Silver Bluff head coach Al Lown has been at the helm for more than 20 years, long enough to fully appreciate honors like his most recent: the 2013 Aiken Standard Coach of the Year.
“It's always satisfying to be recognized, but the older you get, the more you recognize the people around you it takes to win an award like this,” he said, pointing to players and assistant coaches alike.
Fellow head coach Lee Sawyer of Strom Thurmond was glad to hear Lown was being honored, and his reasoning was two-fold.
“No. 1, how could you not like the man? He's a character,” Sawyer said.
Coaching counterparts aren't the only ones to appreciate Lown's lighthearted nature. All-Aiken Standard first-team offensive lineman and second-team linebacker James Jacks acknowledged that side, but he also made sure to note the business side of his head coach.
“He will go out to practice and be serious and get all over somebody for a mistake, and then come in the locker room and joke around with the guys,” Jacks said.
For his part, Lown said his ability to keep things light was about perspective. Also a social studies teacher and athletic director at Silver Bluff, Lown said that both of those jobs take up more of his time during the average day than coaching.
As a result, he isn't always burdened with the stress that might normally be present as the leader of a program with the expectations that Silver Bluff football has.
“The least amount of time I spend professionally is coaching football,” he said. “So that kind of keeps it in some perspective.”
That hasn't changed the fact that he's highly regarded among his peers, evident in the second portion of Sawyer's reaction.
“I've always had a lot of respect for the job he does,” said Sawyer, who was an assistant at Swansea when he first encountered Lown in the playoffs. “Wherever I've been, I've kind of kept up with his career.”
That career has included 200 wins, numerous region titles and a pair of state titles. His Bulldogs came up one play short in a 28-24 loss to Batesburg-Leesville in this year's Class AA, Division II state championship game, but that didn't cloud Lown's view of the season.
He specifically pointed to the end of the Lower State title game, when his defense came up with a fourth-down stop in overtime to beat Bamberg-Ehrhardt 14-7 and clinch a trip to Benedict College for the state championship. What made the victory special for the coach was watching his players' response to the ending.
“The elation they felt coming off the field, it was great to watch them enjoy it as much as they did,” Lown said.
Senior right guard Alex Graham said the reaction, which included “people from all over Aiken County,” was about the team unity that Lown and the staff had helped create over time.
“We had been working for four years at the same goal, and we did it,” he said. “We didn't know what to do with ourselves.”
The season didn't begin with much cause for celebration in Petticoat Junction. The Bulldogs squared off against Sawyer's Rebels in Johnston and came away with a 31-15 loss in which their Wing-T offense produced just 284 yards, but the next week was a different story.
Again on the road, Silver Bluff dominated Aiken 35-7 and racked up 329 yards in a balanced effort, and the Bulldogs didn't look back during a 12-game winning streak that took them all the way to the state championship game.
“That doesn't faze him or his kids,” Sawyer said of his team's victory over Silver Bluff. “They just went back to work.”
Lown credited the culture that he and his assistants have developed in the Bulldog program for that mindset within his team. The coaches are up front about the fact that they will play tough competition – the Class AA Bulldogs played four of their five non-region games against bigger schools – and the players take a different approach as a result.
“We do that for a reason, so we can find out what we can do to get better,” Lown said. “They understand the bigger picture than just week to week.”
Another big part of the Bulldog culture is the Wing-T offense. Built on misdirections and pre-snap motion, the run-first attack was highly successful this season as Shaquez Wright ran for 1,476 yards and 18 touchdowns while fellow senior RJ Stallings ran for 1,202 yards and 13 scores.
“His kids are always fundamentally sound,” Sawyer said. “They run that Wing-T to perfection.”
The Bulldogs are able to run the offense so well because of the knowledge of offensive line coach Keith Radford and the commitment of the players, Lown said. He added that the players are engaged in the offense because every player is responsible for helping the variety of ball carriers get free of tacklers and gain yardage, and “that teamwork helps us a long way.”
“He understands the Wing-T great,” Lown said of Radford. “We just enjoy it; it involves the whole team.”
Graham said the simplicity of the offense and the big-play nature of players like Wright and Stallings added to his enjoyment.
“I loved it,” he said. “As an offensive guard for me it was easy because we usually had one rule. Nose, down. If we were pulling it was different, but the simplicity of it for an offensive lineman meant that we could really work on our keys and steps and really move forward as a unit.”
At some point, though, all that fun is going to come to an end, at least as far as Lown's involvement is concerned. The 57-year-old said that he knows his career won't extend long enough for him to see too many more runs like the one he led this season, and he's undecided if the 2013 campaign was his last.
He said he will make his decision around the first of the year and has no intention to “drag it out,” only that he intends to talk with his wife and “some people I really trust” before making the call.
“While I enjoy a lot of what I do, there's a lot of time involved with it,” he said. “I wouln't be truthful if I said I hadn't thought about (retirement).”
Whether it's Lown or someone else getting the Bulldogs ready for next season, a lot will have changed. In addition to Wright and Stallings, Silver Bluff loses 15 seniors, more than half the roster. While he acknowledged the challenges inherent with that much turnover, Lown highlighted the positives of having all that experience around so recently, including four-year starters like Jacks, Gyasi Yeldell, and Jalen Douse.
“It's going to be different; there's no doubt about it. We've got a lot of holes to fill,” he said. “We've also got a lot of momentum, and these guys showed a lot of younger guys how much hard work it takes to get to where we did.”
The players left behind aren't the only ones with lessons from their time under Lown, though. Graham said that he learned many valuable lessons from a man he called “such a figure of authority.”
“You look up to the guy. There's been times where in a game or middle of a season we just would be lost. We wouldn't know what to do,” he said. “Coach was always such a leader and such a role model. On the field he was relentless. Nobody was going to take a play off and nobody was ever going to stop fighting.”
Jacks said that those lessons extended beyond the football field.
“I enjoyed playing for Lown and all the coaches, but he taught us about more than football,” he said. “He teaches how to be successful in life, and that's a big part of what makes him such a great coach and leader for our team.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.
Wednesday: All-Aiken Standard Team
Thursday: Aiken Standard Offensive Player of the Year
Friday: Aiken Standard Defensive Player of the Year
Today: Aiken Standard Coach of the Year