When the Cass football program announced its replacement for Bobby Hughes earlier this week, many fans probably expected either an in-house promotion or the hire of an up-and-coming head coach.
Steve Gates is neither.
Instead, Gates fits into the third major category of head-coaching hires: star assistant on another staff. He joins the Colonels after a four-year stint at Kell, where he served as assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and running backs coach. His only previous coaching position was with North Cobb, where he led the offensive line.
Despite never having been a head coach, Gates had certainly been knocking on the door in recent years. On the surface, Cass seems to have made a wise decision to answer.
“I wasn’t one of those guys who applied for 10 jobs a year and just hoped I would get one,” Gates said. “I was picky about it, and it had to be the right fit. I wasn’t one of those guys who wanted to be a head coach just to say, ‘I’m a head coach.’ I wanted it to fit on both ends.
“When Cass came open a month or two ago, knowing a little bit about the administration already here at Cass, knowing the direction it was going with the county with improvements to facilities, it was a no-brainer that I wanted to go to Cass. Most people don’t know this, but I lived in White for several years after I got married 25 years ago. I’m familiar with Bartow County; I’m familiar with the Cartersville area. I lived up here about six years, and I knew I wanted to get back up here.”
During the hiring process, Colonels athletic director Nicky Moore seemed to be looking for a candidate who had spent time as a head coach. However, the skills Gates has shown throughout his career made Moore thrilled to recommend him for the position.
“You want somebody who has that experience, and during the interview process, it was very, very clear that — although he has not held the title of a head coach — he definitely has done the things that head coaches are put in the position to do,” Moore said. “… It really did not bother us that he had actually not had the title of a head coach, because he showed that he had all the capabilities and probably should have already been a head coach somewhere along the line.”
Having worked under highly successful longtime coaches in North Cobb’s Shane Queen and Kell’s Derek Cook, Gates learned the ropes. His final three seasons at Kell, he served as head coach Brett Sloan’s right-hand man. Over the course of his career, Gates has had the ability to hold roles most head-coaching candidates can only dream of, boasting experience in fundraising, academics and recruiting.
“The guys he worked for gave him responsibilities that prepared him for the stuff he will take on that normal assistants don’t know comes with the head-coaching job,” said Hughes, who helped with the coaching search. “Although he hasn’t technically been a head coach, he was entrusted with a lot of the responsibilities that come with being a head coach. I know with myself and Dr. Moore, he will have resources that will help him with anything he needs. I feel really, really good about where we’re at and the direction we are going.”
If the endorsements of Moore and Hughes are not enough to acquiesce the concerns of some Colonels supporters, maybe this will be: Gates has a victory over Cartersville on his resumé.
He was with North Cobb in 2014, when the Warriors edged out the Canes, 27-26. That was Trevor Lawrence’s freshman season and marked the first of only three losses he suffered during his high school career.
Although wins and losses don’t officially get credited to assistant coaches, Gates proudly states he’s 1-1 against the prodigious talent, who went on to win two state titles at Cartersville and (at least) one national championship at Clemson. To this day, though, Gates is still haunted by his loss to the Canes — a 34-31 defeat in 2015.
“That game is probably a top-three worst game for us, because we were actually up 21 at the start of the fourth, if I’m not mistaken,” he said. “You can put the blame on me. My center, for the first time all year, snapped the ball over our quarterback’s head. It was a downhill slide from there. … Playing against someone like Trevor, you don’t give someone like that an opportunity or he’s going to make you pay, and he did.”
Ironically, the week before that 2015 North Cobb-Cartersville contest was the most recent meeting between the Colonels and Canes. This season, the two local programs will be forced to renew their rivalry after both were placed in Region 7-AAAAA for the new reclassification cycle.
In a lot of ways, Gates will have his work cut out for him as he takes over the Cass program. While at Kell, he faced the Colonels each of his four seasons in the previous iteration of Region 7-AAAAA. At the time, Kell, Carrollton and Rome formed an impressive Big Three. Now, Gates finds himself on the outside looking in at an equally formidable triumvirate of Blessed Trinity, Calhoun and Cartersville.
It’s a challenge Gates welcomes.
“That type of competition will be exciting to go against to see where you are,” the former University of Georgia offensive lineman said. “I’ve never been the type of guy who gets enjoyment or likes to beat an inferior opponent just because we can. I kind of learned that from coach Queen, who is doing it again this year at North Cobb. Coach Queen has 10 playoff teams on his schedule. …
“Unfortunately for us, those three opponents — Blessed Trinity, Calhoun and Cartersville — are all in our region. We’re going to have to get to their level to be able to compete for those playoff spots. That’s the plan, and that’s the goal.”
Another part of the plan is to iron out Gates’ staff.
Despite having been an offensive coordinator with the Longhorns, his hope is that someone else can take on the OC role for the Colonels, allowing Gates to focus more on managing the game from all sides. That being said, he will definitely be involved on the offensive side of things, including helping coach up the O-line.
“I would rather not do that,” Gates said of calling plays. “I’ve seen it done both ways, and I would rather not. I will if I have to. … I look to have a true offensive coordinator in place who can run the offense during practice and call the plays on Friday nights. That’s something we’re working out right now and hopefully we’ll have resolved. Offensively, I will definitely have my hands and input on it on a daily basis.”
Gates said he prefers a downhill running rushing attack full of power, stretch and zone concepts. Regardless, he understands the need to scheme to his personnel, as evidenced by a more pass-heavy approach when he had current Louisville quarterback Evan Conley as his starter at Kell. And even though his coaching experience has all come on the offensive side of the ball, Gates noted that a vast majority of his time studying film was spent watching defensive tape of opponents.
While Gates is no doubt eager to get a jump on preparing for his debut season, the current state of affairs in the country has thrown a wrench into some of those plans. The COVID-19 outbreak looks likely to wipe out spring practices, at the very least. It also will keep Cass from holding a formal meet-and-greet between Gates and the community for the foreseeable future.
The circumstances, though, didn’t temper Moore’s excitement at having Gates brought into the fold.
“To say that coach Gates checked every box that was ever even mentioned would be an understatement,” Moore said. “Just incredibly excited to have him on board to continue to build off what coach Hughes and his staff have already laid the foundation for.”
It’s pretty rare for a former head coach to be involved in the search for his replacement, but it made sense in this scenario, with Hughes transitioning into a new position within the Colonels athletic department. After six seasons leading Cass, Hughes believes Gates will help take the program to the next level.
“I got to know him and compete against him for the last four years, so it’s a lot easier working with someone who is not new to you,” Hughes said. “I’m excited, because he’s the kind of guy I want to hand the baton to and work with on a daily basis to see these kids have an opportunity to be successful. I can’t think of a better person to do that than coach Gates.
“We didn’t make a good hire; we made a great hire.”