Reprinted at the request of RBS Bulldog Football Fans
Story By: John Ferguson
Think fast – when can a head coach with a career record of 4-9 be called a success? When his name is Kyle Shoulders, head coach of the rising Red Boiling Springs Bulldogs.
Rising? With a record like that? Well, yes – but, to understand where this is going, you have to know where the program has been.
The loveable losers
Most everyone in Tennessee knows about Red Boiling Springs. Not many know where it is, but they know what it’s famous for – 0-61.
Before the 2009 season, the Bulldogs had not won a game since Week 9 of the 2002 season. Six consecutive 0-10 seasons – that kind of streak is hard on the soul.
None provide affluence. Money comes hard there, as evidenced by the string of empty shops you drive past on the way to the school. The growth in the county is all to the west, in neighboring Lafayette.
Most towns like this rally around their football teams as a source of community pride and unity – 0-61 makes either seem hollow.
The only tradition the Bulldogs had was losing. Their latest stretch of futility wasn’t even the worst in the program’s history – the team went 0-63 between 1986 and 1993. From 1986 to 2008, the football program was 18-212. As one coach described it, “Everyone wanted to schedule us for homecoming.”
Coach after coach threw himself into the maw – 1980 RBS graduate Tony Boles stepped up in 2003, and then stepped down, winless, in 2007. He was followed by Scott Baughn, who survived one winless season before leaving for personal reasons.
Reasons for the streak abound. The school only enrolls about 200 students, one of the tiniest in the state. Money for anything is scarce. Some of the home situations are not the best.
Maybe losing was to be expected.
Too young to know any better
In April 2009, Kyle Shoulders was chosen from four applicants to fill the head coaching vacancy at RBS. The 26-year-old was well aware of the history of the program, having graduated from nearby Macon County High in 2002. His senior year of high school was the last time the Bulldogs had won.
After earning his teaching degree from Middle Tennessee State University, Shoulders returned to Macon County to teach and coach, serving as offensive coordinator for the Tigers.
“Actually, the losing record was a bit of an encouragement to me,” Shoulders said. “I knew I could make it my own. I could bring in my own staff, my own traditions, and start moving the program in the right direction.”
Shoulders started by calling some coaching friends and asking them a crazy question: How about coming to Red Boiling Springs?
The new Bulldog staff brought both youthful exuberance and winning expectations with them. Jason East, 28, coached at state powerhouse and district-foe Trousdale County, a program diametrically opposite RBS in terms of tradition and success. Longtime area football stalwart Bob Fitzpatrick, who played at Tennessee Tech and coached at Macon County, came on board as a volunteer.
“They may have thought I was a little crazy when I first called them, but then they realized that we could all be on the same page together, building something from scratch,” Shoulders said.
Shoulders then added an even younger Jeremy Phillips, who at 22 is enrolled in college and working towards his teaching degree. Phillips doubles as coach and scout team quarterback – put pads on him, and you would be hard-pressed to separate him from his charges.
Even the managers were young – two sophomores and a junior.
There’s a new sheriff in town
The staff went right to work on all aspects of the program. They refurbished the stadium, finding a good field under years of neglect. They tore old lockers out of the field house, renovated the weight room, and created a better home away from home for the team. Next came tearing down the old bad habits.
“The old program had no summer workout program, no conditioning, and no two-a-days in preseason. In fact, one of the first things we had to correct was attendance at practice,” Shoulders said. “In years past, boys would just skip practice.”
Shoulders dropped two rising seniors from the team during the spring; in fact, they were the two best athletes on the squad, including the presumptive starting quarterback.
“They didn’t want to do the work,” Shoulders said and shrugged, telling a story about one hot day during the summer when the team was out running through town. The young man in question drove by the team, radio blaring, laughing and yelling.
“He had told some players that he’d be back starting for the team in the fall, after skipping all the conditioning and training. One of the team members came and asked if that boy could come back, and I said, ‘No.’ I think that sent a message to our boys.”
The staff set four lockers slightly apart and named four captains not for their ability but for their leadership in the classroom, in the hallways and on the field.
A new start
There’s a sign on the wall in the weight room that reads, “Did I make my team better today?” It is a mantra that the new staff spent the spring practice and summer instilling in the Bulldogs.
“We never talked about the losses,” Shoulders said. “We always looked towards the future, and told the boys ‘Don’t look back.’ “
Instead of a spring scrimmage, the team played a Red vs. White game – quite a feat for a club with only 28 players. However, the combined infusion of youth and commitment sent a jolt through the community, which turned out in numbers for the spring game.
That energy, in turn, helped motivate the players through the summer workout program. Their resolve resonated even more with the townspeople, who responded with more support in the form of money.
Signage along the fences of the stadium multiplied, the program began to see a little bit of money, and even though hopes were rightfully muted, the town turned out in full force on Aug. 21 for the Bulldogs’ home opener against Oakdale.
The Eagles never knew what hit them.
Running back Shelton Watson rushed for a touchdown to give RBS an early lead. Quarterback Cody Dickens found Brandon Kelley in the end zone for a late first-half strike, and Kelley picked off and returned an Oakdale pass in the dying seconds of the quarter, giving the Bulldogs a 21-0 halftime lead. Dickens rushed for one more score in the third, and the team celebrated wildly as the crowd rushed the field at the final horn. Red Boiling Springs 28, Oakdale 12.
Two weeks later after a bye week, a last-minute touchdown pass against visiting Pickett County brought some strange new vocabulary to town, words never associated with RBS football.
Undefeated, and on a winning streak.
Teaching an old Dog new tricks
Reality crashed down the following Friday, when Watertown hung 50 first-half points on the RBS squad. The Bulldogs finished the 2009 season with a 2-8 record. The young pups were competitive in three other games down the stretch, giving hope that the program was indeed on the rise.
Coach Shoulders, now teaching on campus at Red Boiling Springs, has seen his roster grow to over 30 players. The habits and training patterns introduced by the coaching staff are no longer new and strange to the boys, and after a calendar year together, the team has been able to expand their basic playbook and football I.Q. The tragic death of sophomore lineman Brandon Tidwell during the summer galvanized the feeling of team and family. The program is moving forward – the proof is found in their 2-0 start this season.
That success, however, brings a whole new set of challenges.
The burden of expectations
At the base of the hill atop which the school stands is Big Ed’s BBQ, home of some of the best grilled and smoked meat you’ll find anywhere. The place is only open Thursday through Sunday, and a sign on the door lists the operating hours as, “open until sold out” – which, according to the locals, happens quickly. “Get there early,” advised Coach Fitzpatrick, who walked in himself about thirty minutes after recommending the place.
Through the aromatic hickory smoke, owner Nathan Brown pointed out a perceptible difference around town.
“People come in on Saturdays and want to talk about the games,” Brown said as he moved some chicken around on the grill. “That never used to happen. But the biggest difference is in the boys. They come down here after school to get some food, and they carry themselves differently. Now, they’re proud of the jersey they’re wearing, compared to before.”
The staff also noted the change. “There’s a big difference. On game days, you see the team colors all around town,” Michelle Bell said, serving a steady stream of customers, many of whom were sporting RBS outfits in anticipation of the night’s game.
Those rising expectations present a whole new set of problems for the RBS coaching staff, a fact not lost on Shoulders.
“As the season progressed last year, it was a struggle at times to keep the team motivated, especially in some of the lopsided games,” the coach mused. “It’s harder to be a 2-8 team than a 0-61 team.”
That makes sense, in a strange way. When you expect to lose, and everyone expects you to lose, then there is no pressure – simply fulfill the self-fulfilling prophecy. 0-61 is a novelty act, a sideshow … 2-8 is just another struggling football team.
The team, and the town, are both learning what it means to expect success. It’s called building a program, a task Shoulders and his staff do not take lightly.
“We want the boys to feel the pride of being part of a program,” Shoulders explained. “I tell them all the time that it takes a special breed of person to play football. Not everyone can put in the time, heart, and effort necessary to have success in this sport.”
The staff emphasize to the boys the concept of Being a Standard, and hope that the program produces young men who go on to contribute to their community and society when they graduate. Along the way, Shoulders also works hard to instill in the team a love of the game itself.
“We try to show them how important football is to them while they’re playing. As a player, I took some things for granted – now I wish I could go back, just for one more practice, one more game.”
“We’ve tried to instill in these boys the importance of attendance, a good work ethic and dedication – I’m glad that their hard work paid off, and they’ve gotten to show off what they earned.”