New Garinger High coach Jeff Caldwell admits he has a tough task this season. The Wildcats haven’t won a football game since 2011 and that 52-game losing steak is seven games shy of the all-time state record.
And, since 1975, the team has produced but five winning seasons.
But on the first day of practice Monday afternoon, Caldwell said the school’s losing past wasn’t an immediate concern. Instead, he wanted to focus on his players’ academics.
Hours before the Wildcats hit the field, Caldwell and defensive coordinator Tyris Rorie met with an academic advisor to check on some players’ performance in the classroom.
It’s part of the culture overhaul Caldwell started when he arrived last winter at Garinger, a school in east Charlotte whose enrollment is predominantly African-American. It’s where violence has touched the school this year with the shooting death of a former basketball player in July and a student’s assault on his girlfriend in the school’s parking lot in May.
Caldwell said the Wildcats’ football team can become the spark that changes negative perceptions about Garinger.
“We're trying to build the program and make a lot of positive changes for the kids, not only on the field but in the classroom, in their personal lives and in the community,” Caldwell said. “We’re just trying to help them build and we're not trying to give them uncomplete-able tasks. We’re giving them doable things.
“What we are doing is bigger than football. If we do the other things, football is going to take care of itself.”
Caldwell, who coached at West Mecklenburg High for six seasons and posted a 31-39 record, resigned in 2015. He accepted the job at Garinger in January. Caldwell had a previous working relationship with athletics director Tony Huggins and said he was excited by the challenges Garinger presented.
Caldwell grew up in the Hidden Valley neighborhood, a 10-minute drive from Garinger. His knowledge of the area and resume attracted Huggins and separated him from previous coaches. Since 2000, Garinger has had nine coaches. None lasted longer than two years.
“All of them were great guys, but coach Caldwell has a strong Charlotte bond and familiarity with our school,” Huggins said. “He was a winner in West Mecklenburg and he’s trying really hard to turn our program around.”
Caldwell, who also coached at Myers Park, South Mecklenburg, Olympic and West Charlotte, said he sees the potential in Garinger’s players. But he’s aware the school’s negative perceptions haven’t been helpful for morale.
“The administration gives these kids the same opportunity that they would give them anywhere else,” Caldwell said. “We're coming at the kids in a way that whatever other kids are getting on the other side of town, you're getting the same thing here.
“We try to create an even playing field.”
It’s been seven years since Garinger had a winning season in 2010, and Caldwell said it was apparent when he arrived that structure and discipline were needed.
Caldwell quickly established order by starting a grade-sheet system. Teachers now sign sheets outlining a players’ grade and behavior in class and report it to their coaches. Offseason training was emphasized heavily in March and April. Most of the players, Caldwell said, embraced the changes.
“When we got started, we had a nucleus of kids and we built from that nucleus and just added around that nucleus,” said Caldwell, who was the oldest of four brothers raised in a single-parent home.
“They wanted to do things right. They wanted to be organized. They didn't want to be known as losers, so they had a different mindset.”
Quarterback Chris Bailey, a rising sophomore, said the changes have been effective. He’s leading a team this season as an underclassman, but Caldwell’s approach has given him and teammates confidence, he said.
“Last year we were way more goofy and we did what we wanted, but this year it is more of a football atmosphere,” Bailey said. “He has made us more disciplined and that’s only going to make us better. They (the coaching staff) believe in us.”
On the field, Caldwell said the Wildcats will align to their strengths, which are speed and athleticism. Most of their starters are rising juniors, and Caldwell said he’s excited to see how they develop this season.
Garinger returns five starters, including running back Jalon Moore, receiver Malcolm Bailey and defensive end Elijah Richardson. Caldwell said many of these players aren’t on the college recruiting radar, but after this season, he thinks that might change.
Offensively, Garinger will run a mix of spread and pro-style sets. They’ll play a 4-2-5 defense to give their secondary more options.
This summer, they played in competitive 7-on-7 tournaments that included Myers Park, Charlotte Catholic, J.M. Robinson and Independence. At a tournament in Catawba, the Wildcats made it to the championship game but lost in double overtime to Forest Hills.
Garinger will kick off its season Aug. 18 at home against West Charlotte. But Caldwell said the team hasn’t set any goals for wins.
“What we talk to them about is simply competing,” Caldwell said. “If we go out there and compete at a high level, then all we have to do is get better at that. Then it becomes a lot easier because they don't focus about winning. They go out there and compete and just get better at their craft.”
Caldwell said he and his coaching staff will continue to stress breaking bad habits, on the field and in the classroom.
“We have to be able to help the kids here to grow and become the team that we want to become,” he said. “But we have to know the individual kid, not just the football player.
“We have to be true to that, and as long as we are honest with ourselves we'll be able to solve problems.”
Emmanuel Morgan: 704-358-5337, @_EmmanuelMorgan