It used to be Danny Miller’s job to help A.J. Lamar win.
Way back in the day.
Of Miller’s 22-year stint with the Cullman Middle School football team, three were spent coaching Lamar, who in 1987, his seventh-grade season, earned some playing time on the ninth-grade team as a running back.
That was just the start for Lamar. He went on to shine in the Bearcat backfield at the high school level and then helped the University of North Alabama win back-to-back-to-back national championships from 1993-95, paving the way for a prep football coaching career.
Lamar took over as head coach at Vinemont in 2007 before heading to West Point in 2009, where he’s still ruling the roost.
Meanwhile, Miller left Cullman during the 2008 season to take the head coaching job at Hanceville, the position he currently holds.
Needless to say, Miller and Lamar share a little bit of history, and their paths will cross yet again when West Point travels to Hanceville this Friday night. The non-region matchup will pit the teacher versus the student, who holds a 3-1 advantage over his former coach.
“He had a great career as a player, and he’s doing a good job as a coach,” Miller said of Lamar. “I’ve always thought a lot of A.J. In fact, the first game I ever coached when I took over in the middle of the season at Hanceville was against A.J. when he was at Vinemont.”
Aside from Lamar, Miller has a few other connections with West Point. His nephew, Phillip, is the Warriors’ offensive line coach, and Miller also graduated from West Point in 1972.
“It seems like a long time,” the 35th-year coach said. “But sometimes, it doesn’t seem very long at all.”
The Bulldogs and Warriors both enter the contest sporting 1-3 records, but Hanceville does have all the momentum on its side following last Friday’s 35-6 victory over then-No. 8 Vinemont.
“Being able to come out and get a win was big for us,” Miller said. “That was a region win, and that really helped. We’d like to try to build on what we got started last week and possibly get another win.”
On the other hand, West Point has lost three straight ballgames, most recently a 63-20 home defeat against Russellville on television last Thursday. The other two came against difficult Class 5A, Region 8 opponents Athens and Cullman.
“They’re like us. They’re struggling in their league, but they’re not playing in 3A, either,” Miller said. “That makes a big difference. They’ve played a tough schedule.”
The Bulldogs aren’t used to facing competition with linemen as big as the Warriors, so Miller has had to prepare his players for that difference. He’s also been trying to get them ready for West Point’s option attack, which has been rather effective so far this year.
“They’re pretty good at what they do,” Miller said. “It’s a different challenge, but it is a challenge. We’ve just got to work on matchups.”
Hanceville is also happy to take on its second opponent in a row that doesn’t run the spread as its base offense. The Bulldogs struggled mightily against their first three foes, which were all pass-happy squads.
“From the jamboree through the first three games, that’s all we saw,” Miller said.
As part of building on last Friday’s success, the coach has been trying to emphasize to his players that a good week of practice often translates into positive results come gametime. It sounds obvious, but Miller credits the win versus Vinemont, as well as Hanceville’s 10-0 regular season run in 2011, to that mentality.
“Hard work got us what we were able to accomplish last year,” the coach said. “What’s going to make the difference this year is how hard we continue to work in practice, in the weight room and everything.”
No one expected the Bulldogs to jump out to a 1-3 (1-2 in Class 3A, Region 7) record, especially the team’s players. Despite the slow start, Miller feels reaching the playoffs isn’t too much to ask for.
With region games left against Winfield, Winston County, Danville and Cordova, the coach said it’s all up to the kids on where they want to go from here.
“I don’t think any of those four games are not winnable for us,” Miller said. “I think there’s a possibility we could go 5-2 in the region. We go 5-2, we’re in the playoffs, no doubt about that. It would take a tremendous effort, but that possibility is out there.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.