Lean years for the Lions

Foley’s athletic teams have fallen on hard times—what’s the cause, and what’s the cure?

By Derek Belt
Mobile Press-Register
Dec. 26, 2004

FOLEY, ALA. — Michael Ebert stood in the visitor’s dugout at Daphne High School late in a 1999 baseball game, watching intently as his Foley team clung to a fragile one-run lead. It was his second year as the Lions’ baseball coach, and one of his first trips to Daphne’s state-of-the-art diamond facility.

“I was standing there looking around and it just kind of hit me,” said Ebert. “I mean, everything is the best you can buy. They’ve got indoor batting cages, a locker room built into their dugout, names on the back of their jerseys, matching bat bags and state championships everywhere.

“Then I look in their dugout, and the head coach had just won a state championship in Georgia on a team that was ranked in the top 10 in the nation. The assistant coach had won two state championships as a head coach, you had Bernie Carbo in there, who was an ex-professional baseball player, you had another guy who was just the head coach at LeFlore, and you had a kid from the University of Mobile who had just graduated and was helping out.

“I said to myself ‘There’s five guys in that dugout that know more about baseball than I do.’ But it was a 5-4 game and we were winning.”

Unfortunately for the Lions, Daphne stormed back to steal a 6-5 victory that helped steamroll Foley’s chances of making the playoffs later that year. Such is the status quo at Foley High School, where the odds have been stacked sky-high against an athletic program that was once a showcase of stability and success in Southwest Alabama.

And while several Foley squads have seen some recent success–Ebert’s baseball team was a school-record 29-11 and won the Class 6A Region 2 championship last year–the Lions are nowadays forced to play the role of underdog in nearly every sport.

They’re also being asked to overcome unlikely obstacles just to be able to compete at a level equal to that of their 6A counterparts.

State’s smallest 6A school

Foley is currently the smallest 6A school in the state, and could very likely be moved to the 5A ranks for the 2006-07 school year when the Alabama High School Athletic Association reclassifies its members this spring.

The Lions are also suffering from the effects of an overall dip in the school’s enrollment and, according to several coaches interviewed, a general disinterest in the athletic program by its students. Still, the Lions persist.

Though many of Foley’s teams have come upon hard times in recent years, no one involved in the program is willing to offer up any  excuses or point fingers elsewhere. The Lions’ coaching staff realizes the keys to success have been laid out before them; it’s now just a matter of deciding which one to use first.

“Foley has a great tradition in sports,” said Lester Smith, outgoing athletic director and former football coach. “The last several years have been a struggle, but I look at it this way: Foley has won in everything before, and I believe it’s doable again. There’s a tremendous price for success, though, and everybody has to understand that and be willing to make the commitment.”

Smith, who led Foley to 127 wins and five county championships in the 1970s and ’80s, walked off the field in November to an outpouring of love and appreciation, but no wins to his credit in his final season as the Lions’ head coach. Foley finished the 2004 season 0-10, and Smith retired with an 8-32 record in his four-year second stint with the Lions.

One of the primary reasons for Foley’s dip in participation goes back to the opening of Gulf Shores High School in the fall of 1999. Prior to that, school-age kids in both the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach areas were included in Foley’s attendance zone and therefore attended Foley High School.

However, once the split occurred more than 200 students–not including the upperclassmen who opted to stay at FHS for the remainder of their schooling–left Foley for the new high school in Gulf Shores. This drastically cut into the number of potential Foley athletes, a factor many coaches believe the Lions are just now starting to recover from.

Since the split, Foley’s big six sports–football, boys and girls basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball–have won roughly 34 percent of their games and reached the playoffs nine times. In comparison, Gulf Shores has won 39 percent of its games in football, basketball and volleyball since the 1999-2000 school year and has yet to reach a consistent level of success.

The Fairhope-Daphne split

Similar struggles occurred in Fairhope’s athletic program, which had to endure a split of its own when Daphne High School opened in the fall of 1989. Fairhope, a traditional powerhouse in football at the time, went 0-10 its first year following the split and 19-42 in the six years after.

Daphne, on the other hand, went 24-27 its first six years of existence. Now, Daphne may be in line for a similar fate when the new Spanish Fort high school opens its doors next fall and draws a large number of potential athletes away from the Trojans’ highly successful program, which has produced state championships in both football and baseball in the past four years.

“Any time you take numbers away from a school you’re obviously depleting its talent base,” said Baldwin County Athletics Coordinator Chuck Anderson. “Go back and look at Fairhope. They had a few good teams here and there, much like Foley, but the consistency is just starting to return and Daphne’s been open for 15 years.”

No more so has the effects of the split been felt than on Foley’s football team, which has gone 15-46 in the six years since GSHS opened its doors. In the six-year period prior to the split, the Lions were 36-27 and reached the state playoffs three times.

Since then, the number of athletes participating in football–and Foley’s athletic program in general–has been in steady decline and reached a low of 35 players in 2004. More than half of the Lions’ football team played both offense and defense this past year, making flat-out fatigue a contributing factor in their winless season.

“Numbers are huge, but it’s not everything,” said girls basketball coach Tim Lopez, who doubles as an assistant football coach. “There are smaller schools that are doing it at the 2A level and maybe at the 3A level, but when you’re at the 6A level you need 50 or 60 kids to be there every practice and every game. We didn’t have that.”

Fun vs. sacrifice

Observers also said the students at Foley just aren’t that interested in athletics as they once were, whether because of the school’s ongoing struggles, or because of other activities available to them in a community near the Gulf Coast.

Either way, they said the emphasis on sports at Foley just isn’t what it used to be.

“There’s a lot of kids that walk the halls that should be playing,” said boys basketball coach Randy Lee. “We have a lot of great athletes here, but they have jobs or they want to buy a car or they just don’t want to come out. It’s not like a small school in the middle of Alabama where there’s nothing to do; there’s so many other things that kids can do down here. They don’t want to put in the time it takes and make the commitment to play.”

With so many students opting for jobs and fun over athletics and hard work, is there anything that can be done to bring the participation level up? Many feel the numbers game at Foley is the ultimate Catch-22.

“Everybody talks about winning and getting participation up,” said softball coach Chris Bridges. “Well, what comes first: the winning or the participation? It’s like the chicken and the egg.”

Added Lopez: “Every kid wants to be part of a winning team. That’s what they’re desperate for and that’s what they desire. We just need to win a game or two or three or five before they all start coming out.”

Whatever the case may be, the Lions can’t expect to turn things around until they see a dramatic increase in participation and a rededication to the program itself.

If I had to just list one thing, I would say kids have to stay the course,” said Smith. “The kids are the lifeblood of the program, and whether we’re the smallest school in 6A, which we are, or the biggest school in 6A, we’ve got to get kids excited about our program. Until we do that, nothing’s going to change.”

Coaching turnover

Excitement comes from the top down, and it’s up to the coaches at Foley to generate some enthusiasm for their individual programs. However, there has been enough coaching turnover in recent years to detract from the potential build-up of excitement surrounding each sport.

Since the split with Gulf Shores, Foley’s 18 teams have had a total of 49 coaches–an average of 2.7 per team. Only Ebert’s baseball team has had the same coach the entire six-year period since the split, and 11 teams have had three or more coaches.

Coaching turnover is prevalent in any sport at any level, and is probably most common at the high school level. With that said, it’s no secret the comings and goings of coaches has taken a heavy toll on Foley’s athletic program the last few years.

Having to learn a new system under a new coach every other year can be a deterrent to kids deciding whether they want to play sports. And while coaching turnover can’t always be avoided in today’s day and age, having the same coach in the same place year after year is an integral and often forgotten piece of the puzzle.

“If you have continuity and you have a familiar face, that’s a great way to build a program,” said Lopez. “It would be nice to know your coach is going to be there your freshman year, your sophomore year and, most importantly, your senior year. My hat’s off to Coach Ebert for sticking it out. He’s part of the community now, and someday I want to get there, too.”

Ebert, who will begin his ninth year coaching Foley baseball this spring, has enjoyed a good deal more success than many of his short-term peers. In eight seasons as the Lions’ leading man, he is 131-132 and has reached the state playoffs three of the last four years.

“I think the biggest thing in baseball right now is the stability of eight years,” said Ebert, who also coaches cross country and is an assistant football coach. “I’ve known these kids since they were little. I know their personalities, I know their tempers, and I know their parents. They know what to expect of me, and it’s passed on from team to team what you’re expected to do as a Foley baseball player.”

In the end, no matter what the situation, it all comes down to winning. And even though Foley’s big six have struggled mightily in recent years, there are several teams that have powered through the tough times and produced some knockout seasons.

Foley’s cross country program, for instance, has won a combined 13 county championships since 1994 and placed in the top 10 at the state meet nine times since then. The Lions’ track and field program has also enjoyed some recent success, winning a combine three county championships and finishing second four times since 2000.

Even then, Ebert said cross country has “without a doubt” suffered from the split with Gulf Shores and is still feeling the effects of having four coaches in four years.

Time for a new start

Many believe the talent to win exists at Foley; it’s simply a matter of harnessing it and developing it on the field. That, however, is just as much the kids’ responsibility as it is the coaches’.

“We’ve been celebrating what we did 10 years ago for so long,” said volleyball coach Stella Martin. “I think everybody’s ready to start something new. It does take time, but it also takes the right people in the right places to make that happen. We all need to get together for Foley and make it happen.”

Only two of the Lions’ 18 coaches are currently in their first year, meaning Foley is looking good as far as coaching continuity for the time being. As for the rest of the obstacles, the Lions are just getting started.

“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to coach, football-wise, at a Vigor or a Bay Minette, somewhere where there’s just tremendous athletes,” said Ebert. “Baseball-wise, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to coach at a Robertsdale or a Satsuma or a Daphne where they just raise these kids as ball players.

“Then I think to myself, ‘Nah, that’d be too easy.’ This is much more challenging.”