BUFORD — For almost 20 years, Jess Simpson and Buford football have been synonymous with each other -- and success.
But on Friday, Simpson announced that he is parting ways with the Wolves to take the defensive line coaching position on coach Shawn Elliott's staff at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
"Bittersweet would be the word to use. We've been here I guess over 20 years now, and I've gotten to raise my family here, gotten to do life with so many great people and so many folks that have had such a great effect on my family. And I've gotten to coach so many great kids and work with my best friends, my assistant coaches every day. So to say this has been the highlight of my life so far... and just been blessed to be in this work environment and be in this community is certainly an understatement -- so very appreciative and grateful and bittersweet to say goodbye," Simpson said.
Terming it one of the most difficult decisions he's had to make, Simpson noted that after 22 years and 10 state championships combined as an assistant and head coach at Buford, the time was right for a change.
"It's something I always thought I may really want to do. It's something you really don't know, but I think I know this is the right time, and this is the right place. And I think I'm going to be working with the right people," said Simpson, who added that the decision to join the Panthers only came to fruition over the past few days.
"Honestly this all happened in the last week. I actually saw coach Elliott -- I hadn't seen him in a few years -- in the Georgia Dome before the game, shook his hand and said, 'hey' and that turned into a phone call this weekend and didn't even really think much of it then. Then later in the week things kind of started to happen to fast. And I just feel like this was the right time, and it's what the Lord's calling me to do."
Upon taking over as head coach in 2005, Simpson's teams produced 164 wins, 10 state championship appearances, nine region titles, and seven state titles, leaving behind a legacy that few coaches in state history could hope to touch.
After leading the defense for coach Dexter Wood -- who guided Buford to three straight state championships (2001-03) before stepping down to act solely as the Wolves athletic director -- Simpson helped continue Buford's ascent from consistent winner to perhaps the premier program in the state.
"I'm just thankful that the timing was right for him to step in there," Wood said. "It wasn't very complicated. It was pretty easy and it's just hard to believe that started over 20 years ago. When he took over there was no doubt that he was ready and with his energy and passion would take it to a new level and sure enough that happened. "
Simpson's first two teams (2005-06) fell to Charlton County in the Class AA quarterfinals. But, starting with the 2007 Class AA crown, Simpson's Wolves never finished worse than state runner-up -- a 10-year championship-game appearance streak that stands as a state record. His 2007-10 teams also tied the all-time record set by West Rome (1982-85) of four straight state crowns. His Wolves also claimed three straight crowns from 2012-14.
Buford fell to Rome 16-7 in this season's Class AAAAA championship game, finishing 13-2. Yet Simpson's teams claimed championships at the Class AA, AAA and AAAA level, and he leaves the school with a winning percentage of .931.
For perspective, the state's all-time winningest coach is Larry Campbell of Lincoln County, who owns a winning percentage of .847 (477-85-3) and 11 state titles over his 42 campaigns, while Valdosta's Wright Bazemore finished with an .831 percentage (264-50-7) and 14 state championships won between 1946-1971.
Yet Wood says Simpson's legacy was far more than trophies and numbers.
"The mark is on the person who he was, just the way he poured into these kids and shaped them, the intangibles of the program," Wood said of Simpson. "I can't describe it to you guys. That's what will last forever; that's what you miss. And right now it's empty because you don't even know if that can be filled. I don't even want to think about it right now."
Buford will begin the process of finding a new coach immediately, though Wood says there is no timeline currently in place.
Simpson, meanwhile, spent Friday with players and assistant coaches -- and trying to put into words just what his time at the school has meant to him.
"It was really tough. You can imagine. I spoke with my coaches yesterday evening -- and talking to players today, trying to express what a 17-year-old, 16-year-old and 15-year-old are really going to remember and hear, trying to make sure they know how much I love them and that change is a part of life and that they're going to be OK and the culture of the program we built here is a whole lot bigger than me," Simpson said. "They're going to be alright.
"We always joke and talk about the 14 kids that showed up on May 1 in 1995 to our first practice and the 24 players we had on our first team and then think about how the facilities have changed and all that. But what I think has sustained it, and what I think is so neat about it is not all the stuff. Buford's got a lot of neat stuff, but it's the people that have made this place so special. And it's going to be what I miss most."
Talking with those around Buford, plenty of people are certainly going to miss Simpson as well.