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Hunt High varsity football coach head Ryan Sulkowski will quickly tell you that his coaching staff has made his transition from the head football coach at Coffee County Central High in Manchester, Tennessee, to Wilson not only an easy one, but an enjoyable one.
“The coaching staff chemistry is good right now and that’s what the kids are feeding off of,” Sulkowski said while sitting in the coaches office at Bill Williamson Field House following Wednesday morning’s practice. “I feel good right now about the coaching staff being positive and it trickles down to the players. I’m most happy with that! The kids know what we’re thinking. They know when it’s time to joke. They know when it’s time to be serious.”
The quick camaraderie between Sulkowski and his assistant coaches Richie Pridgen, Keith Byrum, John Glover, Allan Daniell, Calvin Barnes and Ben Ellis has helped Sulkowski establish himself with the players as they look to end the Warriors’ streak of three straight seasons with a losing record and missing the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs.
“The kids have bought in to not only what he’s selling but what we’re all selling,” said Byrum. “We’re all on the same page and that’s a good feeling. When somebody new comes in, you don’t know how they’re going to be until they get here and it was nice for it to be a good fit. Hopefully, the results will reflect that. But I feel like, right this minute, things are going really well.”
Probably much better than Byrum would have believed six months ago. You see, a lot of why Hunt football looks like one big happy family again has a lot to do with Byrum. After all, it’s not every day that a head coach gets fired and then sticks around to be the defensive coordinator on the staff of his new boss.
Most football coaches — or even men in general — aren’t capable of doing that. There’s always the issue of pride or ego or whatever you want to call it that keeps us from making good decisions. And it wasn’t easy for Byrum, who was named head coach after Stevie Hinnant retired from coaching and teaching in June 2016.
In the six years before Byrum’s first season, the Warriors had gone 63-19, won four 3-A Big East Conference titles and reached the state semifinals four times. Hunt was coming off a 9-4 season in 2015 but it all quickly fell apart for Byrum. Hunt went 3-8 in each of his first two seasons. Last fall, the Warriors got off to a 3-1 start before a spate of injuries decimated their starting lineup and they finished 4-7.
Byrum had to overcome a makeshift staff his first season and much tougher nonconference opponents throughout his three-year tenure than the Warriors faced when they were winning 12 and 13 games a season, but the feeling by the end of year 3 was that the Warriors, injuries notwithstanding, had gotten better. Unfortunately, he was not allowed to remain at the helm.
“Back in January, I was devastated when I was told there would be a coaching change,” Byrum said. “I was in a low place.”
Byrum said that his wife, Lauren, and their son and daughter, Jackson and Naomi, were who helped him get through it.
“Thank the Lord for my family,” he said. “Without them, I don’t know how I would have made it. My wife and kids are amazing!”
Byrum, a science teacher who had been coaching at Hunt since 1999, said that he received support from current and former coaches and players. He didn’t know who the new coach would be but he decided he would wait until he met him to see if there would be a place for him on the new staff.
“I had opportunities to go do things in other places and they were good opportunities for coaches that I respect for and places that I think would be fun places to work,” Byrum said. “But, at the same time, my heart’s here and once I met Coach (Sulkowski) and saw what kind of guy he is and talked a little bit more to our players about what they wanted, I knew that I was making the right choice.”
Sulkowski said he wasn’t sure if having his predecessor on the staff would work at first, but he knew it was entirely contingent on what kind of rapport he and Byrum would have.
“Early on, I was a little concerned but he and I sat down and talked when I first arrived,” Sulkowski said. “You know, he’s doing an outstanding job and for me to entrust the defense to him where he’s calling everything, I’m learning his defense.”
Byrum said that he and Sulkowski “meshed well” during their initial meeting and he realized that it could work as long as he was willing to accept a new role.
“I didn’t want ego, pride, hurt feelings to allow me to make a choice that wouldn’t feel good,” Byrum said.
After all, Byrum, said, coaches are always asking players to do what’s best for the team.”
“That’s part of being on a team,” he said. “Having those conversations and being in those kinds of positions. What kind of hypocrite would I be if I said that I don’t have the role I want, so I don’t want any role at all? That’s what we ask our players to do and that’s not what I want to model for our kids.”
Regardless of how many games Hunt wins this season, the Warriors have already gotten a huge W from Byrum. To be able to put aside personal feelings and continue to do what he loves and be a part of something that is important to him, says a lot about the kind of man Keith Byrum is. I hope those Hunt players are paying attention because that’s a straight-up life lesson far more powerful than any quotes on a chalk board in the locker room.
“I think Keith being where he’s at, the pressure of being a head coach off of him, I can tell a huge difference from when he walked in the door,” Sulkowski said. “It’s a relief. He’s a football coach. We’re all football coaches.”
And for Byrum that means he’s back doing what he loves — coaching football at Hunt.
“I wouldn’t be happier some place else,” he assured.