By Alex Ewalt
After a decade and a half as an assistant, Buford High (Ga.) head coach Bryant Appling has kept the highly successful Georgia program at the top. The local legend has learned many lessons from coaching during a pandemic.
There are few programs in Georgia that call to mind excellence like Buford does. With 12 state titles, a handful of nationally televised games at the school’s Tom Riden Stadium, and numerous alumni who have played at the major college and NFL levels, Buford has cemented its place among the elite programs in the country.
Bryant Appling, the second-year Wolves head coach who rose up from his position as ninth-grade defensive coordinator and varsity safeties coach his first year with the school in 2004, has set the template for exercising patience while rising through the ranks of a top-notch program.
Appling was named Buford head coach in 2019 at age 39 after serving as an assistant for 14 years at the school, located in the northern part of talent-rich Gwinnett County near Atlanta.
Appling talked about his coaching background and shared his experiences of coaching during a pandemic with FNF Coaches.
How did you remain so patient over 15 years as you worked toward a head coaching job?
“I thought I’d come in here and learn some stuff from some great coaches, and move on to be a coordinator or a head coach within three or four year. And then I got to Buford and realized just what a special place it was, the family atmosphere and the things they do for their employees and their kids, between facilities and everything, it was bar none the best I had ever seen. … I didn’t want to leave.”
What tips would you give assistants who have aspirations of becoming head coaches?
“You don’t ever want to be the first guy to leave the building. So I’m a ninth-grade grade DC, but I’m in there all night long with them on Sundays just trying to learn and pick up things. I started to work as hard as I could every day. Not really to impress people, but I was brought up to attack every day by my parents.”
What are some things you can do to stand out on a coaching staff?
“Maybe it’s just picking up water and putting it on the truck at the end of the game. No job is too small for a high school football coach. From the head coach all the way down to a ninth-grade coach, it doesn’t matter. So if you work your tail off at a good program, you will be rewarded.”
Was your goal always to wait until the head coaching position at Buford opened up?
“I didn’t even see myself possibly being the head coach until the first time I interviewed. Coach Simpson told me when he was leaving, ‘I think you should try, you should do this. You fit, you have the tools.’ I still didn’t see it at that point.”
What’s the most important thing for a coach to know before he decides to make the jump to a head coaching position?
“It’s all about timing and it’s all about the right spot. A lot of guys jump and go to a spot just because it’s there and it’s an opportunity right now. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. I wanted to make sure that my first opportunity to be a head coach was in a good place and a place that I had a chance to do something special.”
How is high school football going in Georgia this fall? Do you feel that it’s safe to be playing?
“It’s been good so far, but we need to remain vigilant. A lot of programs are getting lax, they’re thinking, ‘We’re good, we’ve been practicing for seven or eight weeks straight with no issues.’ But it could happen at any time. I just keep saying don’t fall asleep.”
What’s been the biggest adjustment since the return?
“It’s been getting the kids to do the right thing. It takes a little coaching. Some of these kids hardly changed during the quarantine. Some hung out together and socialized more than we wanted them to. We had to train them to stay apart on the field and through conditioning.”
You have 145 players in your program. How did you keep them apart?
“We could only have 20 in the weight room at a time for a while, so I joked with the kids that there was nowhere to hide. There’s three coaches and 17 players. We spread out the kids in the weight room and they had to spot themselves. It’s hard to joke around when you’re by yourself. Everybody was getting every rep done.”
Has the cleaning and disinfecting been difficult to manage?
“The cleaning aspect is easy. We walk around with spray bottles and disinfect everything. In the weight room, we have one kid on a bar for four or five sets. Then a coach comes by with gloves and a mask and sprays and cleans the bar before the next kid uses it. We broke everything down that way. When you start thinking that way, it becomes a habit. Start organizing every set that way, and you don’t have to clean and disinfect after every rep. That extends to every drill we do, so it hasn’t been as bad as everyone thought.”
What advice would you give coaches for running safe practices during the pandemic?
“You’ve got to be vigilant.”
Paying His Dues
Appling joined the Buford staff in 2005 after serving as the defensive coordinator for his first two seasons of high school coaching experience, both at his alma mater of Lithonia High School in nearby DeKalb County. A happenstance meeting with the Buford principal at the time, at the gym where he was working as a trainer, led to an opportunity offered by Buford’s head coach, Dexter Wood, who gave Appling his first job as the ninth-grade defensive coordinator and varsity safeties coach. The Wolves were coming off three consecutive state championships under Wood, the first in Class A and the next two in Class AA, and expectations were always high.
“When I hired him, several things impressed me,” Wood said. “He just struck as me as a young, intelligent and hungry football coach. At that time, we were looking for some expertise in the weight room, too.
“In some ways he started at the bottom of the totem pole. But he had a real hunger and he was a sponge, he just absorbed everything so quickly. So although I only got to coach with him for one year, it was really a good year of watching him grow.”