ROCKINGHAM – They say first impressions are everything; certainly, I would understand that. And I agree. And I’ll tell you that one of the best first impressions I’ve gotten of someone is the current head coach of the Raiders football program.
The first time I met head coach Bryan Till was at the beginning of July. It was typical North Carolina weather (high nineties, extremely humid). We were meeting to do a preview article about the upcoming season, and players weren’t expected to report for another couple of weeks.
When I knocked on his office door, Till welcomed me with his trademark grin and a firm handshake. The office was hot and sticky, and his shirt was dabbled with flecks of sweat. But that wasn’t what caught my eye most. It was the stacks of playbooks and formations drawn on a dry erase board. It was the hand-written notes scribbled on sheets of paper and the plaques lining the wall highlighting personal accolades. I could go on – but you get the point; he’s football eight days a week.
Immediately, it was very apparent to me that this guy was 110 percent invested in returning Richmond football to state championship glory. I’ve been around the team a lot this fall, and I’ve picked up on quite a few commendable things that Till is doing to put the Raiders back in contention for years to come.
One of which is the guy’s a hard worker and he never quits. If he’s not meeting with his defense after practice, he’s pushing the laundry cart through the locker room; or he can be found building relationships with his players, analyzing opponents’ film or editing his game plan. He’s all go, all the time.
Even after a somewhat disappointing 7-5 season that saw the Raiders exit in the first round of the state playoffs, I still believe that Till’s vision is the answer. Nobody knows the team, the players, the coaches or the pressure of the community’s desire to win more than Till himself.
“I’m not happy with our record,” Till admitted when we sat down in his office this week. “But I am happy with our kids’ effort to battle and their belief in turning things around.
“And our resiliency as a team never changed this year,” he noted. “The kids, the coaches, myself – we’re doing the right things.”
And the impression I have after his first full season is exceptionally good. And fans should feel confident in his ability to lead in the coming seasons.
Why Till is the Right Man for the Job
It’s no secret that Till inherited a storied Richmond program that is rooted in deep tradition (and with that comes seven state titles). But he also came to town in the wake of the previous head coach resigning after just two seasons. That’s comparing apples and oranges, but I think it’s fair to mention because Raiders football fans have seemed disgruntled the past few seasons and are looking for an outlet or an answer.
And the answer is Till; he’s the guy who’s going to fix it, I truly believe that. But it’s going to take some time because what tools he’s using aren’t all necessarily football related. It’s the intangibles he offers: mentorship, grit, trust, patience. Yes, he’s one of the brightest football-minded people I’ve ever met. But football knowledge and skill can only go so far.
One of the most significant things Till has said to me this season (and there have been a lot), is that “success isn’t an accident.” Let that sink in for moment. Till has a plan for Richmond, and he knows being the greatest doesn’t happen overnight. And with his coaching staff, he’s developed a plan that gives Richmond a chance at a long postseason run in the next couple of years.
When I asked Till what the x-factor has to be in order to keep the progression going, he said it starts with the realization that good things are already in place.
“I truly believe in this program and this community,” Till said. “I’ve always wanted to coach in a community like this. People here understand how important it is to be a Raider (football player).
“It’s this desire and belief that will carry us more than talent,” Till continued. “I put the team and our boys first in everything I do. Wins will happen.”
Coach Till’s intensity on the sideline is always present.
Changing the Culture
Where I’m from in Pennsylvania, high school football is… just football. But in Richmond County, it’s different than what I’m used to. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my nearly three years here, it’s that football rules all. And with that comes the expectation to win; and Till gets that.
But before Richmond County can relive the days of coach Daryl Barnes, there needs to be a change in the team’s culture, as well as in the community. And that’s a part of Till’s vision that saw success in his first season, but as he explains, has more room for growth.
“The kids want to win, everybody does,” Till noted. “But we’ve had to discipline kids on and off the field. We are working on (getting better).
“And we need help from the community,” Till added. “We need to hold our players accountable. We want to build a culture. We have to do this with no shortcuts and do it the right way.”
Help from the community – an interesting concept, considering there is such a high expectation to win. But many home games this season didn’t see sellout crowds or packed bleachers. Admittedly, I was shocked; plain and simple. With the buzz of a new coach and the same expectations, I expected to see a sea of green and gold in the stands and not just on the field.
Throughout the season, I’ve reported several times how Till has expressed his desire to see a packed stadium. The players feed off that energy, that momentum. And I think the community (not just the boosters and the season ticket holders) need to step up next season and do their part of the vision.
Richmond has a 100 percent club, which keeps tabs of players (both varsity and junior varsity) who attend all summer workouts. This year, there were 25 players (13 of which were JV players) in the club. On the 1997 state championship team, there were 62 Raiders who attended every practice. That’s another part of the plan that Till hopes to implement with more ferocity next season to help establish a championship culture.
Till told me that when he accepted the head coaching job at Richmond, it was THE place he’d always wanted to coach. The history. The buzz of Friday night lights. The small-town feel. The community support. And the culture here is great, there’s no doubt about that; but Till’s infusion of his own visions are going to help make Richmond state champions again.
Success Beyond the Field
Perhaps the best quality that Till offers to his players is his vested interest in their academic successes. A lot of times, football coaches are classified as just that; guys who want to slam weights, practice hard and win on Friday nights. But Till’s willingness to help is tremendous and is another step in his vision.
I’ve seen him call players into his office to discuss scholarship offers or their current classes. There’s always chatter in the locker room about schoolwork and doing well in class. And I’ve had several players tell me during interviews this season that when preparing for a new opponent, part of the process is completing homework and putting school first.
That’s pretty amazing, and is a true reflection of Till and his coaching staff. This is just one of those things that you have to see yourself to understand the magnitude of its power.
“We’re trying to create a schedule and habits for our players,” Till said. “We want them prepared for class and college. When FAFSA registration is due, we help our players get financial aid.
“And we have teachers report when our players do well in class,” he explained. “They deserve to be bragged on and recognized at the end of practice if they’re doing good things in the classroom.”
Foundation Set for Next Couple Years
The final phase in returning to greatness is simply executing on the field the next couple of seasons. It sounds easy, and Richmond will be able to rely on a core group of players to try and make something happen.
One of these players is quarterback Caleb Hood, who wrapped up his freshman season with 2,095 passing yards, 16 passing touchdowns, 275 rushing yards and five rushing scores. Hood had a stellar season, as he nearly broke several school records, including most passing yards in a game and tied for the most completions in a game (24 against Scotland).
Wide receiver Malik Stanback, who had 34 receptions for 751 yards, will return for his senior season to add to his five touchdowns he caught this year. With the departure of senior tailback Dante Miller, the Raiders will presumably look to Jaheim Covington, who as a sophomore, backed up Miller with 475 yards on 78 carries and tacked on eight touchdowns.
This year was a development year. There was a new coach, a new system and a freshman quarterback under center (and at one point, there were three freshmen playing at the varsity level). And Till admitted it wasn’t the year he wanted to have, but as a program, they were able to “bring our belief to get better each week to fruition.”
One final tidbit before I finish – next season is an “eight year.” For anyone not familiar, Richmond has won four of its seven state championships in the eighth year of the decade (1978, 1988, 1998 and 2008).
In order to get there, Till said his players have to make a “tremendous gain in strength and conditioning” in the offseason. He also noted that the team as a whole needs to get faster and stronger, and rising junior varsity players need to make the physical transition.
“To be better next year, we need greater commitment from our kids and their families,” Till explained. “The championship expectation is there. Now we need the championship commitment to go with it.”
The future is bright for the Raiders, there’s no doubt about that. So, whether or not history is on the Raiders’ side in 2018, I can’t wait to get my first impression of Till’s second season as head coach during spring workouts.