ROGERSVILLE – Jason Lawson was officially introduced as the head coach of the Cherokee football team Tuesday.
“I’m really excited for the opportunity,” said Lawson. “I‘m really excited to work with the kids and the coaching staff and see what we can accomplish. We want to keep moving forward. We don’t want to let a lot of grass grow under our feet. We want to keep things rolling and focus on what we can get done and make it the best possible situation that we can be in.”
The position suddenly came open last week when Cody Baugh, Cherokee’s coach the past four seasons, told school officials he was returning to Greeneville High School, where he had coached the previous 10 years prior to his arrival at CHS, to reclaim his former position as the Greene Devils offensive coordinator.
Greeneville recently promoted defensive coordinator Eddie Spradlen to head coach, succeeding Dan Hammonds, who unexpectedly stepped down in June after just one season at the helm.
“Cody has always been honest with me. He always talked about that may be a job that he might like down the road,” said Cherokee Principal David Kenner. “Obviously, the (Greeneville) head coaching position came and went, and I thought we were good at that point, as far as moving forward.
“Coach Baugh came to me last week, I think it was Wednesday or Thursday evening, and just said there was a good possibility he would be moving. Of course, it came kind of unexpectedly. But, at the same time, Cody has a great offensive mind,” Kenner said.
“It’s important we were transparent enough with each other that we knew what was going on. I’m happy for Cody. He did a great job for us. I’m tickled for him. I know what it’s like to go back home, to get to come back home, and I’m tickled for him and his family. He’s going to do a great job there,” Kenner said.
“So, from that point, I decided to get our administrative team together and we started talking about different options for this coming year. Of course, we still don’t know exactly what the season is going to look like. So, as we talked through all those different options, we decided it would be best that we went with an interim coach for this year. So, we started talking about our options there and immediately Coach Lawson’s name came up,” Kenner said.
“We just put the wheels in motion of where do we go, what are we going to look at and the more it kept coming around, I kept thinking about Jason,” said Cherokee Athletic Director Andrew Morgan.
“In our building, in our facilities with a decade worth of coaching experience learned under a gentleman (Mike Sivert) who was a coach for 35 years, that he was by far the one who could take it as it is and continue the direction of the program,” Morgan said.
“He’s got the experience. He’s got the leadership capabilities. He’s got the mentality. He’s competitive. He’ll do a great job leading these young guys out there. We pitched it to him. It’s a testament of what we think of him and what we think he can do,” Morgan said.
Lawson becomes the fifth head coach in Cherokee history. He was an assistant for the last 10 years of Sivert’s storied career, moving over to coach the girls basketball team in 2015 when Baugh was hired to succeed Sivert.
He hasn’t been far from the football program, however, serving as a member of the chain gang for Chiefs home games.
“There will obviously be a little bit of an evaluation of the kids he’ll go through, but he’s watched them play a lot,” Morgan said. “He’s been at the ball games at least at home on Friday nights working on the sidelines.
“When you’ve got the mentality of a coach, you’re still always looking at things – how they’re doing things, how they’re blocking, whatever the schemes they’re running. He knows how some of these kids operate, but probably not on a day-to-day practice, schedule and moving basis. He’ll get to that. He’ll put 150 percent into it. We’re super-excited for the program. We’re super-excited for him and super-confident in what he’ll be able to bring. He’s somebody that loves this place.
“We met the team (Tuesday) and introduced him to the team as the coach. He talked to them here and told them, ‘We’re going forward. It’s not going to stop. We’re going to get better every day. I’m here to win just like you all are,’” Morgan said.
Kenner coached with Lawson on Sivert’s staff and knows the Chiefs are getting a solid coach.
“I coached with Coach Lawson for a while, so I know what kind of person that he is and I know how hard a worker he is,” Kenner said. “I’m excited for him. Jason is obviously an alumni of Cherokee and has been here his entire career. He’s worked and done a great job for us teaching and coaching girls basketball. I think this is an opportunity that he may not have thought would come about as quickly as it did.”
Due to the lateness in the year, Morgan and Kenner said they were only naming Lawson as interim coach right now, although he will be able to throw his hat in the ring after the season when a permanent coach is chosen.
“That’s something we’ll look at completely afterwards,” Morgan said. “It’s weird times right now with everything. We’re excited about where it’s going. We feel good that we’re going to be playing some football at some point this fall.”
“We needed somebody who could just hold the ship in a positive direction,” Kenner said. “The kids know him. The kids like him. He’s going to set high expectations and they’re going to reach them. So, he’s taking on a great challenge for us. We’re going to do everything we can to support him, to support his family and to support our kids here at school. But I’m excited. I really am.”
Kenner expects it to be a smooth transition.
“It’s going to be a little different for a few weeks. But as things get going, kids get to know him, I think they’re going to come around very quickly to his style and they’re going to play hard for him. I know he’s going to be good to our kids and he’s going to help them achieve great things. I truly believe that. I have full confidence in Jason and the vision that he has for this program for this year,” Kenner said.
“I played four years here under Coach Sivert,” Lawson said. “Then I came back and was fortunate enough to coach 10 years as an assistant. I worked on the offense and defensive side of the ball. I coordinated defensive schemes and also came up with offensive game plans in that time period.
“I did step away for a couple years, but it’s always piqued my interest. I’ve always kept up with them. I was always there at the games, watching and observing. Football has always been a big part of my life. It was one of the first games I started playing and fell in love with it early,” Lawson said.
“There’s something about Friday night in Big Red Valley that you just can’t put into words. It’s an amazing feeling. We’re in an amazing community. It creates an amazing atmosphere. This is such a special place to me. This is my community, my hometown, my school. I take a lot of pride in it,” he said.
Lawson graduated from Cherokee in 2001, then obtained his bachelor’s degree at East Tennessee State University in history education. He then earned his Master’s degree from Union College in Barbourville, Ky. He got his football education from Sivert, who was head coach of Cherokee from 1984 to 2015 after Coy Harris served from 1981-83. Sarge Reed was Chiefs coach in Cherokee’s inaugural year of 1980.
“I learned from one of the best in the business,” Lawson said. “He’s been a very resource and a very good mentor. He’s been a great friend and I’ve been fortunate with the people I’ve worked with in athletics in my time, whether it be football, basketball, or just working here with the athletic department at Cherokee High School. It’s such a great family atmosphere.”
The comradery among Cherokee coaches and Lawson’s long tenure at the school should help create a smooth transition.
“We all know each other,” Lawson said. “We’re all familiar with each other. We’re bringing back some familiar faces. We were able to pick up some more people. We kept some and have a couple of new guys coming in to help. But they’re not new – they’ve got a lot of experience, as well. Coach (Todd) Pait, Coach (Aaron) Carter, Coach (Darrell) Fain and Coach James White and Coach Mylan Brewer is back. Coach (Chad) Laster is going to come back. We’re still seeing what we can put together.”
While Lawson is well-acquainted with the coaching staff, he’s also familiar with many of the players.
“I’ve had a lot of them in class and have kept up with them. There are some who have played other sports. I’ve seen them in the hallways and had them in my classes. It’s good to be able to get out with them and work with them in an athletic setting,” Lawson said.
There will be some carryover of offensive and defensive schemes, but Lawson will put his twist on them, as well, to gear the team toward the strengths of its personnel.
“We’re working on putting that together right now,” he said. “Some of it will look similar, but it’s also going to be a little bit different. We want to utilize the talent that we have, make the most of what we’ve got.
“Fortunately, from being out there with them, we’ve got a lot of great kids. We’ve got a lot of skilled kids, a lot of athletic kids. The good thing about that is they’re going to give us a lot of options, and give us a lot of chances to make big plays. I’m really excited to see what they’re going to be able to accomplish.”
This early in the process, no positions are set – especially at quarterback, where the departure to graduation of Collin Trent leaves a large opening.
“We’re feeling the kids out, finding some things, and I’m sure there will be some moving around as we progress the next week or two. There are some big shoes to fill but these guys coming in look very eager to rise of the occasion to take advantage of their situation. It’s like I told them: the legacy that they leave depends on them,” Lawson said.
“Right now, we’re just learning. I don’t want to throw anything out there to solidify on day one. Come talk to me closer to game time, and we’ll have it a little more nailed down. I do know this. We have some very good kids. We have some very talented kids. We’re going to do our best to make sure we’ve got the right kids in the right places to make us the most successful team we can be,” he said.
“We’ve all got to work together. We’ve got one goal: that’s to continue to get better and improve. They were very excited. If we can keep that excitement up, then I think we’ve got great things in the future,” said Lawson.
While the offensive and defensive schemes are a work in progress, Lawson stated that he did have an overall philosophy.
“I’ve always believed that in anything you do, do it right, and do it 100 percent,” he said. “If we’re going to do it, we want to make sure we’re giving the very best effort we have each day. In my experience, competition is what creates successful players. The more we can push each other, the better attitudes that we can bring, and we’ve got to be tough-minded – and we always have been. We’ve got to be hard-nosed and physical. If we can get those things rolling, everything else will take care of itself.”
One challenge facing Lawson is something his predecessors never had to encounter: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its associated complications.
“It’s uncharted waters,” Lawson said. “It’s a situation that we’re taking very serious. We want to do our best to protect the young men that we have on the team, and the coaches, and their families. They have some very strict guidelines in place and we are following those regularly. We’re doing temperature checks when they come in. They have to answer the questions about the symptoms and if they’ve been around anybody.
“It’s something that everybody in the world has to navigate through. Nobody really has any answers. We just take it one day at a time. Things seem to continually change. We just want to make sure that when the opportunity arises, we’re ready,” Lawson said.
Lawson will still coach the Lady Chiefs basketball team this season.
“Yes, this year nothing is going to change there,” Lawson said. “We don’t want to strike any changes. We’ve got a great staff with them. They’re going to step up a little bit with the conditioning phases.”
Coaching football, then coaching basketball is going to lead to some long hours between now and March.
“Yes, there will be some very long days,” Lawson acknowledged. “But, sometimes when you’re number is called, you just have to step up and you have to do what you have to do to make it work for the community and for your school.”