Photo courtesy of Blake Kessler
When I walked into the lobby of The Ted Smith Family Center at Paulson Stadium, one thought stood out over all the others: This is a school that’s proud of its football.
The Ted Smith Family Center is home to football head coach Chad Lunsford’s office.
Straight in front of whoever walks inside the building is a wall made of windows, as if it is framing the “prettiest little stadium in America.” GATA is in big letters above the wall of glass. It’s a beautiful day in Paulson. The sun is shining, illuminating the football field. One person runs from endzone to endzone on the field below me. As always, it’s a good day to be an Eagle.
The team’s national championship title plaques are proudly displayed in the lobby. Part of a wall is showcasing the Bill W. Nelson Hall of Fame. As I waited to interview Coach Lunsford, I sat on a blue couch in front of trophy cases holding Southern’s GoDaddy Bowl trophy from 2015 and the Sunbelt Conference Championship trophy from 2014.
Lunsford has held an array of positions, including jobs at Georgia Military College, Appalachian State, Griffin High School, Auburn and Georgia Southern University.
He has always gravitated towards football growing up. He played the sport in little league, middle school and high school. While he claims he wasn’t very good at it, he loved and enjoyed football. His biggest influences were his high school coach and all the coaches he’s worked with throughout his career.
“I just try to take everybody as far as how they handled things, how they did things, and just try to learn the situation they were in,” Lunsford said.
Lunsford thought he wanted to coach, but he didn’t make up his mind until he was in college.
“Once I jumped into it, I knew that’s what I was meant to be,” Lunsford said.
I asked Lunsford to describe how he felt when Georgia Southern won against App State. He said it was emotional, but he felt more emotional for the seniors because they had never beaten Appalachian State, and he did not want them to leave without that victory. He said them being able to get that made it the most special.
“The other emotion too is just Eagle Nation. All the fans. It just seemed like Georgia Southern again. The power of Paulson was really real that night,” Lunsford said.
There are several moments throughout Lunsford’s career where he thought, “This is why I want to be a coach.” One that jumps out at him was the final game of 2016 against Troy at Paulson. It was senior night. They had a successful senior class, but it wasn’t a good year—the team was 5-7. When Southern won, he saw how emotional the players were after the game, and a lot of them hugged him and told him they appreciated Lunsford sticking with them.
I asked Lunsford what obstacles he’s had to overcome to achieve success at Southern today, Lunsford said it was going through the hard times and not losing faith or sight of what Georgia Southern is.
“Georgia Southern is a very proud and successful program, and when it’s down, there’s a lot of negativity, and I think being able to overcome that—not just me, but our whole football team and our whole staff and just being able to create a positive environment was the biggest obstacle,” Lunsford said.
At the time of the interview Georgia Southern was in contention for the Sunbelt Championship, I asked Lunsford, from the perspective of coaching, how did he go from a losing season last year to a bowl-eligible team in contention for the Sunbelt Championship. Lunsford said that is starts with culture. He said they’ve always had a strong brotherhood with their players; it’s a close, tight-knit group. Lunsford thought it was important in the off-season to build a positive environment. He said they are still held accountable but with positive spin on everything.
“You got to get the kids to know you care about them and love them. And love equals time, so you got to spend time at it. And I think it was very important because our guys spend time together, our coaches then spend time with them, and it just became a big bond,” Lunsford said.
I asked Lunsford to describe his relationship with the players. He said he’s a player’s coach.
“Their interest is my interest. I want to take care of them and them to feel like they’re being taken care of. But, on the other hand, it’s not a friend relationship. It’s more of maybe a parent relationship where when discipline has to happen, I’m not afraid to discipline when needed,” Lunsford said.
His positivity has an effect on all of those around him.
Kindle Vildor, a junior sports management major, is a cornerback for the Georgia Southern football team.
“I feel like it’s more of a team, more of a family compared to last year. I feel like now we have a good brotherhood, and not only with the players but also with the coaches,” Vildor said.
Shai Werts, a redshirt sophomore sports management major, is a quarterback for the Georgia Southern football team.
“He tries to always find the positive in things instead of bashing the negative or always pointing out the negative stuff, so I feel like that always puts out a positive vibe, positive energy that comes with Coach Lunsford,” Werts said.
I asked Werts what the atmosphere this year is compared to last year. He said there’s a lot more positive energy, and he said that he feels this is what has allowed the team to have the season they have had so far.
Vildor and Werts both described Lunsford as a player’s coach.
One thing his wife, Tippy Lunsford, learned from him was to be positive. She said that, in a relationship, there’s always one person who’s stronger at certain things over others.
“He’s like that with everything. If I’m going to say the glass is half empty, it’s half full to him,” Tippy said.
The most important thing to Lunsford when it comes to the team is the guys knowing he cares about them. There are five core values they all try to work towards daily: servant leadership, honesty, humility, accountability and blue-collar work ethic.
I asked Werts how Coach Lunsford impacted his life, and he said he could tell so many stories. The biggest one was about his decision to attend the university. Werts said he had some recruiting, and Lunsford had called him after he had made a different decision. Werts said they talked for about an hour or hour and a half about a lot of things—not just football. After that, he changed his decision. Werts said Lunsford is probably one of the biggest reasons he decided to go to Southern.
“With him now being the head coach it makes it even more, I guess meaningful because he knows what I’ve been through, he knows all the stuff that I had to go through to get to this point, and he always believed in me, even when he was an assistant coach,” Werts said.
Werts said that Lunsford always told him that his time was coming, and, even when it did, he told Werts that he was proud of him, and no matter what, he would always stand behind him.
“He’s never went away from that word,” Werts said.
Vildor described Lunsford as a player’s coach, saying he gets along with every single player, and has a relationship with each and every one.
“I feel like a lot of coaches they probably want to just make it strictly about football, and winning, winning, winning. But he cares about more than that. He cares about how our family is doing, how we’re doing, and, if we need anything, be sure to go to him for it,” Vildor said.
Lunsford and defensive coordinator and safeties Scot Sloan have coached together for 9 years at three different previous places: Griffin High School, Georgia Military College and Georgia Southern University.
“In this business, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to work with someone that you’re that close to … During the course of your career, any time you get a chance to cross paths again with somebody you’re good friends with it’s kind of hard to turn down,” Sloan said.
I asked Sloan how it is working with Coach Lunsford. He said they have a good working relationship, and he thinks the fact that they know and trust each other as much as they do helps. He said they have open communication in both directions and they sometimes use each other as sounding boards. Sloan explained they keep it professional even though they are close.
“The fact that we’ve got such a good trust and good communication lined back and forth, I think helps it be a good working relationship as well,” Sloan said.
I asked Sloan what the players mean to him. He said they mean everything.
“When you’re in this line of work, if you’re not in it for the players, then you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” Sloan said.
Being able to mentor young guys as they’re in a huge transitional stage in their life and being able get the opportunity to build and equip them for the real world is important to him.
“Each guy has a different thing, I think, in their life that needs [to be] touched on, and so I think as a coach, if you can identify that and touch on it, then really you’ve done your job as far as the position of being a coach,” Sloan said.
Sloan has no doubt Lunsford shares this same philosophy. If he didn’t, Sloan wouldn’t have come back to Georgia Southern.
“Football is way bigger than just X and O’s and the schemes that you put together, the plays and things of that nature. It’s really about developing a culture, building a close knit group of players and coaches,” Sloan said.
I asked Sloan how Lunsford resolves conflict.
“He wants to think about it, pray about it, sleep on it throw it around a little bit, and usually it’s the next day when he’ll deal with issues. I think it gives him that time of just kind of absorbing everything, digesting everything, reaching peace with himself … he’s usually spot on in his decisions, so I think it’s a good approach rather than trying to make a knee-jerk reaction, a split second decision … ” Sloan said.
Tippy said the football players are like an extension of Lunsford’s children.
“When I hear him talking to them on the phone or in his office or wherever, it’s almost like they could be a part of our family,” Tippy said. “He loves and cares for them and teaches them and disciplines them all the same way. It’s kind of weird.”
Lunsford and his wife met in college, and they have been married 16 and a half years. The couple has three children. They first met in college.
“I liked his confidence, I liked his athletic ability, his brains. He just had the whole package, and he had a good Christian heart too. It was just perfect for me,” Tippy said.
When asked to describe her husband, the first thing she said was that he’s a very Godly man. She also said he’s a great leader of their family, has a good sense of humor, and is a loving, caring and devoted husband.
She said she would probably describe him in the same way as a coach, just towards the team, players and coaches.
Lunsford’s family isn’t able to have a family dinner most nights because of obligations like football practices and the children’s sport events, so Lunsford’s family starts out every single day they are home with a family breakfast at 6 a.m.
Tippy said that family is the most important thing to her husband, just under his Christian faith. She knew Lunsford would be a good father before they had children, saying they both have a desire for adventure, and he was like a kid at heart.
“I would think that if he treated them the way I was treated by him, he would be a good father,” said Tippy.
Lunsford does bring his work home with him on occasion, said Tippy. She said it’s like his hobby, and she enjoys it too. After every game the team plays, they go home and watch it together again on the TV. If he has a lot of work he has to do and hasn’t been home in awhile, he’ll try to bring it home just so he is present.
“Sometimes this profession is hard on marriages, but one thing he does that I feel like makes all the world of a difference is I know without a doubt whatever spare time he gets … away will be spent with me and the kids in some form or fashion,” Tippy said.
Sloan said this line of work is competitive, especially when the stakes get higher. He said sometimes the job can consume you, but you can’t stay here 24, 18, or 19 hours a day. At some point, he said, you have to have to push away and go home and pick up where you left off the next day. Sloan said Lunsford was good for him and really showed him that perspective.
“He really sets that standard with the staff for everybody. He wants us to be husbands and dads and not just 27 football coaches,” Sloan said.
Tippy said that there are some sacrifices that have to be made that come with her husband’s job. All three of their kids are in sports, so she has to hurry and get them all where they’re supposed to be.
“When they get out of school, I am 110 miles an hour getting them to all their stuff, you know, kind of like a single mom would be, and they don’t have daddy to come and watch every single game that they play in. However he’ll be at some,” Tippy said.
She thinks their children understand and are okay with this. The family has also had to move around and leave friends or vice versa. Tippy said she has taught their children from a young age that home is not a place. Home is wherever their mom and dad are.
“They have to have the type of personality to handle that, which I think they all do … But I know it’s hard, so that is a sacrifice. I don’t think they would want a different life though,” Tippy said.
I asked Tippy if the stress of Lunsford’s job affects home life. She said she didn’t think so, and you wouldn’t know that anything is wrong. After one of the games they lost, her kids couldn’t tell Southern had lost.
“Of course he was upset about the game, but I don’t think he would change his personality,” Tippy said.
I asked Lunsford what his Christian faith meant to him, Lunsford answered immediately: “It means everything to me. I’m not the perfect Christian, and I’m not a perfect human. I’m not even close, but I know where my strength comes from. And I know that my strength comes from the Lord.”
Lunsford said one of his core values is servant leadership, which he tries to apply to his everyday life. He reminds himself, “it ain’t me,” and that it is God. He also said being a servant leader is his philosophy.
The family’s Christian faith is a big part of their home life. Tippy said that lots of kids are stressed out over sports or grades or whatever, and she tries to remind them that’s not the most important thing.
“My and Chad’s number one role as parents is to teach our kids to love a great God and nothing else comes close to that,” Tippy said.
One hardship the Lunsfords had to endure was when they lost their third child at birth in 2010. Tippy said she had carried the baby full term, and he ended up being stillborn. She said it was hard for each of them in different ways.
“That was really hard for me emotionally, and it was hard for him too, but just a different level being the daddy or husband and not actually carrying the baby like you would expect with me,” Tippy said.
“All he knew to do was to pray, and I was, of course, at the time was very mad at God for putting us through all of this, which of course is understanding,” Tippy said. She said Lunsford would leave work in the middle of the day to check on her, and that she, of course, would be crying. He didn’t know what to do, and he would say that they needed to pray.
“He did that and he did that for several days, weeks, and I don’t know if that is what softened my heart or if that’s what got us through it, but I can also say something with that prayer that he would do pulled us through,” Tippy said.
Lunsford said he could only support her and be there for her.
“That was a pretty trying time because I always felt like I could always fix whatever and I could make everything right and that I couldn’t … God really I think affected both of us with our faith at that point because we knew we had to rely on Him to get through it,” Lunsford said.
Tippy said this experience caused the whole family to have a different outlook on life, saying that she feels like the saying “don’t sweat the small stuff because its all small stuff” is very true, and you don’t realize that until you go through something like they did. It affected how she taught her students and parented her children.
“I can see now looking back how good came from that … It touched our family, and it touched my heart, and it changed me and him as people.”
Growing up, Lunsford describes his life as normal. He was raised in a Christian family in a two parent home, and he was always taken care of. His dad and grandfather taught him work ethic from an early age. He wasn’t rich, but he wasn’t poor. Lunsford’s personal influences were his parents and grandparents. He said that he had struggles and it wasn’t perfect, but he definitely can’t complain about his childhood.
“I was well taken care of and shown the right way and shown how to live the right way,” Lunsford said.
Sloan said Lunsford’s coaching style is like his—and it’s part of what drove him to come back and be a part of the staff. He said Lunsford has a good energy and relationship with the players: “It’s not an us and them. It’s we.”
“This is my 27th year, so I’ve been around a bunch of different coaches at a bunch of different levels and so you see and learn from a lot of people you come into contact with … you see some of the screamers and yellers and barkers … Kids don’t really respond to that, not like maybe they did 30 years ago,” Sloan said.
Sloan explained that Lunsford’s style is more of a teacher and embracer.
“Reinforce the positive, correct the negative, but reinforce the positive and really build them up instead of beat them down,” Sloan said.
Sloan has no doubt that this is what’s making the team so successful this year. Sloan said Lunsford’s positive mindset is an upbeat culture that bleeds into the staff and down to the players.
“Once it trickles down … that’s what your locker room is, you know, a positive, upbeat, close-knit group and that bleeds over into success on the field,” Sloan said.
Werts said they do a lot of team bonding during the off-season. They’ve done different things together like go to the movies, play volleyball and sometimes the coaches invite them to dinner.
“I feel like that’s also a big reason why we’ve come to have success this year. Because he does stuff like that and kind of brings us in closer and brings the brotherhood even tighter than what it is,” Werts said.
Werts said what you see is what you get with Coach Lunsford, and that he doesn’t really change for anybody.
“He is himself, he’s always himself. That’s what I like about him. You know the kind of person you’re going to get every day,” Werts said.
Werts said, “I feel like when you’re choosing a college, somewhere to play, any sport, you want to play for somebody who is all about his players, who puts his players first …Who’s always willing to go to battle with someone like Coach Lunsford [is].”