Coming off a 3-7 season, not much was expected from the Thomasville Bulldogs — at least from those outside the program.
But with a new coach in Leroy Ryals and with him a new system, one that has proven to work at two prior stops, the Bulldogs expected to rebound.
And bounce back they did. Thomasville went 8-4 and reached the second round of the Class AA playoffs. As a result, Ryals earned the Times-Enterprise All-Area Coach of the Year award.
“I try to make the kids set their own goals and their own objectives and that kind of thing,” Ryals said while explaining the key to the Bulldogs’ turnaround. “And then I hold them accountable to what they said they were going to do. That way we’re not worried about the expectations of anybody else.
“Those are the things I talk to them about. I never talk about anything outside the team room or outside the practice field. I only talk about us, what we set forth for ourselves.
When they set their goals, the Bulldogs didn’t shoot low, either. In addition to wanting to beat rivals Thomas County Central and Cairo, accomplishing one of the two, Thomasville’s players wanted to win eight games. Check. The Bulldogs wanted to win the Region 1-AA title. A controversial long touchdown pass from Brooks County late was all that separated them from that crown. And finally, THS wanted to bring home its first state title in 25 years. That ended in a 38-20 defeat to top-ranked Lamar County.
“Usually, the kids will set some lofty goals,” Ryals said. “But when they do it, I hold them to the fire on it. I tell them I didn’t do that. The coaches didn’t have anything to do with it. You set these goals, and now I’m going to make you do it.
“And when you do that and let the kids set their own goals, even with your own children, if you let them set their own little goals and objectives and hold themselves to the fire, they’ll usually come out on top.”
That accountability doesn’t begin or end with the players, though. Longtime Ryals aide Forrest Paulson, Thomasville’s offensive line coach, said the former college assistant at South Florida under Jim Leavitt and at LSU for one season under Nick Saban doesn’t ask his players or assistants to do anything he wouldn’t do, too.
“That one year with Saban, he absorbed so much,” Paulson said. “I’m sure if you talked to him, he probably still has notes from every staff meeting that year.
“He won’t ask you to work any harder than he does.”
That work ethic and accountability are just two of Ryals’ trademarks that helped transform the Bulldogs in one year. His success, and the success of his teams, is planned. Very planned. While the Bulldogs’ 2013 season has been over for just two weeks, Paulson said his boss has Thomasville’s workouts and meetings scheduled for 2014 all the way until August.
“It was a big change. We went from 3-7 to all these wins we had this year,” said junior safety Jay Bowdry, the All-Area Defensive Player of the Year. “And it’s all the system. He has everything planned out.”
Those attributes are all part of the system that Ryals teaches and preaches. It’s a system that he won’t take credit for.
“I didn’t invent the system,” he said. “I stole it from somebody else, who stole it from somebody else.”
Added Paulson: “When you look at the whole genre of the work he’s done, it’s hard to argue with the process. It’s hard to talk about without being here and seeing all that goes into the process, especially in the offseason. It’s so much more than football.
“That process Saban talks about, it’s almost verbatim. It can’t be verbatim at the high school level, but the process is the same as Saban’s. Now, will that process constitute us winning a state championship? I don’t know. But I can say the process isn’t changing. He isn’t changing anything from what he did at Clarke when we got down here.”
Yet it is a system that works. And that system is why the Bulldogs expected to be better.
“It’s his system that he has tweaked,” Paulson said. “I saw it work at Clarke and I saw it work here to a point. And I saw it work at Booker High School when he was younger.
“He’s driven. You don’t find that in a lot of young coaches.”
Said Ryals: “It’s a system we’ve been using for awhile and it does work. It’s been proven. But without the kids buying in and the coaches, it can’t happen.”
But Ryals has a knack for getting people to buy in. Perhaps it’s the old college recruiter in him still at work. Or maybe he’s a natural salesman. After all, he recruited Paulson to join his staff at Booker High School in Sarasota, Fla., prior to heading to college. Paulson joined the Booker staff in 1997 under Ryals, who took the head job there in 1994 at the age of 24.
“I didn’t coach with him the first couple years,” Paulson recalled. “He came to me at 24 and said ‘I’d like you to coach with me.’ I said, ‘You’re barely able to legally drink. What are you talking about?’ I was at the biggest school in the area. I told him, ‘When you beat our butts, I’ll consider it.’ He said, ‘Will you shake on that?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and we shook.
“Two years later, I’m at a 5A school and he’s at a 2A school and he comes over and just beats us like we stole something. I tried to get off that field so fast, and he’s running across and we shook.”
The system worked again.