DUBLIN — Stephen James knows what it’s like to be a high school football player under a new coach.
He played for three coaches in three seasons at George Wythe.
James knows what it is like to take a coaching job and be greeted by a curious community.
The George Wythe graduate convinced the folks in the northeastern end of Wythe County to put him in charge of his school’s arch-rival Fort Chiswell.
James understands the dynamics of change.
He made a doozy when he left Fort Chiswell to become just the fifth head football coach in the 40-year history of Pulaski County High School.
James pulled up stakes after nine seasons in Max Meadows after leading Fort Chiswell to 48 victories in the last five years including a trip to the VHSL Group 1A semifinals last season.
“It was a difficult decision,” James said. “I’d been there for nine years. Those folks had accepted me into the community. I felt like I was part of the community. It was probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.”
Welcome to Cougar Country.
Where Joel Hicks won 210 games and reached double-figure victories 10 times in 24 seasons.
Where the Cougars won the VHSL Group AAA Division 6 championship in 1992 and made the state final the following year.
The program that for decades was synonymous with success.
“Growing up in Wytheville, you always think of Pulaski County as being ‘Pulaski County,’ “ James said. “The tradition and things that went along with being Pulaski County.
Hicks created a monster in the 1980s and 1990s, building powerhouses that wound up having to schedule opponents from Washington, D.C. to Charlotte just to fill out a 10-game schedule.
However, since Hicks retired after the 2002 season, Pulaski County has a losing overall record with 58 wins and 61 losses.
The Cougars’ last winning season was in 2008, when Jack Turner’s team went 12-1.
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Less than two years later, Turner was gone and Pulaski County was penalized by the VHSL for conducting illegal out-of-season workouts.
The school hired alumnus Todd Jones — who coached Essex to a Group A Division 2 state title — whose first team in 2010 finished 5-5 but was ineligible for the playoffs because of the VHSL sanctions.
Jones led the Cougars to the playoffs in each of his last three years, but after a 16-28 overall record and a lone postseason victory in four seasons, Pulaski was looking for another coach in late March.
James, 42, applied for the vacancy, and not because he believes the expectations of Pulaski County supporters have been muted.
“Obviously the community wants success,” James said. “That’s a driving factor here. They want Pulaski County football to be ‘Pulaski County football.’ The thirst is still there.
“I knew some of the struggles and some of the successes, obviously, that they’ve had in the past. I knew the past few years haven’t gone the way they’ve wanted it to.
“They want wins. They want the winning tradition. The days of old, so to speak, where you’re Pulaski County and people are supposed to be afraid of Pulaski County.”
The Volvo plant just over the rise from Kenneth J. Dobson Stadium might be building a high-tech test track for its trucks, but all James and the Cougars got were two weekends of preseason scrimmages before rolling out the new edition Friday night at Christiansburg.
Following a 4-7 season last year that ended with a 15-0 playoff loss at Courtland, the Cougars’ returning players are anxious to get off the assembly line.
Several seniors had few misgivings last spring when they realized they would have a new coach in 2014.
“It was mixed feelings at first,” fullback-linebacker Jake Callahan said. “Once we figured out who we got and we got to know him, it was a great move.”
“I loved it,” running back Marcus Payne said. “Everybody knew we needed a change.”
“It’s a different environment,” quarterback Jesse Draper said. Everything’s changed.”
James has a mix of new assistant coaches and holdovers on his staff.
Three coaches including defensive coordinator Robby Colley came with James from Fort Chiswell. Five coaches including former Patrick County head man Mike Souma returned.
“Right now we’re working an offensive and a defensive staff,” James said. “That’s a far cry from when I first started at Fort Chiswell when we had five coaches total.”
A larger coaching staff is just one plus James saw when evaluating a potential move, one which allows him to keep his house in Wythe County.
“It was a little bit more money than what I was making in Wythe County,” he said. “But just the fact of the facilities and the advantages that come with being a one-school deal inside the county, not having to share resources.”
Among the resources James had at Fort Chiswell were some talented players.
Running back Daniel Hamm, the star of the 2012 team, was the Timesland athlete of the year who scored a touchdown last fall as a freshman walk-on at Virginia.
Offensive lineman Coleman Thomas, one of the stars on last year’s Fort Chiswell squad, likely will start this fall at tackle for Tennessee.
“The better players you’ve got, you’re a whole lot smarter as a coach sometimes,” James said. “The last few years at Fort Chiswell I was fortunate enough to have some pretty good athletes.”
James, who also was an assistant at William Campbell and Marion, didn’t inherit a juggernaut at Fort Chiswell. The Pioneers went 17 seasons without making the playoffs before his 11-2 team in 2009 that lost in the Region C final to Radford.
Since then, the Fort Chiswell experience has included exceptional community support.
“I could remember my first couple of years, you could almost hear crickets chirping,” James said. “Any time you have success in high school football it brings the community together.”
James has the red and gold backing. He also has some people who will try to make life rough. They coach teams at Salem, Christiansburg, Patrick Henry and other rival schools.
“Pretty much everybody’s been supportive so far, but I’m not coming into it with blind eyes either,” he said.
“It’s anywhere anymore. It doesn’t matter if you’re 6A, Single-A, college, professional, whatever. It’s about wins and losses. That’s the bottom line.”