HIAWASSEE — It’s not the kind of resume to tout -- not in the traditional sense.
- 67-347-1 all-time record in 44 seasons of play (.161 winning percentage)
- Only one winning season (7-3 in 2008, non-region schedule)
- No region titles
- Zero (0) state playoff appearances.
However, Towns County High Principal Connie Hobbs did not shy away from those figures when she interviewed John Cornett for the head football coaching position between the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
“My first question to him was ‘how well do you handle losing?’ ” Hobbs recalled. “We’re a very small school and school system and the history of the program has shown that. Over the years if the coaches couldn’t deal with that it made it even tougher. I just like to let the new coaches know what they may be in for.”
Hobbs was emotionally involved with the football program with two sons playing and graduating from Towns County since 2011. Like most residents, she said losing was something expected while playing in Region 8-A, arguably the toughest region in Class A.
“Our (student-body) size makes it hard because of the numbers, and usually once (the coaches) got into the season they would see the differences. It’s tough,” Hobbs said. “But when we had to find a new coach (in 2016) I only had one person in mind.”
Cornett was, and still is, the Towns County girls soccer coach, and that program has made the playoffs in each of his three seasons at the helm. His Analytic Geometry students also consistently post the No. 1 scores in the Pioneer RESA area. He’s used to excellence and winning.
“I went to him because I thought he could make a difference,” Hobbs said. “His success in the classroom and with the soccer team made me think he might be the guy who could turn the football team around.”
And his answer to her opening question?
“He said he didn’t handle losing well at all,” Hobbs said. “But if you know John he is the most positive person I have ever been around. He does not allow negativity from the people around him. His positivity is absolutely contagious. He has a way of bringing that out in everyone around him.”
And now the entire football-playing state knows it.
In Cornett’s second season, the Indians not only completed their first non-losing campaign since 2008 -- the second-ever such return in program history -- they are now playoff bound for the first time in program history.
Their 5-5 finish seeded them 23rd in the GHSA's Class A Public Power Ratings, and the Indians will travel to Class A Public 10th-seed Pelham (8-2) in southwest Georgia on Friday for the first round of the state playoffs.
That’s right. Towns County football and playoffs in the same sentence.
Cornett was aware of the Indians football history but adds that it became quickly apparent that the locals were resigned to a continuum of those proceedings.
“They’ve been in probably the toughest region in the state with perennial powers like Commerce and well-funded private schools like Prince Avenue, Athens Academy and George Walton for so long most of the people up here were like, ‘if we can win one or two games in this region, we’re fine with that,’” Cornett recalled. “Honestly, that didn’t discourage me. If anything, it kind of motivated me.
“I’m a short, small guy and played college football when people didn’t think I could do it. I’ve always considered myself an underdog type. This place has the same chip on its shoulder that I do. I thought it would be a good fit for both of us.”
Cornett’s first season in 2016 went the way virtually every Towns County campaign before it. The Indians finished 3-7 overall and 2-8 in Region 8-A play. However, at the end of the season, Cornett invited any players that wanted to go down to the Georgia Dome for the two-day state finals event as a way to show his squad what the next step looked like. Andy Chambers was the only one who tagged along.
“I wanted the kids to see what championship teams look like beyond just the physical talent. I was hoping for a few more (guys) but I understood at the time,” Cornett said. “After it was all over Andy turned to me and said we can make the playoffs. That's kind of where all of this started. He came back and literally went straight to the weight room. When the other kids saw him working like that they just started to recruit each other and that was really the beginning of things in my mind.”
“I saw those teams playing in there and I was jealous. I was thinking, ‘that could be us.’ Seeing the games in the Dome just gave me a clear vision of what we needed to do,” said Chambers, who is a three-year starter at fullback and linebacker. “There was some resistance from some of the guys at first but I just kept working on them. I was persistent. I think once we started getting a lot of guys in the weight room and seeing the progress then everybody jumped on board.”
What Cornett didn’t know in that first season was that he was inheriting a junior class at the time that had become used to making history. The now-senior class already had begun to take on legendary status for the Indians as the first group to make the basketball and baseball playoffs. Now they have added football playoffs to the list of accomplishments.
Senior Zach Davenport, a two-year starter at running back and safety, said he’s not surprised.
“Honestly, this (senior) group came up together and we won at the lower levels so we kind of expected to win at some point,” said Davenport, who is also on both the basketball and baseball teams. “We don’t like to lose.”
But dreaming of the playoffs and actually making it is entirely different, especially in a sport where numbers matter. However, both Chambers and Davenport said the positive nature of Cornett has been a driving force. And neither were surprised to hear about Cornett’s preseason prediction of the Indians making a playoff run.
“I’m not surprised to hear that, really,” Chambers said. “He is so positive. That’s not to say he doesn’t get on us but he never tells us we can’t win. He always says we’ll find a way. We started to believe it this year.”
“Coach Cornett, and all the coaches, have done a great job,” Davenport said. “He’s a great motivator. As a team we’re positive even when things aren’t going our way. This has been a great year so far.”
Cornett’s positive outlook has become so infectious that despite facing a nearly-seven hour bus ride to Pelham, his squad is looking at this as an opportunity to put the Indians on the map.
Pelham is part of Region 1-A, which sent four teams, including No. 4 seed Mitchell County, to the playoffs. The Hornets are seventh in scoring in Class A (381 points, 38.1 points per game) and have allowed just 150 points (15.0 ppg) on defense, which is 14th in Class A. Pelham was a three-seed in 2016 but fell in the second round. They have not made it past the second round themselves since a quarterfinal run in 1982.
Towns County is part of a six-team delegation from 8-A and is averaging 24 points a game on offense but yielding 26.8 points a game on defense.
“We’ve seen film on them. Their quarterback and running back are real good but we’ve seen teams like Commerce and Athens Academy and Prince Avenue so we know what to expect,” Chambers said. “We have a plan. We can win this game.”
“Oh, there’s no doubt we can win this,” Davenport added. “We can have success with our triple-option. I know it sounds crazy with the history and all but we’re not looking in the past. We’re only looking forward.”
So was Hobbs when she took a chance on someone who had not coached football since the 2007 season as an assistant at Chestatee under Stan Luttrell. And she is still looking to the future.
“Every school has that one class that comes along and does great things. This is a great senior class,” Hobbs said. “But I don’t see this as a one-year thing. I think because of the type of person John is and how he gets the most out of his kids, I think he can sustain this going forward.”
Cornett pinpointed what he thinks is the actual moment the program finally came out of the shadows.
“We grew up two weeks ago (against Lakeview Academy) and here’s why,” he said. “We had beaten Athens Christian (28-27) for the first time ever then we lost to Commerce (38-14) and really didn’t play like I was hoping coming off a big win. Then Lakeview started the game with an onside kick and (the Lions) recovered it.
“Now, in the past that might have been enough to start the negative thoughts and things would have gone downhill. But we told them that it was just one play and go out and win the next one. They sacked (Lakeview quarterback) Alec (Bornhorst) on the next play and forced a punt and then just got things going from there.”
The Indians went on to crush the Lions 56-13 in a game both teams needed in order to make any sort of run at the playoffs. They followed that with a 42-21 win last week over Providence Christian for their first two-game win streak since the end of the 2013 season.
Despite Class A having to wait for the official power rankings to see who is in the playoffs and where, Cornett said they had their first real celebration as a program following the win over Providence.
“It was all business before the game but we had made some calculations and asked some people and we felt with a win that we were in,” he said. “It was a great feeling to see the kids be able to celebrate an accomplishment that no one, and I mean no one, probably thought would ever happen.”
There was one person, however, who foresaw the future, even without a Crystal Ball. Cornett told AccessWDUN and Friday Game Night in its 2017 preseason football publication that his Indians would make the playoffs.
“I just saw how far they had come and how hard they were working. I could see that things were about to change,” he said. “Y’all probably thought I was crazy.”
Crazy like a fox, apparently.