For Spring Garden principal Mike Welsh, he didn’t have to look too far to find that right fit for Jason Howard’s successor.
Longtime assistant John McKay was Welsh’s recent recommendation to the Cherokee County Board of Education. The 37-year-old had the reins turned over to him the day of the Panthers’ spring jamboree game at Section on May 21.
For McKay, the elevation from line coach to head coach has been “a smooth transition.”
“I was glad for somebody within our system to get it, so we didn’t have to feel like we were rebuilding,” McKay said. “The groundwork has already been laid. These kids have already got a winning attitude. They know the hard work that it takes to get where they need to go, so it was to our benefit not to have a big transition. It’s like we’re continuing down the path, and we want to keep going.”
Welsh said many members of the community expressed their support for McKay. When it came down to it, Welsh realized he was the best man for the job.
“When you’ve got someone who’s been here for nine years and who’s as fired up as Coach McKay is about the program, it turned into a no-brainer,” Welsh said. “It seemed to be the thing to do. Our existing staff was very comfortable with John. Our players seemed to be very comfortable with him. They respect him and they know he’ll work them hard.
“When you’ve got a good thing going, you want to keep it going the best you can. With Coach Howard leaving (for Ohatchee) and Coach McKay stepping up to the plate, it just seems to make sense. He’s really excited about the program, and we’re really excited about him leading us.”
Like Welsh, McKay also subscribes to the adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ He’ll continue to have Damon McDonald as offensive coordinator and Stan Jones as defensive coach.
As for the Panther players, McKay has coached many of them since junior high, and he feels they’re comfortable with him.
“I’ve always had a good relationship with them,” McKay said. “I teach sixth grade, so I started building that bond with them then. You never lose that. They’ve been great. They were excited as soon as I told them (the night of the jamboree). I was hoping that would help them think their spring had been worth something, and they knew who they working for.”
Speaking of the jamboree, the Panthers trailed early but came back to tie Section at 21. McKay said he saw plenty of positives, particularly at the skill positions. He also said the Panthers need to tweak their line in the off-season.
“They (Section) were a good hard-nosed, hard-hitting team, and that’s what we needed to see,” McKay said. “We had our starters in the first half and the first series in the second half. It was 14-7 after that.
“When we put our second group in, I think we were down 21-7. They gave up a big play right off the bat, but we came from behind. We actually missed an extra point with the second group, but with about three seconds left, we had to go for two to tie it. It wound up with a dramatic finish, so it was good for that young group. We feel like we’ve got a good group following in the future, too.”
But for McKay, however, the future is now.
“The expectations are pretty big,” he said. “We’ve talked about it, and we don’t see why there should be a back step. We’ve just got to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do and make sure everybody’s prepared so there’s not a letdown. That’s why we’re hitting it (the weights) right now, to make sure they’re strong and staying in shape for the season.”
McKay and the Panthers open the 2010 season on Aug. 27 at Ranburne.