Messenger file photo by Chris McCarthy
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Matt Harris is leaving Sand Mountain for Shinbone Ridge.
The Sardis High School assistant football coach recently was named head football coach at Gaston. Harris replaces Swane Morris, who resigned earlier this year to become an assistant coach at Pierce County High School in Blackshear, Ga.
Harris (pictured above) coached the Sardis offensive line for five years before assuming offensive coordinator duties this past season.
“It’s very exciting to get this opportunity,” said Harris, a 1999 West End graduate. “The tradition at Gaston has always been strong, and coach Morris has done a tremendous job over there. I went to a small school, so working in a small community is something that I’ll enjoy.”
Gaston High Principal Tammy George said that Harris was “the total package” when asked what set Harris apart from the other candidates.
“We put Matt through a pretty rigorous interview process, and he seemed to be the Godly man and the teacher that we wanted for our students,” she said. “Matt’s whole thing is that he wants to work with our entire athletic program, not just football. He wants to be that cohesive factor that pulls together all of our athletic teams.
“As far as expectations, one of the things that Matt mentioned was that his team must maintain at least a 2.5 grade average, and if students do not meet their responsibilities in the classroom, they will spend some “quality” time with him. That told me that Matt wants his players to be more than just athletes.
“I was also impressed by the fact that Matt e-mailed a letter to all the players that introduced him and his family and talked about his expectations. So we’re very excited about what Matt will bring to our school and to our community.”
Harris is well aware of Gaston’s reputation as fielding a competitive team year in and year out. In 16 years at Gaston, Morris guided the Bulldogs to a 100-71 record and made the state playoffs 12 times, including a state semifinal berth in 2008 and state quarterfinals appearances in 2003 and 2009. He was named Etowah County Schools Coach of the Year in 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2008 and Class 2A Coach of the Year in 2013.
“The first thing I want to do is build solid relationships with the kids and my staff and get to a place where we can all trust one another,” said Harris. “They’ll find out that I mean what I say and say what I mean.”
Harris also plans to implement a school-wide strength and conditioning program.
“It’s not just about one sport; my approach to both coaching and teaching is helping kids become the best they can be,” he said.
In addition, Harris will encourage his players to participate in other sports during the winter and spring seasons in order to stay in condition and stretch their horizons.
“That was something that [Sardis head football coach] Gene Hill was always talking about. High school is all about getting to experience new things and challenging yourself, and whatever sport you pass up, you’re losing a chance to learn more about yourself and develop friendships, so I think it’s incredibly important for these kids to participate in as many things as they can.”
As far as community support is concerned, Harris pointed to the fact that the home stands at Captain Bill Boyd Stadium has been at or near capacity for every game, even during the past few years when the Bulldogs were struggling.
Matt Harris“At schools like Gaston and West End, even during the bad times, football is important to people. It matters to them and they care about it, so win or lose, they’re going to show up and support their kids or grandkids. Having the backing of the community, no matter what happens on the field, is as important as anything else to being successful.”
Harris played for Randy Hallmark at West End during his freshman, sophomore and junior years and for current West End Principal Butch Dixon his senior year. From 1990-97, Hallmark’s Patriots went 64-26, won four region titles and reached the state playoffs six times. West End posted three straight undefeated regular seasons from 1993-1995, going 34-3 record during that span.
“The biggest thing Coach Hallmark taught me was the importance of being mentally tough and push yourself as far as you could. He taught us that when things go wrong, you’ve just got to pick yourself up and keep doing your job.”
Hill believes Harris is ready to buckle up in the driver’s seat of a high school football program.
“It’s always been a goal of Matt’s to be a head coach, and we’re happy for him and we hope he does well. He did a great job for us and our kids really responded to him. He’s a big weight room and conditioning guy, and he did a lot of stuff for us in those areas. Matt’s a hard worker who puts the time in, and I expect him to do the same [at Gaston]. Matt will put in a good foundation and build that program from the ground up.”