|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands sophomore Brennan Kelsay punts the ball in the playoff win at Conner last season. Kelsay is one of many returning players with varsity experience that new head coach Bob Sphire will have to work with this year.|
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Bob Sphire may see his 63-year-old self when he looks in the mirror, but the new head coach of the Highlands Bluebirds football program said he has the energy of a 25-year-old.
Sphire hopes to use that energy to push the Bluebirds back to the level of excellence long-time followers are used to seeing.
"I think honesty is the best thing. This is the way of the world now. There's a lot more moving and transferring. It just makes it that much more imperative," Sphire said.
"The kids can see right through whether something is legit or not. I give today's generation a ton of credit for being able to call things what they are so you do have to have to be able to produce and put a product on the field.
Every day, those kids need to feel like they're getting developed. (The coach) cares about them. He has a template for which if they follow it, they have a chance to succeed. The more everyone wins, more individuals have opportunities. As a coach, you can't fake that. You have to go into work. You have to build relationships. They need to know they have a coach that has coached in just about every situation, that has coached about every type of kid in his career and has been able to adapt and adjust to the talent level that there is."
Highlands owns 23 state championships in school history, good for second in the state behind Louisville Trinity's 27. But the Bluebirds have gone 38-34 since winning the last state championship in 2014 with one district championship and one region championship both coming in 2015. Highlands has advanced past the second round of the playoffs one time since 2015.
Sphire has been a head coach for 32 seasons with the last 15 in Georgia and has elevated the level of play at each of the previous three stops. He started the program at Lexington Catholic in 1991 and guided the Knights to the Class AAA state title in 2005 when current Highlands Director of Athletics Wes Caldwell's junior year. That team finished 14-1 beating the Bluebirds, 17-0 in the region championship game. The Knights won another state championship two years later.
Sphire then ventured to North Gwinnett High School located to the northeast of Atlanta in Suwanee, Georgia in 2006 and led the Bulldogs to two state runner-up finishes. The Bulldogs finished 110-29 in those 11 seasons with five region championships. The program had not gone passed the second round of the playoffs prior to Sphire's arrival.
But Sphire and staff had to overcome a huge challenge after the first runner-up finish in 2007. North Gwinett split up into another high school in Lanier in 2010.
"Most people were in my ear saying this is the time you should leave," Sphire said. "They had been really good to me. I thought it was the exact opposite of that. Let's go ahead and weather the storm. Let's get it back to where it's supposed to be before we even entertain anything else. So we went through a two, three-year period where we lost 1400 kids. None of the teachers wanted to leave that school because it was a great school system. But we held the thing together."
Sphire may have left North Gwinnett after 2016 just three years after the 2013 state runner-up finish. But the Bulldogs won the first state championship in school history in 2017.
"I literally looked those kids in the eye in the weight room about two weeks before Camden County called me and I said, 'Somebody in this room is getting ready to win a state championship," Sphire said. "I knew we were right there. I was ticked to death because they earned it. Everybody had worked together to go through that school split and they didn't get caught up in their own ego. We took the circumstances at hand and we kept moving forward. I don't have a crystal ball. But I know that everywhere we've been, the plan that we had in place has given kids the chance to be successful."
Sphire took the job in southeast Georgia at Camden County in 2017. The Wildcats had won three state championships in the 2000s in 2003, 2008 and 2009, but fell to 2-7 in 2016.
Sphire the staff hoped that would propel the Wildcats to greater things in 2020. But the Coronavirus 2019 restrictions hurt the season as Camden County finished 5-6 again losing in the first round of the Class AAAAAAA playoffs.
"We had a lot coming back this year. Then Covid hit and we were one of the only school systems in Georgia that decided if you went virtual, you couldn't play," Sphire said. "We lost 25 percent of our roster going into the season. We lost a lot of big kids up front. The building process with the kids had been awesome."
But Sphire could not pass down the opportunity to return to his home state. He's from Brandenburg, Kentucky in Meade County located southwest of Louisville. He and his wife, two kids and granddaughter have family in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.
"When Wes reached out, that goes a long way," Sphire said. "He's a first-class young man. I'm not at all surprised to see him in a role that he's in. I always thought the world of him. He's super competitive, super smart, was a really dual-sport star in football and baseball. I've been so impressed with (Highlands Principal Matt Bertasso). He's a great communicator. I think he's got great vision for the school. I've always liked competitive environments.
I know from my time in Kentucky that's what Fort Thomas is. That's the kind of setting that I think as a high school coach you always want to try to be in."
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association has stated there will be spring football this year. It normally starts after basketball season ends.