A strange thing happened for Cocke County High School on the road to returning its football program to respectability.
Decision makers behind the wheel decided to take a U-turn, which could perhaps represent a return to its old ways.
Cocke County High School decided to go a different direction with its football program earlier this week when they apparently ousted football coach Greg Hacker on Monday.
An outsider, Hacker was brought in to the coaching job from South Carolina in early 2010 to help return to respectability. Cocke County had won five games, while losing numerous others in embarrassing fashion, in the previous five seasons prior to his arrival in Newport.
The football program was on the brink of irrelevance and was becoming a laughing stock across East Tennessee. In fact, some would argue it was already there.
Those involved with athletics across the region, at other schools and media outlets, did not take the Cocke County program seriously. Even those teams which had future NCAA Division I-AA and Divison II starters and a future TSSAA Mr. Football on the roster were afterthoughts.
That is why Hacker was insistent on changing a culture - at Cocke County High and within the football program itself - that had become satisfied with losing. The attitude there was something that was likely apparent from the day Hacker stepped foot on campus, after coming from a winning background.
It's possible that while in the attempt to correct the culture at Cocke County High School, feathers were ruffled.
"The kids sort of had a gray cloud over their head that losing was acceptable," said Hacker, in an article that appeared in an August 31, 2010 edition of the Newport Plain Talk. "The big thing I think is the kids are not used to winning."
Hacker, in three stops as an assistant coach prior to his arrival in Newport, was a part of 112 varsity football victories as a coach on the offensive side of the ball. He was also instrumental in coaching young players, such as Rafael Little at T.L. Hanna - who went on to play in major college football and the NFL.
"So I assume, being an outsider, coming from traditionally winning programs that I have been fortunate enough to coach at, that rubs off a lot," Hacker said in the 2010 article. "If you've been in a successful program, you understand what you have to do to get to that point."
While the fact that Hacker only won nine games in three years might not look like a winning difference on paper, it is a remarkable turnaround in a short period of time for this football program.
Cocke County, which was outscored by 311 points in the low water mark of a dreadful 0-10 2008 season, quickly became competitive under Hacker.
A moribund offensive attack, which at times was outscored by more points than it had gained yards in the past, made strides and had Cocke County in the thick of football games under him. CCHS trailed at halftime by an average of single digit margins each year Hacker was at the helm of the
team, compared to a 16.3 point deficit in the 2009 season.
It was easy to see that Cocke County had turned the corner under Hacker. Some might argue that some of his wins came against non-district foes like David Crockett, however when Hacker beat the Pioneers in 2011 it snapped a five-game losing skid to them.
"Once we turned the corner (at T.L. Hanna) everything kept building," Hacker said in the 2010 article. "Once the kids believed in it, the people in the community believed in it, the school believed in it and the (feeder programs) believed in it."
Current players noticed the differences in the program and the success that came with it. They even noticed the impact it had on the community here in Newport.
"We made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years and that was great," Cocke County High School junior Dylan Dockery said on Tuesday. "(It) inspired our community and everyone around us."
Hacker accomplished the success in three years, which was the longest tenure for a head coach since Wes Jones, who led the Fighting Cocks from 2000-2005. Hacker's two immediate predecessors went a combined 4-36.
"It's always been this way here," senior Ethan Murrell said. "Every two to three years and they bring in a new coach."
However, Hacker couldn't get the right people - the decision makers for the future at Cocke County High School - to believe in the success he had demonstrated on the gridiron.
Hacker isn't talking about the decision. But who could blame him? He could face possible backlash
from those who forced him from his coaching job, as he tries to finish out the school year as a teacher and a land a coaching job elsewhere.
School administrators aren't saying much. But who could blame them? How do you reconcile a decision to fire the most successful football coach the school has had in over a decade.
The only side we are getting is from the players themselves. And that's probably the side that matters most. Though, you wouldn't know judging by the decisions made by their authority figures.
"If you're honest with kids, stick with your guns and be fair and treat them with some respect, you're going to get a lot more out of them," Hacker said in 2010. "These kids are looking for someone to direct them in the right direction to get them back on track."
Instead, the kids at Cocke County High School who thought they were on the right track, now have now been given yet another turn to follow in their football lives after having the rug pulled out from under them.
Seth Butler is the Sports Editor of the Newport Plain Talk. He may be reached at email@example.com
. You can follow him on Twitter @NPTSethButler.