Football coaches see role beyond gridiron

Sep. 4—TIFTON — Tift County head football coach Noel Dean and his counterpart at Tiftarea Academy, Erik Soliday, were the featured speakers at the Tifton-Tift County Chamber of Commerce August Membership Meeting.

This was the third consecutive year the meeting was he Georgia Museum of Agriculture, this year's being Aug. 24. A gameday-type spread was provided by B.J. Smith Catering.

Neither coach spoke about any individual players on their roster. Both committed to talking about their teams as a whole.

Soliday was the first up to the podium. He described the 2023 Panthers as "Still a work in progress." He said the squad is a year older and a year stronger and "hopefully, a year smarter."

"We'll get there," said Dean. His and Soliday's squads had identical records in 2022, 1-9. Dean has also seen much progress, adding Tift had a wonderful offseason. Personally, he'd seen amazing things, too. His son, Doak, was declared cancer-free earlier this year and is headed back to college.

"God brought us to the this area," said Dean. In Tifton, the family has been able to be close to Doak's specialists.

The motto for this year's Panthers squad is 212, the temperature at which water becomes steam. "One degree of difference makes all the difference in the world," Soliday said. He has emphasized to the Panthers that it represents all the little things that have to come together to make the total package work. He believes football is one of the best tools for teaching character.

Both he and Dean spoke about the toughness of the schedules. Soliday said their success in recent years made it tough to find opponents. Tiftarea's slate includes the GIAA Class AA champions and three of the four semifinalists in Class AAA. Tift's slate has traditional powers Coffee, Colquitt County and Thomasville, as well as its Region 1-6A portion, where most of the teams rank in the state's top 10.

"That's OK, Soliday said about the toughness. "It means you're pretty good." "Ambitious," was Dean's word to describe Tift's slate.

Tiftarea and Tift are very young teams. Soliday estimated that one-third of all high school boys at Tiftarea are playing football for him, an amazing number. Tift's size varies, Dean said, depending on how players are doing. Lately, he's averaged 56-58 on the varsity squad.

The coaches see their roles, as well as that of their players, extending beyond the gridiron.

Before the speeches, newcomers were asked to stand up at the luncheon. Among those introducing themselves was Blue Devils defensive coordinator Robert Spann. Spann said the goal was not just for now, but building players into successful adults 15-20 years later.

"We believe we have a calling, and that's football," Dean said, referring to coaches' roles. He said does not talk to his team about football off the field, unless the player brings it up. Dean looks at them as more than athletes.

Tift has made progress off the field. Only one out of 120 players was ineligible for any games last year. The Tridents program pushes for accountability in all phases, strength, character, commitment and academics. Dean said he had never had a student with a 4.0 GPA who did not work hard in the weight room.

Soliday said he knew his players were role models for the younger students in Chula. He saw a great example of it during the summer when the campus hosted a football camp. The youth bonded with the high schoolers who were leading them.

Support is crucial. With social media, it's difficult for kids to escape harassment if their season is not going so well. "The kids take it so personal," Dean said. He's worked on giving them a refuge, assembling a game room in part of the fieldhouse for players in good standing.