When asked beforehand about his team's season opener at Soddy-Daisy, Red Bank football coach Tim Daniels winced and replied, "If we can hang with them in the first half, we might have a chance."
The first half was critical because Daniels kept his word and held several players out. They were paying their dues for failing to fulfill obligations on academic contracts they and their parents had signed. Some missed a series, others a quarter, a half or even the entire game. There were a couple that stayed on the sideline with Daniels for the Lions' first two games.
It was a football version of tough love, and other public school teams are doing similar things.
Red Bank administrators, coaches and boosters became tired of seeing athletes with the talent to play in college being denied the chance because of academic shortcomings. Daniels had worked on it since he arrived more than 10 years ago, trying such incentives as post-practice bear crawls and extra-effort running.
"We had guys doing 600 yards of bear crawls in a minute and a half," the coach said. "A bear crawl is a pretty miserable thing, but it wasn't accomplishing anything. The one thing we hadn't done was take away playing time."
That is no longer the case. At a mandatory players/parents meeting, Daniels introduced the new Red Bank code for football and it tied directly to academics. Players had to meet academic expectations. His decision, endorsed by school principal Gail Chuy, was met with resounding applause at the meeting.
The process didn't start and end with report cards last spring. It is ongoing. Players who are academically at risk get a sheet daily that their teachers are asked to complete and the players must turn in before each practice.
Daniels or assistant coach Tyler Rich checks all players' grades at least once per week. The code also covers discipline for any player who winds up with a detention, Saturday school or suspension.
"We had never had a problem getting kids eligible to play by TSSAA standards, but we had to do something about raising grades across the board," Daniels said. "We'll be looking at the first report card shortly -- right in the meat of our district schedule -- and anybody that doesn't have C's or better is going to miss playing time."
At East Ridge, coach Mike Martin calls his contract a "do right" agreement.
"We have our players and [their] parents sign a 'do right' policy that covers everything from our expectations to academics to behavior on and off the field," he said. "I am very fortunate because the faculty here always keeps me updated on the behavior and academic progress of our players."
The coach said he hears both bad and good from faculty and added that the teachers have a say on Friday night playing time for athletes who disrupt the classroom setting.
Even study halls are no longer a forgotten premise.
"We have them on Wednesday nights for any student who has a grade below a C, and they remain in study hall until the grade changes for the good," first-year Central coach John Allen said.
He has an even more stringent approach to drug and alcohol abuse.
"We sign a contract. If they are caught using, they're done," Allen said.
Most coaches feel the responsibility to nurture players' academic advancement.
"We started the contracts this year. Times are changing and we need to change with them," Polk County coach Derrick Davis said.
"We check grades and have progress reports, and we make sure that anyone that needs help in class gets it," Bradley Central coach Damon Floyd said. "Our teachers have always helped with any student that needed tutoring or needed to make up work."
Not every program employs player contracts. Baylor coach Phil Massey hasn't gone that route, but his players have team-enforced academic responsibilities.
"Our players are required to go to 'extra help' every Wednesday. It is extra time before class to spend with a teacher."
Floyd might have a mental checklist but he has one actual team rule.
"Do the right thing," he said. "I don't read a list of team rules. I do tell [the players] our one team rule. We talk about representing themselves, their family, the team and the school, and we talk about showing class and what having character means."
Few coaches will tolerate poor behavior or lack of academic progress.
"Those things are just non-negotiables for us," Ooltewah coach Shannon Williams said. "We talk with our players about those things and we hold them accountable."
Howard coach Michael Calloway said if the Tigers have issues they are first handled by the dean of students.
"Whatever punishment he hands out I have no problem with, but there also will be punishment at practice that day, too," Calloway said.
Soddy-Daisy coach Kevin Orr has stringent guidelines, and he or one of his assistants monitor academic progress with the help of Soddy-Daisy's faculty.
"We implemented a study hall period after school and before practice, and the faculty have backed us in a tremendous way," Orr said. "My policy is that [players] must carry A's and B's. C's are not allowed. C's represent average."
Soddy-Daisy principal John Maynard believes the football coaches are setting a great precedent.
"The study hall has been valuable. Teachers appreciate it when coaches place an emphasis on studying, homework, and grades," Maynard said. "Coach Orr sends out emails to the faculty asking for feedback on his players. The teachers all know that if they are having discipline or academic problems with one of his players that they can contact him or one of his assistant's and they will support each other in trying to get the player on track.
"There is a strong correlation between extracurricular activities and academics. Students really want to be in football or JROTC, or band, or other sports and they are willing to practice and put in the hours and still keep up their grades. It is important for coaches to work closely with teachers so everyone keeps the demands on the student in balance."
The mindset seems to be spreading that athletes need to do more than the minimum.
"It isn't enough for kids to just pass," Chuy said. "We've had kids trying to get into college who had the talent but couldn't find a college because their grades weren't good enough."
Monitoring is now a year-round duty for all of Red Bank's coaches, "and it doesn't just mean passing a nine weeks [period] but being successful all the time," Chuy said. "If there's a bad report from a faculty member during the week, players know they're going to lose playing time."
She already has noticed a change.
"I see a big difference. Our players are focusing more on academics, so their behavior is better," she said. "Athletes are held to a higher standard here. They're representing our school, so they're going to be passing their courses and behaving, and the coaches have really endorsed that philosophy."
Chuy has had conversations with several of Red Bank's athletes.
"I have told them I'm not doing my job if you're a superstar and can't get into [college] because you don't have the grades. That's a failure for me, a failure for the school and a failure for you," she said.
There is a no-excuse policy in football, and Daniels has cut to the chase with his players.
"Quit calling your girlfriend all night or hanging out. Do your homework and go to bed," he said. "If we can be those people that hold their feet to the fire and it allows them to advance, whether it's graduation or moving on to a two-year or four-year school -- by us raising the bar this way it contributes to academic side and the athletic side of the school."
As for his program, Daniels is happier than he has been in a while.
"We feel that academics [success] is a must," he said. "I thought I might get 'tomatoed' at the player/parent meeting, but the idea was received extremely wel. It is for the betterment of the kids. In hindsight I wish I had done it sooner. The idea now is to keep raising the bar."
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...