BY TREY WILLIAMS
Daniel Boone High School’s valedictorian in 2005 spends his time these days hitting the playbooks.
Ben Fox delivered a dynamic debut as offensive coordinator this year at Huntingdon College, an NCAA Division III program in Montgomery, Alabama. The Hawks finished the regular season No. 2 in the nation in total offense and concluded a 9-2 season with a playoff loss at Wheaton.
“We had a great season and it was a special experience to be the offensive coordinator for our program,” said Fox, who quarterbacked Daniel Boone’s final Musket Bowl win in the Mini Dome in 2003 and the Trailblazers’ victory the following year at David Crockett. “We were extremely productive, and that is a testament to our players and coaches. I never doubted that we would get the kids’ best effort, and we always did. We are losing some very talented players that are some of the most productive in school history.
“I joke around – I tell our quarterbacks that I knew I wanted to coach when I realized I wasn’t gonna play in the NFL, and that was about the eighth grade.”
— Ben Fox
“But more than the productivity, we had an incredible group of people; young men who competed, worked hard, and held themselves to a very high standard. We didn’t end the season the way we had hoped, but time will allow us to put the season in a proper perspective. You could make an argument that this was the best offense in school history, and that is incredibly humbling and a terrific honor for our players and staff.”
Fox has been passionate about football since playing youth league for Randall Tipton’s Gray Eagles. In fact, he still considers Tipton one of his significant coaching influences.
Also among those are the late Carl Richards and Jeremy Jenkins, each of whom was a head coach at Boone when Fox was the starting quarterback. Playing basketball for Bobby Snyder taught him a thing or two about coaching, too.
“I joke around – I tell our quarterbacks that I knew I wanted to coach when I realized I wasn’t gonna play in the NFL, and that was about the eighth grade,” Fox said. “I had a good experience playing for Coach Richards. Coach Richards trusted me and allowed me to do some things (in the passing game) that people really weren’t doing in East Tennessee at that time. I loved Coach Jenkins.
“And I loved every second playing for Bobby Snyder. I’ll never forget the detailed preparation and how hard he worked.”
Snyder’s competitiveness was infectious and practice was demanding but fun. Fox was inspired by the fact that Snyder played man-to-man defense even when Boone was outmanned. But Snyder’s Trailblazers would frequently gum up the works with teamwork and knowledge, calling out a variety of screens due to diligent preparation.
“We didn’t play anything else but man-to-man and everybody thought we were crazy,” Fox said. “But the other team would come up and start their sets and we knew what their call was. I admired how hard we worked and how much it mattered to him and how hard-nosed and disciplined he was.
“I would like to think a lot of my coaching style probably comes from him in trying to be hard-nosed and disciplined, but also always to make sure that the guys know, No. 1, I love them and I would do anything for them. … How much fun he made practice, how competitive it was and how we learned how to win (was impressive).”
Still, Fox is convinced football is the best sport for teaching life skills.
“There is no game that teaches them how to sacrifice and do something bigger than themselves like our game,” Fox said. “I love being around our kids and helping them try to be the best version of themselves possible.”
The Hawks won a second straight USA South Conference title this season. Quarterback Luke Bailey, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior, was a big reason why.
Bailey completed 63.8 percent of his passes (198-313) for 2,929 yards, 32 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also averaged 6.4 yards per carry while rushing for 664 yards and 11 TDs.
“He’s a kid I recruited and have a really special relationship with and it’s been really fun to coach him this year,” Fox said. “It’s not anything I’ve done. It’s been him taking ownership of what we do and taking ownership of his preparation. …
“He understands handling gray areas probably better than any quarterback I’ve ever been around. A lot of guys that get in trouble playing quarterback – they want everything to be in black and white all the time; ‘yes’ or ‘no’ every time. That’s not how reality is.”
Fox estimates that a quarterback must improvise 20 percent of the time.
“And I think we’ve done a good job as a staff fully vetting what we ask him to do,” Fox said, “and making sure that we have answers for the majority of defenses that we see so he can just react and go play.”
Huntingdon broke school records for total offense, scoring, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and passing touchdowns. The Hawks led the nation in third-down conversion percentage.
“Coach Fox is a really smart guy, he understands people and he gives full effort in everything he does,” Bailey said. “Not only does he understand the game of football, but he also loves what he does.”
Bailey helped comprise the first senior class Fox recruited.
“He builds a relationship with you before you ever get on campus, and that relationship only grows the longer you stay,” Bailey said. “He was very persistent with how he recruited me. I had other offers and I chose to go to Huntingdon because coach Fox made me feel wanted and made me feel like I was going to be a part of something greater than myself, and he stayed true to his word.
“He told me he would never lie to me, and after four years, I can say he was a little too honest sometimes. To me that just shows his character and his sense of humor. He is a funny guy and always has us cracking up in the meeting room, but he also knows when it is time to be serious and get the job done. I believe he teaches us that as players as well and helps us grow and mature as men. He makes it fun to play for him.”
Fox played at Washington University in St. Louis for Larry Kindbom, who won his 200th career game this season. The tradition-rich school was coached two seasons by Weeb Ewbank (1947-48), who was hired by the Cleveland Browns in ’49 and won two NFL championships as a head coach at Baltimore (Johnny Unitas) and one with the New York Jets (Joe Namath).
“It was a great place to go to school,” Fox said. “Larry has been a phenomenal mentor and friend and I love him very much. He was a great competitor and wanted to win, but I knew he cared about Ben Fox as a person and cared about making sure that I adjusted to St. Louis okay, because it’s a long way from Gray to St. Louis.”
Fox arrived at Huntingdon in 2012 after spending three years as an assistant at Bryant University, an FCS program in Smithfield, Rhode Island. Oddly enough, he landed at Huntingdon because former Science Hill player Mike Rader left to take a job as the head coach at Maryville College. Rader has coached the past two years at East Tennessee State, where he’s the recruiting coordinator.
Huntingdon coach Mike Turk has developed a fondness for Northeast Tennessee coaching products, though Rader didn’t seal the deal for Fox.
“Although I did not know Ben personally, I hired him on the recommendation from a close friend that had worked with him at Bryant University,” said Turk, who played at Troy and was an assistant coach there when the Trojans played ETSU in 1995. “He has been everything that he was advertised to be – an extremely hard worker, a smart football mind and a tireless recruiter. All of these attributes have contributed exponentially to the success that we have had here over the last several years. On top of all of that, he is a great person and the players love and play extremely hard for him.”
The season’s memorable moments included routing offensive-minded Hal Mumme’s Belhaven (65-21) and LaGrange (55-13), which is coached by Mumme’s son Kyle. Huntingdon piled up 758 yards in offense against Belhaven thanks to the former Kentucky head coach opting to pass 54 times.
Fox’s offense was balanced. The Hawks rushed for 285 yards and passed for 279 against LaGrange, and ended the season averaging 274.8 yards passing per game and 269.1 rushing.
“But I want to make one thing very clear,” Fox said. “It has never, ever been about our offensive plays or the play caller; it has always been, and will continue to be, about our offensive players. And we had some of the best in the country.”
Many must be replaced. Among the seniors were 1,000-yard rusher John Iwaniec and three of the top four receivers.
“This is the first class of seniors that I recruited, so I’m excited to watch them graduate … and see the men that they’ve become,” Fox said. “You hope that when you give somebody’s child back to them that they’re better than they were when they loaned them to you and that you impact their lives and help them understand that you love them and that God loves them even more than you love ‘em and he has great plans for them and wants them to do something special. And outside of that, you try to win some ballgames, I guess.”