CUTHBERT -- When Joe Williams retired at Randolph-Clay as head boys basketball coach after the 2008 season -- ending one of the most storied reigns in Georgia high school basketball, regardless of classification -- on Williams' bench sat second-year assistant and former Stewart-Quitman head coach Oglesby Jackson, who was ready and willing to try to continue the Red Devils' tradition.
Instead, after initially being passed over for the head coaching job, one year later he now finds himself trying to revive it.
"(When I didn't get the job) after Joe retired, I was fine. I just figured it wasn't my time. Plus, I always said whoever took over for coach Joe after he left would have to be a fool because it would be awfully hard to fill those shoes," Jackson said of Williams, who won a little more than 1,000 games and six state titles during his 28-year career in Cuthbert, while putting together a string on 90 straight victories at one point. "But look at me now. Here I am trying to (take on that task)."
And so far, so good.
The Red Devils are 4-2 after a 73-63 win against Pelham on
Tuesday, thanks to 20 points from Malcolm Jones, 19 from Tim Stringer-Davis, 16 from Cardaryle Curry and 11 from Shaquille Nunnally.
But this team could just as easily be 6-0.
After all, in their two losses, the Red Devils led Herald No. 4 Terrell County and No. 3 Bainbridge in the second half in both those games, only to lose to the Greenwave by six points and the larger Class AAAA Bearcats by seven.
But Jackson will be the first to admit, bringing a Randolph-Clay program with such a storied tradition back to prominence is not a sprint. It's a marathon.
Especially considering all the turmoil that enveloped the team in 2009, one year after Williams left.
When Jackson came over from Stewart-Quitman in 2007, he said his goal was to spend time on Williams' bench and learn as much as he could from the legendary coach he'd spent many years hearing about -- both as a head coach at a neighboring school and as a former player at Brooks County. But Jackson, who teaches health and P.E. at Randolph-Clay and is the school's assistant principal, describes the situation once Williams decided to step down as "difficult" because of a "rift" that occurred within the school between administrators and coaches once a transition was set to place.
"A lot of people don't realize all that went on out there. There was dissension. We lost our principal and our head basketball coach in the middle of the year and some of the kids (on the team in 2009) had their parents telling them to quit. It was just a difficult situation. There was a definite rift," Jackson said, referring to the dismissal of former Red Devils A.D., football and basketball coach Tyrone Kellog, who is now the head hoops coach at Turner County -- a school the Red Devils won't face this year unless it's in the playoffs. "The season was horrendous and people weren't happy with how things were going.
And after I had helped coach Joe with the team (in 2007 and 2008), by 2009, I wasn't helping at all and I just figured if I ever got my chance, it would come some time later or at another school.
"Which was fine (with me). Like I said, I just figured it wasn't my time."
The Red Devils got off to a very un-Randolph-Clay-like 5-5 start under Kellog, who was let go after a 66-46 loss to Robertsdale, Ala., on Dec. 26, prompting a change from the top on down in Cuthbert.
Enter Jackson, who was officially given the reins of the program before the Red Devils' Jan. 6 game against Region 1-A rival Seminole County.
And low and behold, they won easily, 63-39.
"That first win felt good. It felt like we were about to have something going," said Jackson, who didn't stay on Cloud 9 very long as R-C- then lost 10 of its last 12 games to finish the season 8-15 and miss the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. "But then we slipped and we didn't finish out the season very well. I knew we had the summer to work it out, and I think (the start we've had so far this year) shows we've corrected what was wrong."
According to Jackson, "what was wrong" was the bond that was lacking between player and coach -- the same bond Jackson said he learned from Williams was ultimately the most important thing a head high school basketball coach needs when trying to lead and direct impressionable young men.
"I felt bad the way we ended and all I wanted to do was get back in the gym and build that program back up over the summer. And one of the most important things I learned from coach Joe that stands out to me is the connection you have with your players -- and they have with you. It's a respect that's not given, but earned and it's one you have to build," Jackson said. "You can teach them Xs and Os all you want, but when a team has that respect for you -- when crunch time comes -- they give that extra 'Oomph'.
"They bust their butts for you. That's what I think we were missing."
Jackson said he's worked hard since taking over midseason to restore all that was lacking, and even seeks advice from Williams in regular phone calls on how to handle the program.
"It helps," Jackson said of his talks with the former coach. "That's for sure."
Fast forward to this season, and Jackson has essentially the same personnel the team had a year ago, minus one player who followed Kellog to Turner County. His team boasts seven seniors, and other than those two losses to Bainbridge and Terrell -- the latter of which the Red Devils led by 14 points at one time -- they've outscored their opponents in their four wins 333-236.
"Right now, we feel good. We basically had the same team as last year when we got blown out by 20-something points by Terrell County, and then this year we had a great chance to win that game if we didn't (falter) late in clutch situations," said Jackson, whose squad play at Seminole County on Friday, then hosts Mitchell County on Saturday. "We've overcome a lot already just to get to where we are now, and we'll keep overcoming (until we get back to where we think should be) -- and where our fans expect us to be."
And so far, so good.