordinator. At Oneida, he was Jim Burchfield’s defensive coordinator, with a promise of being promoted to head coach after a transition period. Two years later, he took the reins of the program. Two years after that, he guided the Indians to their first undefeated regular season in nearly a decade and an appearance in the Class A semifinals. 

When Kerr retired and Anderson County came calling after that 2008 season, Lambert resigned after several weeks of wrestling with the decision. But he wasn’t back with the Mavericks’ program for long before realizing it wasn’t for him. He wound up back on Oneida’s staff for one season as defensive coordinator under John Brewster. From there, he was defensive coordinator under Keith Shannon for one year at Scott High, then served as the Highlanders’ head coach for one year before returning to Oneida to replace Brewster in 2012. 

As he closes in on the finish of his ninth year at the helm of the Oneida program, Lambert has a long ways to go to catch May, who had 140 wins when he collapsed on the sideline amid a game in 1997, a season that would see the Indians eventually advance to the Class A semifinals before finishing their season. Maybe he’ll stay at Oneida long enough to eventually surpass May’s win total. Maybe he won’t. Either way, he says it doesn’t matter.

“I honestly don’t keep up with it,” Lambert said. “You’d have to ask Robert Wright (Oneida’s wide receivers coach) what my record is. He keeps up with it a lot more than I do.” 

Lambert said he is just proud to be a part of the Indians’ program.

“Oneida has a rich tradition,” he said. “There are a lot of people across the state who know a lot about Oneida football and have for a long time.”

From The Pressbox is a weekly sports column written by Independent Herald editor Ben Garrett.