Valley Preps

How Calvary Christian built a program, made it to 50 wins in first eight football seasons

Brian Osborne walked into Calvary Christian’s weight room Wednesday, across the street from the school’s football field, nicknamed “The Len” in honor of former headmaster Len McWilliams, who headed the launch of the school’s football program.

The field has a long way to go: it does not have a working press box and its bleachers cannot hold anywhere near 1,000 people. But it’s a massive step up from the field on which the Knights kicked off their inaugural season in 2011.

It’s also a big step for a school that, at one point in the early 2000s, sold t-shirts that jokingly read “Calvary football: undefeated since 1975,” and played its first three seasons on a youth football field.

Back to that weight room.

When Osborne arrived at Calvary, the weight room consisted of two bench press areas, two squat racks and a single section of dumbbells. If players wanted to perform more complicated, Olympic-style movements (like the power clean), they would have to fit themselves into the tight space between the weight room entrance, the free weights and other teammates trying to bench, at most, 200 pounds.

Yes, trying. Calvary had one player who could bench press 200 pounds when it started its football program: Steven Thomas. And he could not bench press higher than 200.

Expectations were not high.

Osborne will be the first person to tell you that he did not expect a win in the program’s first year. It was his first season as a full-time head coach, having left Blair Harrison’s Brookstone staff two years before. Osborne’s goal was a simple one: improve the team enough to be competent in year one, build upon that foundation in year two and win one game in year three.

When he observed the team’s first-ever practice in pads, any remaining optimism of a first-year win faded.

Players walked the locker room with helmets incorrectly strapped on. Others paced the hallway outside the weight room wearing their shoulder pads backwards. Some failed to process how to attach the mouthpiece to the helmet’s face mask.

Something, though, clicked at some point during that year. Calvary’s first season went much, much better than its head coach anticipated.

The Knights did not win one game in year one — they won two. In the two years following, they would rattle off winning seasons and make the semifinals of the ICSGA playoffs. They came up just short of a GICAA state championship in 2014, their final season playing home games at Britt David Park.

The Knights won their 50th game in program history on August 30, a 47-6 win over Georgia Christian in Valdosta.

‘We were missing something’

McWilliams and the rest of the Calvary administrators met in 2006 for a strategic planning meeting. One of the topics on the docket was athletics, most notably football.

“We were missing something,” McWilliams said.

The group researched the logistics of adding a football program, but the down economy around that time prevented much from really happening. Starting a football program is expensive, and amid a recession, it’s even tougher.

So, fast-forward a few years, to 2010.

McWilliams said he talked to “a lot of different people” for the football coach job. The biggest challenge, he said, was finding the right person to lead the program’s launch.

Osborne attended Calvary Baptist Church, which is connected to the school, and was hand-selected by McWilliams. He served as Harrison’s defensive coordinator at Brookstone before accepting the athletic director/head football coach role at Calvary.

“I knew (Osborne) was someone who would do what we wanted to do with the program,” McWilliams said.

The hiring process took less than a week.

The initial conversations Osborne and McWilliams held were not entirely football-related. If anything, on-field strategy was put on the backburner. The two focused on how they would grow young men through football. Osborne said he could tell it was a great fit from the get-go.

“We talked on a Sunday, I applied on Monday, (McWilliams) called me on Wednesday, we interviewed on Thursday,” Osborne said. “By the next week, I was hired.”

It was only a few weeks from Brookstone’s 2010 season opener, but Harrison gave him the green light. Osborne said Harrison told him he thought he was ready to be a head coach.

“(Harrison) said, ‘you’re ready for this,’” Osborne said. “And that really meant a lot, coming from him.”

Osborne was hired to coach eight-man football, but more than 18 people (the maximum roster size for eight-man) decided to play.

How to win

Osborne spent much of his first year at the school dealing with basics like ordering equipment and other things necessary to run a football program. He estimated that there were 27 individuals who attended the Knights’ first spring practice. A few dropped out soon after.

Numbers increased the following summer, though the initial roster had no more than 40 players.

Participation numbers steadily grew following the first season. They were nowhere near the 70-plus roster size of schools like Carver or Central, but they fluctuated between 40 and 50 players.

There are several reasons the Knights enjoyed success so quickly. Osborne says it was because of the immediate buy-in from his players following the two-win inaugural season. He credits a lot of that buy-in to his initial sophomore class, one member of which currently serves as the Knights’ quarterbacks coach.

“Once players figured out how to win games, it kept building from there,” Osborne said. “A lot faster than I ever expected it to.”

It built, very quickly. The Knights appeared in back-to-back state semifinals in their second and third seasons. They played for a state title in 2014 and were upset in the first round the following year, as one of the top-seeded teams in the GICAA.

There were initial talks, back when Osborne was hired, of eventually working up to GHSA Class 1A, the same classification as Brookstone and Pacelli. But it won’t happen any time soon. Far too many things must line up for that to realistically be on the table, such as every head coach becoming an employee at the school.

Regardless, 50 wins since the program’s inception is nothing to scoff at. Osborne said he thought that, by now, he’d be discussing win number 20.

It’s also a long season: Calvary’s first two losses both came by at least three scores. The Knights are 1-2 and host Sherwood Christian Friday night.

“The guys bought in quickly to the sport,” Osborne said. “We had some strong guys who played together as a team.”

Remaining 2019 Calvary football schedule

  • Sept. 13: Sherwood Christian
  • Sept. 20: Notre Dame Academy
  • Sept. 27: Lafayette Christian
  • Oct. 4: Skipstone Academy
  • Oct. 11: Springwood
  • Oct. 18: @ Terrell Academy
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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.