Valley Preps

‘He’s a great man and a great teacher.’ New Spencer coach sets high expectations for team

Robert Sanders has high expectations for the Spencer Greenwave.

The team’s first-year head coach, Sanders’ football coaching career in Muscogee County started at the now-closed Daniel Middle School. Since then, he’s coached numerous sports and held various positions at Spencer, including athletic director and wrestling coach.

Sanders watched last season’s Greenwave team, that he said arguably had more talent than this year’s squad, go 3-8 last season. He saw the potential in that team, and now has the opportunity to bring it to light. Although this is Sanders’ first head coaching position at the high school level, he has worked at Spencer for 24 years, including stints as special teams coordinator, defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator.

“I saw the potential in this program,” Sanders said. “I saw how close they were last year to a lot of games and stuff, and I just felt like, if I had an opportunity to take over the program, I could bring something to the table that would help us navigate through some tough times.”

That opportunity came.

Sanders was named the head coach on January 23. He replaced 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.

Sanders said he did not “actively pursue” the job, he simply placed his name in the pool for consideration. But several key players, notably receiver Malachi Morris, Spencer’s Division I prospect, and linebacker Jakobe Smith, the team’s defensive captain, pushed for him to be named head coach.

“He’s not only a great coach, but he’s a great man and a great teacher,” Morris said. “To him, it’s more than just a game. It’s about helping grow and develop young men to become older, successful men.”

Sanders’ father, the late Pete Sanders, was the first head football coach at Carver compiling a 55-81 record from 1961-75. Robert said Pete’s players would “run through a wall for him,” and said it was “amazing” how much his father’s players respected him.

Sanders said he wanted to establish a new kind of discipline within the program upon taking the job. He met with his coaching staff, and emphasized structure and accountability. That structural change has caught the attention of his players, who see Sanders as more than just a coach.

“(The kids) are buying into the system,” Spencer athletic director Pamela Smith said. “When you have all the different changes of coaches the last four years, it shakes up the system. So he’s trying to bring that consistency. ... You can see it transferring to the players.”

Smith said the main difference is that the discipline is more consistent; that if Sanders says something one time, that one time is enough. Players are better about being on time to things, like practices, and do a better job of holding each other accountable.

“It’s rare that people miss practice,” center Zion Wallace said. “Last year, people really didn’t care about practice.”

Sanders also considers himself a jokester, a characteristic his players seem to enjoy.

Morris said that after the Greenwave’s two-game winning streak, Sanders started dancing during practice and in the locker room. Sanders also gives his players nicknames based on their personalities: He playfully calls Wallace “Sensitive,” because, according to the senior, “I complain about everything.”

He nicknamed Morris “Division 1” because of the 6-foot-2 senior’s verbal commitment to Navy.

“Every day he’ll make sure I know I’m committed (to Navy),” Morris said. “He makes it known every day.”

Sanders believes the Greenwave are a playoff-caliber team “if we play up to our abilities,” and credits much of that to the system of accountability in place now.

Sanders actually thinks the Greenwave are ahead of schedule. He was not concerned with wins and losses heading into his first season, and Spencer’s team is relatively young: the team has 18 seniors, but not many of them start.

Spencer sits at 2-4 after falling to defending GHSA Class 2A state champion Heard County and Lamar County. The Greenwave’s four losses include a 20-14 season-opener loss to Columbus, a game in which they led for the majority of the contest, and a 44-7 shellacking at the hands of rival Carver in the Heritage Bowl.

Sanders believes, while the Greenwave sit at 0-2 in Region 5-AA, a top-three finish is fully within grasp. To do so, the Greenwave must rebound following two tough losses.

The Greenwave have gone 2-2 since the Carver loss, the two wins being a 21-14 win over Northside, and a surprise 35-21 victory over Schley County — a win Sanders thinks could be a turning point for the program.

“During (a) bye week, I got with my coaches, and we re-established our goals,” Sanders said. “We’ve really got a chance to be special, so right now, our goal is to compete for one of the top three spots in our region.

“I think if we stay sticking to our fundamentals and core values, I think we’ll be OK.”

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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.