Saturday February 6th, 2016 3:43PM

Christmas stepping away from towering legacy at North Hall

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
GAINESVILLE -- Just how big is the legacy Bob Christmas created at North Hall?

Ask one of his former players.

"He is North Hall football," said Chris Haynes, who was a senior lineman on Christmas' first team with the Trojans in 2001 and is now an assistant coach at the school. "He showed us an entirely different world and what it meant to be a real football team."

Trojans football languished for much of the 40-plus years prior to Christmas' arrival, going 124-322, so the announcement that the coach is leaving the school after 13 successful seasons that included 106 wins and two state semifinal appearances provided plenty of pause for all parties involved.

"I suppose I'm like the entire community here: I'd love to see him stay, but I know this is a great opportunity for him and his family, so I'm happy for him too," North Hall athletic director Richard Crumley said.

Christmas too says he will be leaving a special place.

"In all my years of coaching this has been the most rewarding 13 years I have had," said Christmas, a 38-year coaching veteran, 26 of them in the state of Georgia. "The people here have been great, and I've loved being here. But after weighing a lot of things, this move just added up for me."

Christmas is returning to lead one of his former programs in Jefferson Forest High School, located in Forest, Va., where Christmas won state championships in 1992 and '93.

"(The program is) kind of down now, but when the job came open, I had a lot of people contacting me about it," Christmas said. "And I have two daughters in Virginia and a son in Richmond, plus my grandkids, and the offer was pretty attractive."

As he showed with North Hall, Christmas has no problem turning around struggling programs.

The Trojans were coming off a 0-10 campaign when Christmas arrived for the 2001 season. He was also the third coach in three seasons for a North Hall team that former players remember as rudderless.

"There really wasn't a program here then," Hayes said. "I remember as a sophomore there was me and maybe six-seven upperclassmen meeting up to lift weights in the preseason. And with all the coaching changes there was no time for continuity. I think they were calling us the coaching graveyard before coach Christmas got here."

Hayes says that ended as early as Christmas' first team meeting.

"I bought in hook, line and sinker from the first time he talked with us," Hayes said. "We went from just hoping and praying we'd get better to, 'This is what we're going to do, and this is how we're going to get there.' His leadership got us to buy in immediately, and he provided the program with discipline."

Even in the face of a 0-9 start to his first campaign, Christmas' charges maintained their enthusiasm and drive -- which paid off with a 35-12 win over an eight-win Madison County in the season finale. In 2002, Christmas led the Trojans to their first state playoff berth.

"We were so excited that all the seniors (from 2001) got in our cars and drove to Cedartown to support the team in that first round game," Hayes said.

That excitement only grew as North Hall became a playoff regular, including state semifinal berths in 2007 and 2012. The Trojans also reached the quarterfinals in 2004 and '06 and won region championships in '04, '06, '07 and '12, going 106-46 over the 13-year span.

Christmas says the bedrock of that success was laid with the hard work and determination of his players and coaching staff.

"We built this program on hard work," said Christmas, who has won 247 games over his career as a head coach. "The Men of Summer (weight training) program was a huge part of it, and we were just a physical football team both sides of the ball. We got the kids believing in themselves and believing in the process."

Utilizing a punishing ground game initially centered around the wing-T, which, two seasons ago, gave way to the wishbone, North Hall ran over and through opposing teams while also playing a physical brand of attacking defense.

"As coaches we set a high standard and expected them to live up that standard," Christmas said. "And my coaching staff at North Hall being together so long was a big piece of the puzzle. I can't imagine a better staff than what I have here."

A key piece of that staff, longtime defensive coordinator Ronnie Eaves, is retiring and will return to his native Mississippi. Christmas says no other coaches accompany him to Virginia -- now Crumley is tasked with finding a new man to lead that group.

"Coach Christmas built something special here, and I think there will be a lot of interest in the position," said Crumley, who hopes to have someone in place before spring practice starts. "We want to do our due diligence. We want to make sure we move as fast as possible without rushing things. It's a daunting task, but it's exciting too."

That said Crumley knows the next Trojans head coach will have big shoes to fill.

"To replace someone who means what he meant to us will be difficult," Crumley said. "We would be fortunate to find another Bob Christmas, but we're going to look for the same qualities he brought to us."

Those qualities proved successful indeed, even outstripping the high standards Christmas himself set down in 2001.

"We probably exceeded the expectations I had when I first got here," Christmas said. "We talked about winning state, which we never did, but we did some pretty special things here, and it has been an incredible experience."

-- NOTE: Christmas had the longest tenure of any current Hall County-based football coach. Gainesville's Bruce Miller now owns the longest active streak at 12 seasons. Chestatee's Stan Luttrell is next in line with eight straight seasons.
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