Spencer High School has a new head football coach.
Robert Sanders, the school’s athletics director and wrestling coach, is taking on the football head coaching duties as well. Spencer principal Johnny Freeman made the announcement at a news conference Wednesday in the school’s library.
Sanders replaces Justin Newman, who was fired despite the Greenwave qualifying for the state playoffs in his lone season as the head coach. In the 32-team first round, Region 5 fourth seed Spencer lost 65-0 to Region 8 first seed Rabun County, which reached the quarterfinals. The Greenwave finished with a 3-8 record.
Although this is Sanders’ first head football coaching position in high school, he has worked at Spencer for 24 years, including stints as special teams coordinator, defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator. His father, the late Pete Sanders, was the first head football coach at Carver (compiling a 55-81 record from 1961-75) — the Greenwave’s archrival.
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Sanders played wide receiver and cornerback at Pacelli, where he graduated in 1986, then played at Fort Valley State.
“After a lot of soul searching, I just knew he was the right man for the job,” Freeman said.
Following the news conference, Freeman explained why.
“He knows the historical significance of the job,” Freeman told the Ledger-Enquirer. “He appreciates what it means to walk in the shoes of all the great coaches that preceded him. He is dedicated to the Greenwave through and through. He has done a tremendous job creating that buy-in with the wrestling team, and they are perennial competitors at the state level. He has produced state champions, and he is just committed to this school and to doing whatever it take to make sure our kids have opportunities to be the best they can be.”
Sanders thanked Freeman for the honor of asking him to be the football head coach.
“In the role as the athletic director, I need to do what’s best for these kids,” Sanders said. “The kids reached out to me. Parents reached out to me. Alumni reached out to me, and I said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’”
The new head coach said he met with the football team’s approximately 90 players and told them he expects them to be disciplined and fundamentally sound on offense and defense. He also told them he expects such a proper manner to continue off the field.
“We’re going to be leaders in the classroom,” Sanders said. “Football sets the tone for the whole school.”
‘You have to know the kid to get the most out of the kid’
Sanders’ football coaching career in Muscogee County started at the now-closed Daniel Middle School. In the late 1990s, he coached Baker Middle School to two city championships in four years. At Spencer, he was special teams coordinator under Collins Jones (32-120 record 1990-2004), defensive coordinator under Oliver Davis (16-44 record 2007-12) and offensive coordinator under Calvin Arnold (6-14 record 2013-14).
More than schemes and strategy, Sanders said, he wants to emphasize his relationship with the players as their coach.
“You have to know the kid to get the most out of the kid,” he said. “I look at my kids as they’re not only with me for four years; they’re with me for their whole life. So I train young men. Wins and losses are going to take care of themselves. The biggest thing for me is that I want these young men five, 10 years from now to say, ‘Hey, Coach Sanders, I’m a police officer, I’m a lawyer.’ . . . It’s to mold young men to become leaders in the community.”
With his responsibilities as athletics director and wrestling coach continuing, Sanders acknowledged he will have to delegate to his assistant football coaches more than some other head coaches.
“When I first started as a young man, I kind of tried to do everything,” he said. “That can burn you out. So you want to have staff that sees your vision.”
Part of his vision is beating archrival Carver in the season-opening Heritage Bowl. Spencer has done that only once in the past 20 years.
“I coached in that game many times, and it’s awe-striking to see 10,000 people in the stands cheering for both teams,” Sanders said. “So I’m looking forward to see if we can get over the hump this year.”
Sanders wasn’t certain he would accept the position until he conferred with his wife.
“She told me last night, ‘Baby, if I didn’t love you the way I did, I’d be selfish if I didn’t tell you to take this opportunity because I know how much it means to you,’ ” he said.
Spencer rising senior wide receiver Malachi Morris made it clear Sanders is popular and respected among the players.
“I see a new start,” Morris said. “We didn’t have too much of a season that we expected to have last year. . . . He’s always had open arms for everybody. We’re just excited to play for him.”
Newman was hired at Spencer last spring as the offensive coordinator after being fired from his first head football coaching job, at Jordan, where the Red Jackets went 2-18 in his two seasons there. But he was promoted in May to be Spencer’s head coach after Pierre Coffey became assistant principal at Baker Middle School.
Coffey led the Greenwave to a 19-15 record in his three seasons there. They qualified for the state playoffs all three seasons, advancing as far as the second round in 2015.
The hiring at Spencer leaves Pacelli as the only Bi-City school without a football head coach. But that vacancy is scheduled to be filled Thursday, when Pacelli will conduct a news conference to announce its selection.
The Ledger-Enquirer reported in November that Mark LeGree resigned at Pacelli despite improving the Vikings from 0-10 to 4-6 in his two seasons there.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.