All-Area Football Coach of the Year|Branning brings winning ways back to Tallulah Academy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 24, 2008

TALLULAH — Little by little, the smiles returned to Tallulah Academy this fall.

Before games. During games. After games. Even in defeat, they were there, because football was fun again. And out of all the honors and accolades Doug Branning could possibly receive, simply seeing his players smile was the greatest he could have received.

Branning came out of retirement less than a month before the season started to take the job as Tallulah’s football coach and athletic director. He inherited a team that had won one game in 2007, and four in the previous three seasons. Despite those long odds, he turned the Trojans into a winner. They finished 7-5, their first winning season since 2003, and reached the playoffs for the first time since then.

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Area Coaches of the Year

2008 – Doug Branning, Tallulah Academy

2006 – Lance Prine, Briarfield

2005 – Michael Fields, Hinds AHS

2004 – Chris Jacobs, Tensas Academy

2003 – Paul Kirchharr, SIA

2002 – Michael Fields, Hinds AHS

2001 – Noah Johnson, Davidson

2000 – Bo Wright, Port Gibson

1999 – I.T. Crothers, Tallulah Academy

1998 – Chris Jacobs, Tensas Academy

1997 – Lance Prine, Briarfield

1995 – David Gregory, Central Hinds

For his part in working a football miracle, Branning is The Vicksburg Post’s Area Coach of the Year. Seeing his players enjoy the game again, however, was sweeter.

“I told them I got the greatest thrill just watching them celebrate after games,” Branning said. “Everybody would visit and celebrate together on the field. Players, parents, brothers and sisters. I would just stand and watch it.”

To appreciate how far Tallulah came in just a couple of months, you have to go back to where they were.

Tallulah was once a mighty program in the Mississippi Private School Association’s Class A ranks, reaching the state semifinals in 1999 and 2003 and winning 50 games in a six-year span from 1998-2003. A talented group of junior high players was supposed to inherit that legacy and continue the tradition.

It didn’t happen.

Tallulah fell on hard times. In 2005, most of those junior high players were forced to play varsity ball as freshmen because of a roster that included only seven 10th- through 12th-graders. Predictably, they struggled to a 2-8 record that year and went 2-8 again in 2006. Coach Brandon Parker was fired, new coach Tommy Roberts didn’t fare any better and left after one dismal 1-10 season, and another coach named Ron Dupree resigned before coaching a game. Dupree’s departure wiped out the good feeling the team had gained from a strong spring practice.

In late July, Branning was hired and there were lingering effects from the coaching carousel.

“It was tough. The other coach ran out and left us, and at first it was hard to believe in (Branning). We thought he was going to run out, too,” junior tailback Justin Horath said.

Branning wasn’t sure what to expect, either. He had been an assistant principal at Vicksburg High before retiring in May, and his time as an assistant coach years earlier had been spent in the Mississippi High School Activities Association. He knew nothing of the MPSA, Tallulah’s opponents, or the strengths or weaknesses of his own team.

He also knew nothing of the last three years, which allowed him to approach the rebuilding job with a fresh perspective.

“All I knew was what I saw, and what I saw was guys with athletic ability that were willing to work hard,” Branning said. “When I saw they had that work ethic and athletic ability, I said there’s no reason we couldn’t be competitive this year.”

It didn’t take long for the Trojans to feel the same way.

In the season opener, they faced a Glenbrook team that returned most of its starters from last year’s Class A championship squad. This year’s version advanced all the way to the Class A title game — and, at halftime, Tallulah trailed just 7-0.

Glenbrook pulled away in the second half and won 26-6, but it was clear that this was a different Tallulah team.

“We played so hard and with so much determination that whole game, from beginning to end. There was no doubt Glenbrook was better than us physically. But we played with them,” Branning said. “At that point, the kids believed it too. It wasn’t just me telling them. We got positive results out of it and didn’t ever win a game. It told the guys we could play with anybody in the state.”

Tallulah took that positive momentum and won four of its next five games. Horath had three straight games of 190 yards or more, and when he got hurt sophomore Cody Landrem filled in ably. Both finished the season with more than 1,000 rushing yards. Quarterback Jes Shivers had seven TDs passing and another nine rushing, and defensive end Darren Lott was a force with 70 tackles and 12 sacks.

Almost overnight, the Trojans had transformed from a beaten-down doormat to a team with playoff aspirations.

“It started hitting me right around the time we beat CENLA and were 6-4 that we were going to make the playoffs,” said assistant coach John Weaver, who was hired a week before the season started. “You give any team discipline and structure and they’re going to flourish.”

As the team surged, Branning not only enjoyed seeing them succeed but also tried a number of things to make it happen. He pushed the players with the stern hand of a disciplinarian, but also taught them with the guiding hand of a teacher. He became a mentor and a friend at the same time.

“He became a friend and a coach. He was real nice, listened to our opinions, and used them. He knew our limits and how to make us better. He’s just a real good guy,” Horath said. “He’s just a coach. He knows how to do his job. He’s a family guy and he’s like family to us. We think the world of Coach Branning. He’s a second father to us up here.”

Branning also led by example. He and Weaver would often study film together late into the evening, and the two formed a close friendship.

“There were a lot of late nights. That’s how we beat people. We knew our opponent,” said Weaver, a former punter at Warren Central, Hinds Community College and Delta State. “I learned so much from him. Not just Xs and Os, but how to manage a football team. I played for three teams and he ranks right up there with Rick Rhoades at Delta State. With the elite coaches.”

The 54-year-old Branning also was not afraid to put in a physical workout alongside his players.

“He and Jes had a competition to see who could do the most curls. Guess who won?” Weaver said with a smile. “He had the 25-pound weights, too. He brought a different energy to the team.”

Tallulah finished the regular season with a three-game winning streak, including a convincing 28-14 victory over Northeast Louisiana rival Briarfield, to clinch a wild-card spot. The Trojans’ first-round opponent was another tough one — undefeated and top-ranked Porters Chapel.

Just like in their opener nearly 2 1/2 months earlier, the Trojans weren’t impressed. They struggled to move the football, but held a PCA offense that averaged 38 points a game to a single touchdown and ended up dropping a hard-fought 10-0 decision.

Even after such a tough loss, though, it was hard to tell among the Tallulah players scattered around the field. Most of them lingered for a while after the game ended, chatting with family members and friends and savoring the moment. Just how far they had come and what they had accomplished was not lost on them.

“Everybody was so happy about it because nobody thought we’d get to the first round of the playoffs,” Horath said. “We’re not hanging our heads about it.”

Neither is Branning. He hasn’t had time.

His late hire left little time for the other half of his job, athletic director. He’s spent the month or so since football season ended trying to get caught up on duties he admittedly neglected while coaching. He said he hasn’t reflected on the Trojans’ turnaround, nor does he want to. After all, he’s only known success at the school.

“I really haven’t sat down and tried to figure that out because my point of reference is from the first day I walked in,” Branning said. “I didn’t live with what happened before. It doesn’t serve any purpose for me to go there. I was just thrilled for the guys.”


Contact Ernest Bowker at