by Wade Marbaugh
It is a milestone in various realms, such as a 30th birthday or 30th year on the job, which often foreshadows a wristwatch and retirement.
Don’t talk retirement as DeKalb County’s winningest football coach, Buck Godfrey, begins his 30th season at the helm at Southwest DeKalb High School.
“Unless the good Lord has plans otherwise, I don’t see it looming,” Godfrey said. “But we’re grooming a couple guys.”
So, a talk with Godfrey soon moves to fundamentals, conditioning, discipline, teamwork, respect and academics.
Those were values he says he learned from his father, William Godfrey Sr., and mentors—his high school coach, Robbie Johnson, and legendary coaches Eddie Robinson (Grambling State University) and Joe Gilliam Sr. (Tennessee State and Jackson State).
Give them some credit for Godfrey’s record at Southwest DeKalb, 266-85-1, a winning percentage that ranks him among Georgia’s all-time top 10 football coaches.
Averaging 9.2 victories per season, the Panthers made the playoffs in 26 of his 29 years and had only one losing season. They won 13 region titles and captured the state championship in 1995. The NFL has employed 22 Godfrey grads.
In 2010 he was inducted to the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame, along with pitcher Tom Glavine, coach Bill Curry and golfer Larry Nelson.
Johnson, Godfrey’s coach at Immaculate Conception High in Charleston, S.C., “was a stickler for fundamentals and conditioning,” Godfrey recalled. “He would work you to death. Everything was discipline. The same goes for Eddie Robinson and Joe Gilliam.”
Johnson’s Spartan techniques yielded after the team won a key homecoming game 6-0. “He gave us the greatest treat we ever had—Coke and chips,” Godfrey grinned.
At Delaware State University, Godfrey played baseball and football, serving as captain for both teams. He attended Columbia and New York University, earned a master’s degree at Atlanta University and taught high school English for 34 years.
“First, you’ve got to love what you do and love the people you coach and teach,” Godfrey said. “Second, you’ve got to be knowledgeable in the subject matter. And third, never lie to a child.”
Teamwork is sacred—Godfrey declines to name top players for his 30th season, but look for numerous standouts. A solid core returns from last year’s 8-3 squad.
“This may be our best team since the 1999 team that went 12-1,” Godfrey said as the Aug. 31 opener at Pebblebrook approaches.
The speed harkens back to the era of quarterback Quincy Carter, who led Southwest to the state title in 1995 and played for UGA, the Dallas Cowboys and other pro teams.
“They’re athletic, physical—they can run the ball—they can throw the ball,” Godfrey said.
The defensive secondary is exceptional. The coach calls the defensive scheme “a funny version of the 40 [four linemen, four linebackers], the Willie Hunter 40,” referring to his defensive coordinator.
Godfrey likes the football IQ he sees on the practice field. “We can adjust to the situation and go with three or four different game plans.”
He takes pride in developing successful punters and place kickers. His own son, Colin, punted for Gilliam and Tennessee State. This year’s team boasts a bumper crop, three place kickers and four punters.
“It wins ball games for you—getting good field position with a punt or kicking a winning field goal.”
Though championships and win-loss records impress, Godfrey seems to hold as much stock in another set of stats.
In 29 seasons, 262 Southwest players received college scholarships, and 211 of those earned college degrees. Thirty-two earned advanced degrees, 10 doctorates and 22 masters. Four are principals or assistant principals in DeKalb County. Four are clergymen.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Godfrey said.
Octavia and William Godfrey Sr. stressed to their children the importance of academics, family life, self respect and respect for others. Godfrey and his wife, Joyce, exemplify these attitudes, and he seeks to instill them in his players.
Former Southwest nose guard Ronnie Swilling, a senior at Georgia Southern with a 3.2 grade point average, dropped by practice last week and discussed those values.
“He was like a grandfather to me—he was always there,” said Swilling, who plays semi-pro football. “I come back to talk with him when I can.”
Godfrey has written two volumes of poetry, a book about his Black Little League team’s encounters with racism and is finishing a forthcoming biography on Robinson.
Simply put, he lives life large. Thinking back on his youth, he said, “I swam, fished, crabbed. It was something out of Huck Finn,”
So, naturally, his children fished, and he taught daughter Rashan to swim so well that she won a full scholarship to compete for Florida A&M.
No question he’ll be fishing with granddaughters Bailey, Gabrielle, Carter and Morgan.