Larry Cornelius, who brings experience from five schools in three different states, is taking over the Mitchell County football program, which lost 14 seniors from last year’s Region 1-A runnerup team.
CAMILLA — This is one of those you-can’t-get-there-from-here stories that somehow happened.
How else do you explain how a guy who grew up in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania landed in the southwest corner of Georgia?
He’s here, right smack dab in the middle of peanut and cotton country, and Larry Cornelius couldn’t be happier. He doesn’t even mind the gnats.
He’s got bigger problems to worry about.
Cornelius is the new head football coach at Mitchell County High School, where not only the cupboard but most of the kitchen is bare. Mitchell lost 14 seniors from last year’s Region 1-A runner-up team.
There are only three players who started on last year’s team, and everything points to a down year for the Eagles.
Just don’t tell Cornelius.
“A lot of people might view this as a rebuilding year for Mitchell. I don’t,’’ he said. “I feel like we’re loaded with skilled, position players. We can definitely be a playoff contender.’’
It takes a while to connect the dots, and it’s a little hard to believe Cornelius has an arm’s length of experience, even though he’s just 32 (and looks even younger).
He landed his first job as an assistant high school coach at 20, and has coached just about everything from basketball to wrestling along the way to Camilla. He didn’t need a GPS to get there, just the savvy and courage to take a bumper-car ride from one school to another and an impromptu roadmap that he scribbled himself as he moved up the coaching food chain.
He was the kind of kid who competed in just about everything growing up, including ice hockey and roller hockey, and played every position on his high school football team except quarterback.
He’s a self-professed Pittsburgh Penguins fan who looks like a young Woody Harrelson (remember when Woody was tending bar at Cheers?) and coaches like a guy who has something to prove.
He loves his wife, his kids and the Wing-T.
That’s right, the Wing-T. The spread is gone at Mitchell, where Cornelius will try to run the Wing-T right into the state playoffs.
He always wanted to coach, and he was still in college (he was on the wrestling team at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania) when he took the job as the head wrestling coach and assistant football coach at the age of 20 at his old high school, Cambridge Springs. He was there two years before he felt the need to head south.
“I knew I wanted to move south because of the weather,’’ Cornelius said. “Snow is great when you’re a kid, but it gets very depressing as an adult.’’
He was on vacation at Myrtle Beach, S.C., when he saw a job online for an assistant football coaching job at South Columbia High in Tabor City, N.C.
But the job had one catch.
“They told me that whoever they hired had to also be the head boys basketball coach,’’ Cornelius said. “I was a wrestler. I played rec basketball. We went .500 my first year in basketball, and then they hired another basketball coach and I coached the JV team. I was there for three years and coached basketball and football and coached softball for two years. And I was the head track coach for one year. I’m a coach’s coach."
The football team lost five games in the three years Cornelius was there and reached the state quarterfinals twice and the state semifinals once.
“The coach there, Joey Price, was the head coach and A.D. and he had a lot of success,’’ Cornelius said. “I never saw myself becoming the head coach there, so after three years I felt it was time to move on.’’
Cornelius met his wife in Tabor City, and that’s also where he was introduced to the Wing-T.
“I gained a lot of respect for the Wing-T,’’ he said. “To me, it’s the hardest offense to defend.’’
Cornelius wanted a new start.
“I asked my wife, Takeia, where she wanted to live and she said either Florida, Georgia or South Carolina. I sent out 10 resumes and got eight responses,’’ Cornelius said.
One of those was from Randolph-Clay, and that’s how Cornelius ended up in Georgia. He was the defensive coordinator and wrestling coach for the Red Devils for one year, and then when Randolph-Clay’s head football coach Josh Lowe decided to leave, Cornelius went with him to become an assistant at Murray County in North Georgia, about 60 miles north of Atlanta. He was there for two years, and when they opened a new school — North Murray County — Cornelius became the school’s first head football coach.
He had only freshmen and sophomores his first season and played a JV schedule. North Murray tried to compete at the varsity level the next year with only juniors, sophomores and freshmen. His team went 1-9 in 2010. In 2011, his team went 0-10.
“Every coach I talked to told me that when you start a program, it takes four or five years to get it going,’’ Cornelius said. “You need to have your first freshmen class as seniors.
“We had a great offense and gained more than 2,000 yards in rushing and more than 1,000 in passing, but we lost some close games. We lost two games in double overtime. I have complete confidence that (North Murray) will win six games this season.’’
Cornelius won’t be there.
“I was told in March that I had been released from my contract,’’ he said. “It floored me. They have been to the playoffs five times in 75 years at Murray County.’’
It didn’t take Cornelius long to find a job.
“I had so many coaches call me,’’ he said. “By the next Monday, I had two job offers. I had a job offer to become the defensive coordinator at Gordon Central in Calhoun (in North Georgia), and I was going to take it, but they had to wait to get the teaching position. I went online and saw five head coaching positions open. One of those was the Mitchell County job.
“I was still waiting for the teaching job to open up at Gordon, and I sent my packet to Mitchell, and when I interviewed for the job it just clicked. Two hours after I was offered the job at Mitchell, Gordon Central called to offer me the job.’’
He was hired in April as the head football coach and the athletic director, and Cornelius is out to make a point at Mitchell.
“My wife felt I needed to take this job,’’ he said. “I think she wants to see redemption to show we can win. I still have ill will about what happened (to me at North Murray and the way it was handled). But I want to see the kids win. I will be pulling for them to win. (The school administrators at North Murray) should have done it the right way.’’
Lowe, who had Cornelius coaching under him for six years, has no doubt his protege will succeed at Mitchell County.
And he knows why.
“He’s committed to being a student of the game,’’ said Lowe, who is now the assistant principal and athletic director of Jackson High School in Jackson, Ga. “He puts in more time studying film and getting his team prepared for the game than just about anybody. He knows how to prepare and have a plan, and he knows how to take it to his players and deliver the message to his players.
“He puts in the time to prepare and teach his team what they need to know to be ready on Friday night. A lot of coaches have great plans and no players, and some coaches have great players and no plan. He is going to win at Mitchell. He had the plan at North Murray, but he didn’t have the athletes.”
Lowe said Cornelius didn’t have the time to win at North Murray, where the team didn’t have a senior until the third year.
“He had to start from scratch, and he had a shallow coaching staff. I watched that team, and they improved a lot over the three years,’’ Lowe said. “I know it doesn’t show in the win-loss record, but that team was competitive. He got the most out of them. He probably did as well or better than anyone who was put in that position.’’
Cornelius is optimistic about the situation at Mitchell but realizes there will be questions to answer.
“I know the community will have questions about me,’’ Cornelius said. “First, there’s my win-loss record, and secondly, there’s my track record of moving from place to place.
“I’ve moved in the past because I was always moving up. Now I’m a head coach. I don’t want to move. As far as my win-loss record goes, people need to understand it was a brand new program. Growing up in a coaching culture, my dad was a coach. I have the thickest skin you could ever have. Coaches are going to be criticized left and right.’’
He has a few things on his side: Mitchell has a history of finding fast players, and Cornelius is a no-quit coach.
“He’s very passionate about the game,’’ Lowe said. “He’s somebody who will push his players to reach their potential, and they will respect him. He will earn their respect. The program at Mitchell is going to excel while coach Cornelius is there. It may take a few years, but I believe he will take Mitchell County to new heights.’’
There’s something else Lowe admires about Cornelius and one reason the administrators at Mitchell County will love him.
“He succeeds on the field and in the classroom,’’ Lowe said. “His players at North Murray were always eligible. In his years at North Murray, 100 percent of his players were academically eligible. There are not many coaches in the state who can say that.’’
Cornelius knows he will have a mountain to climb at Mitchell, but he’s ready to tackle it. He said he feels right at home and believes he can win.
“The goal is always to win a state championship,’’ he said. “The essence of what we want to do is to see improvement every day, whether it be a leap or a single bound.’’
It has been a long and winding road to get here, but Cornelius believes he is in the right place at the right time.
“I’m really happy to be here,’’ he said. “I believe God puts certain things in your path and opens up roads. I believe God put me here.’’