Photo: Southside High School head football coach Gary Nelson introduces his family during a meet and greet session last Sunday (Feb. 22) at the SHS library. Pictured with Nelson are wife Stefanie, son Sam and daughter Lucy. (Cole Frederick/Messenger)
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Although new Southside High football coach Gary Nelson has not yet conducted a practice, he already has made his vision for the program abundantly clear.
Everyone and anyone associated with Southside football will be committed to the “Panther Way.”
“The Panther Way is based upon the idea that we control the things we can control,” Nelson said. “Success is the byproduct of doing things the right way. So, there’s either the wrong way or the Panther Way.”
In a meet and greet session with Southside players, parents and the community on Sunday, Feb. 23, Nelson defined the new mantra and explained what it means in six different steps.
“The first thing we will do is have fun,” Nelson said. “The next thing we’ll do is be a family, and as a family we’ll learn to navigate and overcome adversity.”
Additionally, Nelson said he wants his team to practice selflessness and get to the point where they value their teammates over themselves. He also said they need to learn to dominate the moment.
“Lastly, we want to leave a legacy,” he said. “We want our players to commit to the right things and leave Southside better than they found it. That applies to every choice a kid makes. Whether that’s on social media, in the classroom or in the community. We want that to apply to every facet of life.”
Nelson was officially hired on Tuesday, Feb. 4, and will begin at Southside on Monday, March 16. He has been the head coach at Montgomery Academy for the last four seasons, where he compiled a 30-16 record and guided the Eagles to four straight playoff appearances in Class 3A.
Before officially taking over as head coach, Nelson was associate head coach for the Eagles from 2013 through 2015. In the previous two seasons before joining the staff, the Eagles were 3-17. He also served as an assistant coach at Hooper Academy for three seasons before joining the Montgomery Academy staff.
Nelson graduated from Alma Bryant High School near Mobile in 2005 and played football at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. Nelson played several different positions for the Hawks, which he said allowed him to start developing knowledge that would later benefit him as a coach.
“I played defensive end for a season and tight end for two years,” Nelson said. “Then, I had an injury that hurt my mobility and moved to offensive tackle. I didn’t get to play my senior year but being in three different meeting rooms allowed me to develop as a coach. I got in the booth on Saturdays while I was hurt. So, I learned a lot about the game from a coaching angle.”
Nelson’s class helped turn the Huntingdon program into a consistent winner under head coach Mike Turk. In 2008, Nelson’s class helped the Hawks set a then-school record for wins and total yards in a season.
After spending over a decade in the Montgomery area, Nelson and his wife Stefanie decided it was a time for a change and began looking for a community that revolved more around the school as opposed to a bigger city.
“The biggest thing we were looking for is a community that comes together around the high school,” Nelson said. “There are a lot of opportunities for people in Montgomery that don’t necessarily revolve around the school system. You can feel that sense of community when you go into Rainbow City and Southside for our kids.”
From a football perspective, Nelson thought the Southside job was attractive because he believed the players were hungry for success.
“From a professional level, I thought it was a very attractive job,” he said. “Coming off of a 2-8 season, most would see it as a red flag. But the support system and coaching staff is in place to flip the paradigm. When I peeled back some layers back and did some investigating, there’s a little more to it than meets the eye.”
Nelson plans to hit the ground running when he starts in March and he has a handful of short-term goals he wants to accomplish before the 2020 season begins.
“We have to engage community a little better,” he said. “That includes faculty, staff, administration, parents and players. We have to change the way the players and program are viewed. This is not a place for kids to hide from doing the right thing. We have to compete in June and July. With OTA’s and 7 on 7’s, we need 90 percent of our roster at everything we do this summer.”
Despite a two-win campaign in 2019 and Southside moving up to Class 6A this fall, Nelson is excited about the talent returning. Offensively, the Panthers return almost every contributor, and Nelson said he has been watching film so he can build around the strengths of his players. Nelson plans to incorporate a lot of 12 personnel with his offense, which involves one running back and two tight ends.
“You have to build the offense around your strengths,” he said. “You first have to ask what the quarterback can do. Then, what can the offensive linemen do? Then you match that with playmakers and work on how to get them the ball.
“Michael Rich is an incredibly talented quarterback. We have to give him chances to win games. I like what I’ve seen from Hayden Robertson at tight end, and Hayden Fry can help us at tight end. Carnel Davis is a warrior at running back. We have all seven or eight offensive linemen back. We have two receivers back in Cody (Roberts) and Aulden (Battles), and we need to get them on the same side of the field together and put defenses in a bind.”
Defensively, Nelson wants to get back to the basics and build from there.
“Defensively, we have good players,” he said. “We have to work to be more technically sound. We have to simplify what we’re doing and invest our time early at our base defensive set and adding to it as we learn. On the backend, we have the capability to play some quarters coverage.”
Nelson plans to devote more time and attention to special teams, noting that area needs to be a strength of the team next season.
“In kicking game, we are going to have an identity,” he said. “We are going to play a lot harder. You have to be sound in the kicking game… It has to be an advantage. Everything hinges on the weight room and giving more in the summer than they’ve ever given before.”
Nelson said there are two things from his coaching career that he is most proud of so far, and the top achievement he mentioned did not happen on the field.
“My quarterback last year, Trey Lindsey, is like my son,” Nelson said. “He walked on at Auburn and made the team. We nominated him for Jimmy Hitchcock Award, which is a YMCA award that awards the top Christian leader in athletics in the area. “Trey won the award. He was on stage and accepted the award and alluded to every core value our program says we are about. If you ask me if it’s a successful season, you really have to ask me in 30 years to see if [the players] latched on to the values.”
On the field, Nelson said he was most proud of the fact that his team only lost back-to-back games once in his tenure. He said that means a team never wastes an opportunity to learn from a loss and speaks to the strength of the program.
Nelson said his team has to learn how to compete before they learn how to win, and that will be the biggest step in his first season. Eventually, he wants the program to get to the point where players can learn how to handle winning and ultimately sustain excellence.
“My goal is for Southside to become the best place to play football and go to school,” he said. “Some places have the best schools. Some places are the best at football. I want to be the best at both.”