For Carver's Dell McGee success means more than a state title

The office of Carver football coach Dell McGee gives an interesting look into the man beneath the headset.

There are playbooks, notes and envelopes with insignias of major colleges addressed to some of his players, most likely containing letters of recruitment.

These are all signs of the success the coach, who is in his eighth year with the Tigers, has built on the field: an 86-18 record, four state semifinals appearances and one state championship.

Tonight, Carver will begin its quest for a second title at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium against Dodge County. And most of this came after Carver had gone its first 47 years without double-digit wins in a season.

Earlier this year, with their win over Peach County, McGee's Tigers reached a milestone, putting the school's all-time record above .500 for the first time since 1970.

But that was news to McGee.

Sure, the wins are important, he said. But there are other things that motivate him as a high school football coach.

Hidden beneath some of his papers is something that begins to shed some light on his goals beyond winning football games. It's a Christian devotional, which he says he reads every day.

"That's the foundation," he said.

Faith comes first on McGee's hierarchy of importance for his football program, according to Carver co-athletic director Joseph Kegler, followed closely by family. Football is a distant third.

And this fact, perhaps, is the key to the coach's success.

An extended family

Every Saturday, McGee is reminded of some of his former players.

As they prepare to play in games at the college level, the coach picks up his phone and sends out a few messages to the guys that have departed his program, just to let them know he's thinking about them.

It's never anything long or in-depth, usually just a motivational message.

"I know some of them like that," McGee said. "I don't get a chance to see them all play, so I try to do that. I've been trying to do that since we've been sending kids to schools. Just something to let them know they're on my mind."

It's things like that, which lead players to look at McGee as more than just a coach.

"He's kind of like a dad," current running back Brandon Thomas said with a smile. Quarterback Torrance McGee, no relation, quickly expressed his affirmation.

Jarvis Jones, a former Carver linebacker and current All-American at the University of Georgia, expressed the same feeling about McGee, something that a lot of outsiders focused on the success of the football team don't get to see.

"When people see him from the outside, they don't see the things behind the scenes," Jones said. "He's a father figure to a lot of guys. A lot of guys come from single-parent homes. He's kindhearted, and he wants the best for all of us."

Jones offered a concrete example of how former players never leave McGee's extended football family.

After originally signing with the University of Southern California, Jones played in eight games before suffering a neck injury in his freshman season in 2009. Team doctors thought the injury was too serious for Jones to continue playing and recommended he retire from football.

Unwilling to accept that fate, Jones reached out to a familiar face back home.

"Coach McGee was the main reason I'm at (the University of Georgia) now," he said. "I called him and told him that USC wasn't working out for me. He asked what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted a chance. So, he reached out to people trying to find me a home. When we found one, I told him I'd make the best of the opportunity."

And, so he has.

But Kegler said it's just family helping family.

"We try to make the whole school like a family here and work together from within," he said. "As a leader, (McGee) really cares about those kids."

Latavius Watts, a former Carver star who is now playing at Morehouse College, said that's what is special about McGee.

"He talks to you about life," he said. "He knows football isn't going to last forever, so he wants to prepare you off the field. He always makes sure I'm well-grounded. It's pretty special. That's what he signed up for -- to develop young men -- and I think that's a natural thing for him."

McGee has had more than 100 of his players sign to play college football. There have been a handful that have run into trouble off the field.

Like any good parent, sometimes tough love is required.

"He wants to make sure we keep our heads straight," quarterback Torrance McGee said. "He wants to make sure we're staying on the right path, doing what we need to in school."

McGee, the coach, said that he runs a difficult program and a lot of what he does is aimed at helping the players grow on and off the football field.

"We value our success," he said. "But also, having spiritual involvement is important to us, being good students is important to us. We want to help kids get into college or get into technical school or the military, and we want them to be better students, husbands and Christians. That's the biggest gratification. That's why I like to coach."

Still chasing a title

While it isn't as high on McGee's list of priorities, a state championship is still very much a goal for the entire football program.

While the coach never looked past any individual game throughout the season, in early October, he had already figured out what regions his team would be matched up with in its section of the bracket.

Carver has advanced to the state semifinals three of the past four seasons, but hasn't won a state championship since 2007.

McGee wouldn't say whether he thought this was the year, but he offered some thoughts more than a month ago on playoff football.

"A lot of winning a state title is luck," he said. "You aren't going to get much better at tackling or running the football in the playoffs. Certain things don't change. The big thing is being healthy or how much confidence you're playing with. You just never know how that momentum can propel you for the next five games. That's all it is: five games."

With wins against Peach County and Jackson to close out the regular season, momentum is certainly something the Tigers have.

And if Carver wins, McGee will without doubt be thrilled. But if it doesn't, he's still going to walk off the field and continue what he's done for eight seasons.

"Winning football games doesn't get me into heaven," he said.