RABBITTOWN — Bryan Gray couldn't tell you a single season record or final score from any game during his 11 seasons with East Hall football, but after announcing his retirement from coaching on Wednesday Gray pointed to one crystal clear development.
"At our first spring practice we had 13 kids and three coaches; we had to get a kid out of woodshop and a kid out of auto mechanics just so we could scrimmage," Gray said. "Now we've got 70 kids and 11 coaches."
That is perhaps the most accurate measurement of the Vikings under Gray -- and one of the reasons why he made Wednesday's announcement.
"The timing was right; the program has never been in better hands," said Gray, whose 2017 team went 7-5 and won the program's first state playoff game since 1993. "I feel like we brought the program back to the heights it was under coach Jim Lofton and coach Wayne Bradshaw, and there's a whole group of great coaches here on staff that I feel like are ready to take over if they get that chance."
Gray inherited a program in transition, being promoted to head coach for the 2007 campaign following one season as an assistant. The Vikings struggled through his first three campiagns but have been steady ever since, culminating in three playoff appearances over the last four seasons -- including last season's squad that lit up Class 3A and led the classification in points per game with 45.5 behind senior quarterback Austin Parker (4,563 yards passing, 50 TDs, 3 INTs), senior receivers Sedrion Morse (67 receptions, 1,362 yards, 22 TDs) and Austin Brock (52 receptions, 1,010 yards, 7 TDs) and junior running back Cambren Harrison (1,150 yards rushing, 18 TDs; 794 yards receiving, 6 TDs).
Gray retires with more seasons in charge at Valhalla than anyone except Bradshaw (1987-99) and just ahead of Jim Lofton (1979-86), who were also the only two other coaches to win a state playoff game with the Vikings. He was also tied with Lakeview's Matthew Gruhn as the longest-tenured coach in Hall County after Bruce Miller stepped down from Gainesville earlier this year following 16 seasons.
"It's been an incredible ride," said Gray, who will stay at the school in an administrative role. "It was a very tough decision to make, and I've been stewing on it for about a month now. Administration is something I've been wanting to pursue. But the reason I got into coaching was to mentor and be around these kids, and being in administration is just a chance to do this on a larger scale."
East Hall Principal Jeff Cooper thanked Gray for his service to the Vikings.
"He is the kind of coach you would want to play for as a high school player. He did a great job for us," Cooper said. "We had, what, three wins before he took over. We couldn't have asked for any more than he gave to build the program."
For Gray it was a perfect match. And after traveling to Georgia from California, orginially landing at North Gwinnett High, Gray said he immediately felt at home in Rabbittown.
"I had been coaching college football but really felt like high school was a better fit for me," Gray said. "East Hall was comfortable for me from the start. I liked the small community feel of it. I never got into coaching here with a plan to retire, I just wanted to be around the kids.
"I've got three former players who are pastors now; I've got several who have graduated college and are daddies now. And that's what's important. I don't care about the wins and losses; it's more about the community and the kids and helping them to go on and be successful in life."
Now Gray believes the program is ready to continue its ascent on the field.
"Whoever Mr. Cooper hires will take it to a whole other level," Gray said. "I think we have a staff full of coaches that would make great head coaches. They are tremendous men with tremendous hearts."
For his part Cooper is just getting the search under way.
"I haven't contacted anyone yet since I just found out for sure (Wednesday)," Cooper said. "We'll look inside the program and also outside as we look at what our teaching slots for next look like."