By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
For 25 years, Greg Mance has been part of the Richlands High School football program. Each year, he is reminded what that means to the residents of that region of Tazewell County.
“At Richlands, you want to give your best,” he said. “All you have to do is to look at the 5,000 people on Friday nights at Ernie Hicks Stadium. The community, they take pride in their football. We owe it to our community to go out there and work hard.”
That hard work by the players and coaches has resulted in a state football championship for the Mance-led Blue Tornado in 2006, a string of consecutive district titles, and dozens of Richlands alumni playing the sport in college.
But football success is not the ultimate goal for Mance and his staff.
“If we don’t teach them anything but football, we’ve failed the kids,” he said. “We try to take every kid that comes into our program, and teach them to be responsible young men on and off the field.”
“Our job is to help their development and to help them grow into productive members of society.”
Team chaplain Craig Barber visits the team every Monday during the season, Mance said. Each meeting emphasizes a character quality. Mance said, “It’s about respect, commitment, dedication. It’s about being a good student. It’s about being a good person.”
He said the football players go out and read to elementary children in area schools, and help out at a local food pantry from time to time.
When tornadoes ripped through Washington County, Va., last year, Mance loaded up 34 members of the Blue Tornado football team to help out.
“They were picking up debris in fields, whatever they needed,” he said. Other than being fed “a couple o’ Mc-Double hamburgers,” he said, “the only thing they got was feeling good for doing something good for somebody else.”
The coach said he is pleased when an officiating crew tells him after a ballgame, “Coach, it was a pleasure to have your team tonight. You got a bunch of gentlemen. They play hard and they keep their mouth shut.”
• • •
Although football is on display on Fridays and Saturdays for 10 to 14 weeks, there is much more to it than that.
“To do it right, it’s year-round,” Mance said. “There are no weeks off. We open the weight room for the kids the week of Christmas.”
Last summer was the first one “in about four years” that Mance took a week for vacation. His summer typically includes helping his 7-on-7 team win tournaments at far-flung universities, and helping with an annual all-star game in Hampton, Va.
The commitment is borne by his assistant coaches, too.
“We’ve often said, we can’t get Johnny to come out [for football] unless we as coaches are going to be there,” he said. “It breeds success. We do it because we want to win.”
During the misnamed “off-season,” the coach said, “Nobody gets paid. ... We get paid from the first day [of fall practice] to the end of your season. The other nine months, you’re volunteering your time.”
He said his staff does it “because they love the game, they love the program. We tried to figure it up once and came to the conclusion that we work for 1 or 2 cents an hour. Just during the season alone, we figured it was 35 cents an hour.”
“You do it because you love what you do.”
The players put in the time to get stronger and quicker because of that kind of love.
“We have weight-lifting after school, or after practice during the season,” Mance said. “Some of them will come in before school and lift at maybe 6 a.m.,” he said.
“That’s a tribute to the athletes here: They want to be successful. They need to be giving their heart and soul. We tell them, if you put in half effort, you’re going to get half results. It takes very little more effort to do something right than to do something wrong.”
“We tell ’em, the good Lord blessed some of us with height, some of us with athletic ability. But you control how hard you play; you control your effort, all the time. I think it shows when you watch our kids.”
“It’s a family atmosphere. We work hard, we have fun. I think that’s what makes it special.”
The team’s success drew 18 NCAA Division I college recruiters to the school last year. Numerous players have gone on to play at the college level. Two from the 2011 squad, Devon Johnson and Devon Hess, signed with Marshall and Richmond, respectively.
Mance said 95 percent of his players do not go on to collegiate football, but those who want to give it a try are able to acquire their custom-tailored highlight videos from the school and Mance helps with “communication with the colleges.”
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Like many youngsters in the two Virginias, “I loved playing football in the backyard, all year ’round,” Mance said. “I grew up in Giles County when it was developing into a big football town.”
In Little League football, he played on a team that lost one football game in three years. That was followed by eighth- and ninth-grade teams that each lost just one game. In his junior year at Giles High School, the Spartans won their own state championship.
“We knew we were going to be good,” Mance said. “We had a lot of good athletes.”
The new Spartans’ varsity coach Steve Ragsdale switched the offense to the single wing — that Giles still uses — in Mance’s sophomore year. He played tailback that year, and wingback as well as defensive back the next two seasons.
“I played with some very good players, and we had a great coaching staff,” he said.
He did not believe he was destined to make football his life, though. “Back then, we played what sport was in season,” he said. “Football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring. That’s how we were raised.”
He was a baseball standout as well. During his high school days, he said, “I got a bunch of letters from all kinds of schools” inquiring about his interest in playing on the diamond collegiately.
A high ankle sprain in his senior year and his size (165 pounds) limited that interest. He accepted a partial scholarship to play baseball at Virginia Tech, where he held down second base. “I loved every minute of it,” he said. “I knew I’d start from day one.”
He started assessing the talent he saw around him. “When I was at Tech, we’d play teams like Florida and South Carolina, and all those ACC teams ... ,” he said. “I saw some very good baseball players. I had thought I might make it as a baseball player but I realized ... it’d be really tough to do.”
He concentrated anew on becoming a physical education teacher. “It kept me active,” he said. “It kept me in sports.”
When he was hired at Richlands, he said, “I wanted to be the Richlands head baseball coach.” Instead, he was an assistant to successful coach Keith Hovis for seven years, coached track and began his climb up the football coaching ranks.
He began as an assistant coach on the eighth-grade football team, and at times served as defensive coordinator of the JV team and wide receivers’ coach of the varsity.
After one year as the offensive coordinator for the varsity squad, his chance for the top spot arrived — but not without more uncertainty.
“When Coach [Dennis] Vaught resigned,” Mance said, “they were looking for a new head coach. There were five or six that were actually offered the job. But we had a hiring freeze, and they all wanted to bring in some assistants, or get their wife hired or something. They just couldn’t make it work out.”
That led to the move to interview candidates from within the existing program. Mance said, “I thought about it, and put my name in the hat.” He was hired the second week of June, 15 years ago.
“I’ve been up the ladder,” he said.
• • •
On four sets of lockers in the football field house are helmets with the logos of four Little League teams in the area — the Richlands-Cedar Bluff Blue Devils, Richlands Raiders, Raven Crimson Tide and Richlands Cowboys.
“That’s our foundation,” Mance said. “Over 200 boys are playing Little League football. That’s a part of us and a part of our kids.”
The varsity program and Little League teams have “a great relationship,” the coach said. “They [the Little League] play on Tuesdays and Saturdays.” On Tuesdays, the younger players usually watch the Blue Tornado practice. “All the little kids look up to them,” Mance said.
• • •
Football in Richlands gets a lot of interest from young and old and in between.
“It’s a special, special place,” Mance said. “There’s something different about Friday nights. The businesses decorate their storefronts. The stadium is packed. When we’re on the road, we have more fans than the home team, probably 95 percent of the time.”
“We understand there are people watching, and expectations are high.”
The team plays on a “million-dollar field,” the coach said, and works out in a half-million-dollar fieldhouse. A digital scoreboard was taken care of with a $70,000 fund drive that took only about a week. Ditto for the $20,000 to purchase state championship rings.
Thursday nights during football season at Richlands have developed a tradition of their own. “We have church dinners on Thursday night,” Mance said. Various churches in the area take turns producing and serving the meals, he said.
The tradition has several positive outcomes. “We know they’re fed, the day before the game,” Mance said. “They get to know people in the community. They have a great time.”
After the season, the players and coaches look forward to a football banquet put on by the Parents Club that Mance describes as “truly, truly a special event. It’s a dressy occasion; it’s a catered meal.”
The seniors know they will receive shadowbox frames with their jersey encased in it. They also know that no one will receive school-selected “player of the year” awards.
Mance said, “We don’t give individual awards at Richlands High School. The only awards we give are at the [offense, defense, special teams] team level.”
Parents have stepped in to help the program in numerous ways. “We’ve had some great parents,” Mance said. With the help of the active Parents Club, he said the team gets fed together “on the average two or three times a week.”
He calls his wife Ann “the real head football coach. She’s a special lady. She puts up with me being gone most of the time. ... It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of hours.”
She also teaches marketing and media at the high school, and finalizes the editing of the highlight videos for the students. She can be found “every Friday night” videotaping action from the end zones for another angle on the blocking schemes.
“I couldn’t do it without her,” he said.
Mance also was pleased with his working relationships with the principals at RHS over the years. He said, “Any successful program can’t go on without of its administration. We’ve been blessed to have the support of our administration.”
The team boasts having two radio stations covering Richlands football, and two photographers.
The special attention extends to playing equipment.
“We’ve got top-of-the-line shoulder pads, helmets and so on,” Mance said. “We can’t cut corners on safety.”
He said, “We try to do everything here at Richlands High School first class. And I think it shows.”
— Contact Tom Bone at