New Gainesville AD Billy Kirk eager to enhance tradition-rich athletics program
Former Centennial High administrator ready to build with ‘bottom-up’ philosophy
By Jared Putnam
POSTED: July 15, 2015 10:13 p.m.
Billy Kirk accepted the job as Gainesville’s new athletic director just in time to watch the Red Elephants baseball team make a run to the state championship series in May.
It was a fitting introduction to a school with a rich tradition of success in athletics, something Kirk is reminded of each day as he passes by the wall of trophies inside the front office doors.
Kirk acknowledged that the job comes with its fair share of pressure, including inevitable comparisons to his predecessor, Wayne Vickery, who won five baseball state titles as coach, before leading the school to many more region and state championships as athletic director during a career spanning more than three decades at Gainesville.
The new Red Elephants athletic director, who previously served as Centennial High athletic director in Roswell and Jackson County High football coach prior to that, said he’s enjoying the challenge of stepping into a position that was redefined and expanded in the spring, and he’s focused on enhancing what he already sees as one of the top sports programs in the state.
Kirk sat down with The Times sports editor Jared Putnam to discuss his early impressions of Gainesville High athletics in the short time he’s been at the school, and how he sees his role going forward.
What attracted you to this job?
“I live in Jefferson and I’ve been to Gainesville games in the past just as a spectator. The proximity there was close, and the rich traditions that exist here, obviously people throughout the state know about this place. It’s not a secret.
“To walk into, to me, a program that’s considered a top-five program in the state of Georgia was obviously attractive. I kind of felt like it was the right fit for me and my family to do the things that Gainesville City Schools was asking me in return.
“To tell you that I was humbled and stunned at the same time, I’d be remiss in not saying that. This is a storied, tradition-rich school system, storied, tradition-rich athletic program. The second part of this it was the tremendous community support. When I did come as a spectator, it was unbelievable.
“As I’ve learned since I got the job, people have been coming to games for 30 or 40 years or more. You don’t find that everywhere. It’s a great place. What I want to do is enhance what they already have and make it better for years and years to come.”
What are a couple of the most important things you learned running a Class AAAAAA athletics program like Centennial that will help you in this job?
“When you’re at a AAAAAA school, you’re on the biggest stage out there in everything you do. You’re dealing with over 2,000 students and sometimes competing against schools with double your population. So, you find the same challenges that you do here, because our demographic down there was about the same as here.
“One of the biggest things for me was managing an entire staff of 80-plus coaches with a quarter-of-a-million-dollar budget. You learn how to be fiscally responsible. You learn how to manage adults. Sometimes managing adults is harder than managing kids.
“I feel like I learned a lot from that opportunity at Centennial. The experiences that my principal afforded me at Centennial is one of the reasons why I was afforded the opportunity at Gainesville, because it wasn’t just about being an athletic director. Don’t get me wrong, I’m here to be the athletic director, but I was also graduation director (at Centennial), I was also dean of students, I carried a lot of hats. I feel like I did those well enough to even be considered for this opportunity.
“One of the things I’m most proud of down there is we re-branded that whole school. We re-branded logos, pantones, colors, the whole nine yards, so I feel like I left that place better than when I got there because of the experiences that were afforded to me. Certainly a large piece of it is the management of people.
“And another part of that is community and building community. Centennial did not have a loyal community because there are 19 high schools down there (in that area). It’s hard in your little bubble of Centennial to build community, but I think by the time we left there, people took pride in what we did. Here (at Gainesville) they already had that, so that’s something I don’t have to do.
This position was redefined from what it was in years past at the time you were hired. What is your understanding of the key parts of how it’s going to be different from previous athletic directors’ duties here?
“What they’ve afforded me the opportunity to do is to be the district-wide athletic director for not only the high school, but working with the middle school. We weren’t in a sports league at the middle school (level), so I worked out a deal to get us in a league so our kids could compete for championships. But it also stretches out into the elementaries.
“So, it’s a bigger piece, to be honest, because you’re not just talking about a high school, you’re talking about a high school, middle school, five elementary schools, and then working with the Gainesville City Parks & (Recreation) to do things. Different? Yes, extremely different. Exciting? Yes … I call it a bottom-up philosophy. We’re trying to build with our five elementaries up to the middle school, up to the high school. Everything works together. I don’t believe it’s a top-down thing, I believe it’s a bottom-up where we want the little-bitty babies to be large Elephants one day. It’s that community pride of building that up.
“Is it going to be a challenge? Yes, it is. Is it different than maybe what has been done here? Sure it is. But I believe in the ability to build from the bottom. We have 1,700 kids in our middle school. We play … everything we do in high school in middle school. We have our hands on that as well, getting those kids in leagues and building future high school students. And there’s a few other different hats I’m going to have within the district, but like I said, make no mistake about it … the focus is on athletics to make sure we’re continuing with the traditions and the winning ways we’ve had.
“One thing I’ve told our coaches is that I’m here to serve them, they’re not here to serve me. I’m just being transparent when I say that. I want to serve them and get them everything they need to be successful. Another thing unique about Gainesville City Schools, they don’t have players fees here. Down at Centennial High School, six months ago, our football players were paying $1,100 to play football per kid. They don’t do that here. These kids are well taken care of from that standpoint.”
I think when some people saw that the Gainesville athletic director role was going to be redefined, there was a fear that the person in this role might be stretched too thin. It sounds like you think it will be a benefit to have everything more connected from high school down through the elementary schools.
“I’m going to use the education lingo: we’re vertically aligned from bottom to top. When you read the job description, it’s a lot on there, but at Centennial High School I was the athletic director, I was the dean of students, I did honors night, I did graduation … I had my day very segmented. So, I genuinely believe it’s doable to do the tasks (superintendent) Dr. (Wanda) Creel has set out for me to do, do them well and not take away from one sport. If they need me to do something, I’m going to be there to assist.
“I’m here to serve, that’s the bottom line, and it’s not going to be a matter of which hat I’m wearing that day. I wear the Gainesville City hat. That’s got to be clear, it’s not a case where I’m wearing a bunch of different hats. This morning I met with some sporting goods reps. Right after they walked out, I had a meeting about discipline with our school system.
“There’s a lot of different things that I’m going to be there to serve for, and that’s all it is. It’s a willingness to serve and do the things that are expected. I will say, you’re right, there are a lot of people that went, ‘Oh my God,’ (that’s a lot) … but the first part of my job is the athletic director (duties), and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Based on what you’ve seen so far, how would you rate the state of Gainesville athletics right now?
“Just taking a temperature check, when I first got the job, I spent the first three or four weeks following our baseball team to the state championship series. How lucky is that, to get to be able to do that kind of stuff? But not only do you get to spend that time with Coach (Jeremy) Kemp and his baseball players, they didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know them, but I was able to follow them all the way through (the state championship against) Greenbrier.
“Then I started meeting with the coaches and let’s be honest, we’ve probably got one of the top football coaches (Bruce Miller) in the state of Georgia, if not the Southeast. We’re going to be OK in football. Both basketball programs, with Benji (Wood) and Brenda (Hill-Gilmore) leading them, those two (are) just phenomenal. We just hired Shane Millwood from Flowery Branch, who won the region (in wrestling) down there. He’s joining our staff not only in wrestling, but also in football.
“Our track program run by Coach Jones, our golf program run by Bryson (Worley) and Clay (McDonald), Coach Kemp running our baseball program, I can’t find a weak link. Not that I was looking for one, but I can’t find one (in our school). To gauge the temperature, I think we’re pretty hot right now, and we’re going to stay hot. One of the keys I believe to the success Gainesville has is consistency. The kids know what to expect, the parents know what to expect and the community knows what to expect. They don’t have to guess.”
Is there anything you see that maybe doesn’t require a huge improvement, but maybe needs a small improvement or tweak?
“I feel like everything is in place here for success. I want to make sure that if Coach Miller comes to me and says, ‘Billy, I really need this,’ my job is to try to move heaven and earth to make it happen. If Jeremy Kemp needs whatever for baseball, he’s the expert in baseball, not me. I don’t micromanage people. Let them do their jobs, they’ve done them well for a long time. The results speak for themselves.”
Going back to what you were saying about the rich tradition of the place, especially coming into your first full year, do you feel a pressure of not wanting to be the guy who …
“That I don’t want to be the one that screws it up? In the coaching world, you don’t want to follow the guy that’s the legend. Well, I’m following a guy in Coach Vickery who’s won multiple state championships at Gainesville City Schools and done a lot of great things for the school system, but I’m not afraid to step into the shadow of Coach Vickery.
“You’re exactly right, the big stereotype is, ‘Holy cow, no one wants to follow that guy.’ It’s more so in coaching, but it’s also in this seat as well because like I said, Coach Vickery has been here for 35 years. He’s won multiple state championships for this school system. Talk about a guy who bleeds red, that guy bleeds Gainesville Red.
“What I want to do is embrace how things have been done and respect those traditions, because I’m the new guy. I am cognizant enough to recognize and respect the tradition. You can’t help but walk in this door and see that trophy wall right there. You can walk in here and not recognize, wow, I’m a member of this family and I want to be a productive member of this family, and that’s the way I’m approaching it. Is there pressure? Yes sir, a pressure cooker. Do I let it get to me? No. I just feel comfortable in the role that Dr. Creel granted me, I really do.”
With replacing Wayne and it being a situation where his contract wasn’t renewed, obviously that had nothing to do with you apart from you applying for the open position, but there can sometimes be resentment toward someone who takes the place of a person who has a lot of support. Have you felt any sense that you may have to win some people over, or has that been anything you’ve really thought about?
“It’s been right the opposite. Coach Vickery has been wonderful to me. A lot of his supporters have been wonderful to me. You can’t go anywhere in this community that Coach Vickery’s stamp is not out there.
“Once again, it goes back to the way you approach that situation. I reached out to Coach Vickery as soon as I got the job. I’m not an idiot, I wanted to make sure he was aware that I had nothing to do with (anything that happened before I got here), I just applied for a job. He was one of the first guys I went to, and we had a great talk. He gave me his cell phone number and said, ‘Billy, anything you need, you let me know.’ There’s not an adversarial relationship there. His supporters, and obviously he has a lot, there’s not been one email, one phone call, one text or anything in a negative light.
“One of the first things Coach Vickery asked me was, ‘Do you want me to be on the football sideline on Friday nights?’ And I said ‘Coach, as long as you are around here, I expect you to be there,’ and that’s the truth. He is a staple of the traditions we talk about, and we want to embrace his family and respect what he’s done.
“I think I’ll be able to keep people supporting Gainesville Red Elephant athletics. That’s all I want. I’m just a piece of it, and proud to be a piece of it.”