I wasn’t expecting to dive right back into reader’s questions so fast, but I got one this week that I would say is the best mailbag question I’ve ever received. It’s so good and I thought about it so much, I decided I didn’t want to wait to include it in the March mailbag and I’m singling it out for a column.
Here is the question which had my mind racing all Wednesday afternoon:
“If you had to choose one current WCHS coach to lead their team in their respective sport in a game that would earn a bid to the state tournament, who would you pick?”
WOW! Talk about a tough choice. I’ve had a few “who would win…” questions that made me think a little bit, but most of those have had obvious answers. This one was much tougher – I had to start making up criteria and qualifications on the fly just to start whittling down the competition. Even now, I don’t know if I have the right answer, but I got far enough down the rabbit hole that I feel confident in letting people know who I’d choose.
Before I give my answer (and c’mon, you knew it wouldn’t be that quick and easy), let’s run through some of things I had to think about before making my choice. The first was picking apart the question so I could eliminate a handful of coaches on the spot.
First, they asked about Warren County High School, so that rules out considering any coaches at Boyd and Covenant. Also, they said “their team,” so I think that rules out the following sports: Track, Wrestling, Cross Country, Tennis and Golf. While I think we have good coaches at all those levels who can (and have) get athletes into the state tournament, I think of those as individual sports (that are sometime scored as a team later). Therefore, those coaches – Patty Kelly, Matt Turner – at least for wrestling, Anne Myers, David Dunlap and JW Holt – were not considered. Bowling coach Nick Cantrell also wasn’t on my consideration list for the same premise – their team scores are just a compilation of individual performers.
I also didn’t consider competition cheer coach, the departing Stacey Elam, or Pioneerette coach Penny Shockley. I’m always 100 percent honest that I don’t know what goes into making their teams successful, nor am I completely familiar with their paths to state tournaments (what the question asked), so I omitted them.
Again, that doesn’t mean any of those coaches are any less qualified to lead Warren County athletes to state. Turner, Cantrell, Holt and Myers already have helped athletes advance to state this school year, while Elam and Shockley have their squads competing at national tournaments. Kelly will be sending a few kids to state in the spring, barring something crazy happening.
I only left them off because, as I said, the question was for “teams” and I feel like most of their sports are about making their athletes the best they can be, individually.
That leaves the following coaches (ordered by season, starting with the fall):
Matt Turner, football
Todd Willmore, girls soccer
Erin Blalock, Volleyball
Anthony Lippe, girls basketball
Chris Sullens, boys basketball
Gooby Martin, softball
Phillip King, baseball
August Palombo, boys soccer
What a gauntlet of great coaches. I knew the moment I was asked that it wasn’t going to be fun to announce my pick, but getting to an answer is going to be a blast. If you’re not familiar with why many of these current coaches are probably going to be in the WC Sports Hall of Fame soon, then I’ll fill you in:
Matt Turner, football
Tenure: Three years, 13-17 record
Best season: 2020 – 8-3, third in Region 6-3A, state playoff qualifier
Best known for: Fiery leadership – Turner’s passion helped guide the Pioneers to their first winning season in 40 years and a top-10 state ranking in 2020.
Turner may be coming off his worst season as Pioneer football coach (1-8 in 2021), but he also may have presided over one of the most impressive single seasons in the last 25 years not long ago. The 2020 Pioneers, who were able to win eight straight games on their way to a top 10 state ranking, are going to be an unforgettable squad.
Todd Willmore, Girls Soccer
Tenure: 14 years, 150-100-11 record
Best season: 2012 - 15 wins, district championship, sectional qualifier
Best known for: Consistency – the Lady Pioneers are always a threat to win a district title. Some would say his hair too, and I’m only including it because I know he’ll hate me bringing it up.
Willmore has never put himself in the awkward position of having to fire himself as Lady Pioneer coach. Warren County High School’s athletic director has the most wins of any coach (with his current program) at the school, amassing 150 victories with Lady Pioneer soccer. He’s guided the team to two regular season district titles, one District 6AAA tourney title, seven region bids and two sectionals.
Erin Blalock, Volleyball
Tenure: 2 years, 18-20 record
Best season: 2021 – 9 wins, won four of last five games
Best known for: Dealing with adversity – Blalock’s first two seasons have been shortened considerably by COVID-19, limiting her team’s ability to pile up wins.
Blalock has been an active and excited leader of her alma mater and has taken big steps to setting up the program for future success by establishing a freshman team. Her win totals have been suppressed in two seasons due to COVID cutting out over 50 percent of the team’s scheduled games in 2020 and 2021.
Anthony Lippe, Girls Basketball
Tenure: 3 years, 37-47 record
Best season: 2021-22 (in progress) – 23 wins, region qualifier, most wins for program in 23 years
Best Known for: Rebuilding – Lippe took over a program desperately needing major changes and had a Top 10 state ranking in Year 3.
What a difference a couple years make! Lippe put the Lady Pioneer program rebuild in the express lane the last two seasons, going from a two-win campaign to 23 wins (and counting) this year. For his incredible job getting Warren County back into the state spotlight (the team had a Top 10 ranking earlier this season), Lippe was named the District 6-4A coach of the year. He’ll make his second region appearance Friday night at home – the first region home game for the program in 11 years.
Chris Sullens, Boys basketball
Tenure: 8 years, 129-115 record
Best season: 2020-21 - 20 wins, district title, two region wins, first sectional bid in 45 years
Best Known for: Pacing and fist pumps – Anybody who has seen Sullens coach is used to him wearing out the soles of his shoes on the sideline and his Tiger Woods fist-pump after big shots/wins.
Sullens didn’t mix words when he was hired as WCHS boys basketball coach – he said if he didn’t win a championship in five years, they could fire him. Luckily for Sullens, Warren County gave him a sixth year and he delivered on his promise as the Pioneers won championships in 2019-20 and 2020-21. Sullens led the Pioneers to their first substate appearance in 45 years last winter and will coach in his sixth region tournament this Saturday.
Gooby Martin, softball
Tenure: 7 seasons, 98-83-1 record
Best Season: 2019 – 20 wins, region title, first sectional appearance in school history
Best Known For: Photographic Memory – Almost every player who comes through the Lady Pioneer program marvels at Martin’s ability to remember the fine details of every opponent and all his team’s at-bats and game results.
Martin has been collecting titles as the leader of the Lady Pioneers, including a three-year span where Warren County softball won a regular-season title (2017), District 6AAA tournament championship (2018) and the school’s first-ever region championship (2019). When the Lady Pioneers debut in March, Martin will need just two wins to get to 100 in his great run with the program. He has three region appearances with the program and is the only current coach to lead Warren County in a home game in substate.
Phillip King, baseball
Tenure: 2 years, 24-15-1 record
Best season: 2021 - 22 wins, district regular-season title, region bid
Best Known For: Culture building – King has links to the dominant era of Pioneer baseball as a player and has taken big steps in merging his current squads with legends of the past, while also upgrading Patrick Ramsey Field.
King may have been robbed of a truly special debut in 2020 when a loaded Pioneer roster had to sit out the spring due to COVID-19, but is first full year in 2021 wasn’t too shabby. King guided the Pioneers to a 20-win regular season, which included a regular season District 6AAA title, and ended up with 22 wins and a region bid. He’ll be out for an encore starting March 14.
August Palombo, boys soccer
Tenure: New coach
Best Season: N/A
Best Known For: Being hired, cool last name, cool first name, Ted Lasso quotes.
Palombo won’t be on the sidelines for his first official game as WCHS boys soccer coach until March. Because of that, he is the only undefeated coach on the list. He is also the only winless coach.
You may come out of those summaries thinking there may be a clear-cut favorite, but I didn’t. In fact, the harder I researched the tenures of the coaches, the tougher the decision became. It did help me come to the conclusion that I could make my first cut. Until Palombo wins a game at Warren County, he can’t be what I’ve decided to call “Coach Clutch.”
Because I don’t want this to push 4,000 words, I’m also going to eliminate coach Blalock since she’s yet to have a winning season. I don’t think that’s her fault – with a real regular season, she probably has 15-20 more wins – but this is a brutal choice and I must make concessions somewhere.
If this was a beauty pageant, this would be where I would bring the contestants out for a second time and get another look. Because I really want to get this down to a top-four before I really dig into the nitty-gritty, I’m going to throw out two quick criteria that will give me four and eliminate two: Does the coach have a winning record and/or a championship?
It turns out four have championships AND winning records, while two are without banners or above .500 marks. At this point, we’re saying goodbye to Lippe and Turner, albeit in gut-wrenching fashion.
For Lippe, his record is submarined by a 2-26 first year where he had five first-time starters and was just establishing a program. By Christmas, I expect Lippe to have a winning record as WCHS coach and a district title isn’t out of the question in 2022-23 (the Lady Pioneers were down three last week with 2 minutes left in the District 6-4A championship game). I could count his Christmas tournament championships from this season, but I don’t think that is how Lippe wants to judge his program, so I won’t either.
I will say that Lippe has already shown the ability make his team more competitive with every look he gets at an opponent, something you’d expect Coach Clutch to be able to do.
Turner’s record is similarly anchored down by a 2021 season where he was replacing TWENTY starting positions (if you include punter and kicker). Before the Pioneers stumbled to a 1-8 record last fall, Turner was one of only four football coaches in WC history holding a winning record. Even in the down season, the Pioneers beat Cookeville on the road for the first time in 34 years and qualified for the state playoffs.
If you want Coach Clutch to show he can win with less talent, I think you could make the argument Turner has done that a few times in his tenure. At the very least, he’s shown the ability to guide Iron Man squads against the best of the best from the state and stay on the field (and win, in the case of the iconic 35-28 victory at Blackman in 2020).
One of the drawbacks for Turner would also be the need to consider the coach’s job on game day throughout sports. You could argue a football head coach is most in need of a full staff operating on the same wave length to make crucial adjustments that can change a game in the clutch. That’s no knock on Turner – he’s a proud Pioneer who can do a lot on his own.
OK, after 2,000 words, we’ve arrived at a Final Four: Todd Willmore, Chris Sullens, Gooby Martin and Phillip King. They’re all big-time winners (Gooby, as noted, is two wins from 100 and King has over 300 career wins as a high school coach), they all have championships on their resumes in Warren County and they’re all Pioneer alumni (to be fair, everybody but Lippe is of the eight considered).
So how do you separate them and final a Captain Clutch? I’m not 100 percent sure, but I’m going to try my best.
By now, I think we should hit on the elephant in the room: Coaches are only as good as their players. All these coaches – including the coaches of individual sports and the ones previously eliminated – aren’t going to become legends as Lady Pioneer or Pioneer leaders with subpar talent. Bill Belichick, Gregg Popovich, Brian Snitker and Ted Lasso could be coaching our local teams and they’re all getting creamed if they don’t have some aces. The same holds true for Gary Rankin too (before anybody asks).
I didn’t know exactly how to factor in players to this decision, but I had this nugget bouncing around all day: the question stated “with a state bid on the line,” which means they’ve already made it to sectionals (quite a feat for any Warren County team in the last 40 years). So, I started thinking of which rosters these four guided that would put them in the position to get to a state title. It’s a pretty clear picture for everybody.
For Willmore, you’re probably talking about the 2012 team that was senior-laden and led by all-state selections Ansley Mullican and Morgan McCormick. Sullens just has to go back one year and grab the 2020-21 Pioneers with standouts CJ Taylor, Dee Spates and a collection of complimentary role players, while Martin brings back his 2019 group headlined by a loaded senior class (including current all-conference college players Hailey Wood, Emily Mikkola and Ashton Whiles). King is a little bit trickier -he's only had one full season as WCHS baseball coach, but I’d argue he’d probably be better off with the 2020 roster that he only had for four games before COVID cancelled the year (All of last year’s seniors would still be around, while King adds ace pitcher Jack Keele, OF Trace Adcock and others).
Honestly, I think that means it’s pretty much a wash. All but King could argue they have a player on their team that could be considered for G.O.A.T. status at the school for their sport (CJ is a stretch for basketball, but I still say he’s the best WC athlete of my lifetime). It’s not like that baseball team is devoid talent, they’re just fighting more history --- I’ll gladly revisit this argument if any 2020 or 2021 baseball players compete in a future World Series.
So, if you’re not going to consider who is in uniform playing, then what else do you take into account? I think the next step is experience. Willmore (twice), Martin and Sullens have all coached substate games at Warren County. And with that, we get to another cut and drop King, likely very unfairly considering he has had one year while Martin (5), Willmore (5) and Sullens (7) needed multiple years to get to a sectional with their current programs. Sorry PK – it hurts me to do it!
At this point, I considered just taking the easy way out and saying it’s a three-way tie or make up some thing where we merge them all onto the same staff, but I’m not going to do it. I’m going to pick a winner and it’s going to be Gooby Martin.
Here’s my final reasoning: Gooby will have more control of a single game than Willmore or Sullens. While Willmore and Sullens can sub and shout changes for their teams from the sidelines, soccer and basketball are never-ending action. Sullens has some breaks where he can stop the game, while Willmore has halftime – that’s it.
Most of Willmore’s and Sullens’ work is done in pregame. They need to have scouts that are perfect and communicated in practice, along with premediated adjustments ready to deploy. Other than dealing with fouls (or yellow/red cards), I don’t think there is a lot of decisions they’re going to do on the fly.
Martin can affect a softball game pitch-by-pitch. He calls every pitch while his team is in the field (along with their defensive alignments and outfield shifts), then he is at third base giving instructions to his batters and baserunners after every pitch on offense.
When you think about it, that’s an unreal amount of impact for a great tactician. When you add in Martin’s knowledge of the game – it’s really a wrap. He may have been an outstanding baseball player, but he’s used all those life lessons and game reps and applied them to softball. The games are different, but they are similar in a lot of ways too. Nobody is going to second guess many of Martin’s moves – he’s playing chess when others are playing checkers.
Let’s face it, Gooby is already Coach Clutch.
Because I loved this question so much, I really wanted to rank every single coach in the high school in every sport (along with all assistants), but I decided that would be a horrible idea and would cause some harsh words. I also would have to do even more research to find out exactly who all is coaching at Warren County right now (I can’t say I know every team’s assistant coach and some staffs could be in flux currently). Therefore, I’ll graciously spare somebody from finishing last.
What I will give you is a quick bonus of applying the same question to all WCHS coaches I’ve covered in the six sports (football, volleyball, basketball, soccer, baseball and softball) and give everybody a few names of coaches I believe could’ve been Coach Clutch in their heyday.
Franklin Fisher, volleyball
Fisher immediately stood out in my mind. He needs to be in the WC Sports Hall of Fame in the VERY near future. Fisher won 343 games as the leader of the Lady Pioneer program, including a school-record 42 in his final season (2012). Being paired with state powerhouse Cookeville in the same district limited Fisher’s postseason accolades, but he always seemed to have his teams ready to play when it counted. He was the definition of cool, calm and collected on the sidelines (mostly because he was always listening to the Temptations or Frank Sinatra during games).
Matt Jackson, soccer
Like coach King, I think Jackson was robbed of what would’ve been his best season at Warren County in 2020 when COVID cancelled spring sports (they played won game and smashed Coffee County 9-0). Still, he knows the game, can recite the rule book and you can usually bet he’s going to have one of his kids (or multiple) on the roster.
Scott Smith, football
He came and went so quickly that some people may completely forget him, but Smith was an offensive savant. That 2014 football team could score points and Smith was on the controls the whole way. He may be disqualified from being coach Clutch though because that team missed out on a winning record because it lost two games on the final play (the opposite of clutch).
Adam Childs, baseball
Owner of one of the strangest tenures in recent memory, Childs got shown the door after amassing over 100 wins in six seasons. He averaged 18 wins per season -- To put that in perspective, Warren County was 17-65 OVERALL in the three seasons before he arrived. In his first season, the Pioneers snapped a 14-year absence from regions and advanced all the way to substate. He also won a District 6AAA tournament championship.
His termination always reminds me of the thing I tell coaches when they get hired – you’re never going to get fired in Warren County for wins and losses.
Erick Baird, basketball
That’s my guy. That’s my full analysis.