When the Paris school board accepted the resignation of former head football coach Tyler Clark on April 7, Paris fans were taken a little by surprise and instantly became anxious to know who would lead their beloved Eagles into the next football season and beyond. Clark, who accepted an offer to become the Russellville Cyclones’ offensive coordinator, led the Eagles to their most successful season in program history. The 2020 Eagles went 9-1 on the regular season and were conference runner-ups to Booneville. Booneville narrowly escaped Paris in week nine, surviving a frantic come-back by the Eagles late in the game. The loss to Booneville was the only loss of the regular season for the Eagles.
As a number two seed in the state playoffs, Paris won first and second round state playoff games versus Salem and Greenland. The home victories in the playoffs sent the Eagles to northeast Arkansas where they ran into a very good Hoxie Mustangs team that eventually lost in the state semi-finals.
Paris has several key players returning in 2021 from last year’s state playoffs team, although they have lost key interior linemen on both sides of the ball to graduation. But the nucleus for a very good team will be back having acquired valuable experience on the field and in the playoffs. Having tasted a good run in the state playoffs, the 2021 senior class of players is hungry to taste more this November.
So the stage was set with Coach Clark’s announcement and the anxiety of fans and supporters of the program that it was imperative to find the right coach, and find him quickly, to give this class of players a legitimate chance next season to realize their dreams of a state playoff run.
The Paris school district quickly set about finding a replacement for Clark. And that search came to an end last Thursday, April 22, 2021. In just two weeks from the resignation of Coach Clark, the district announced the hiring of former Russellville High School head football coach, Jeff Weaver. From start to finish, this was a “lightning fast” search compared to most situations, and the district sat out to find their guy…and Coach Weaver was their guy. Time frames can be misleading to those of us on the outside and who are not privy to the day-to-day events and internal discussions that lead to eventual recommendations and approvals or rejections by the school board. Most commonly known, many college athletic directors have a list of successors for head coaches in their respective sports should a vacancy occur in any given year. The lists may not produce the eventual candidate that is recommended, but the list serves as a starting point for coaching searches.
Paris athletic director, Casey Mainer, may be like many high school athletic directors, and there may not be an actual list of candidates for each sport to begin searches. But no doubt, past coaching and administrative relationships that are formed play a key role, and most high school athletic directors have an informal network of coaching and administrative contacts that they go to search for candidates when vacancies occur. I say this to suggest that the two week time frame from the resignation of Coach Clark to the eventual recommendation of Jeff Weaver was substantially more than two weeks. Most athletic directors have their ears to the ground, and in Mainer’s mind, the wheels were probably already turning with the “what if” scenarios. It is just a fact of life of Class 3A athletics. Many coaches that are hired seldomly stay for twenty years in a small school district. So a wise administration, although hard to think about losing good people, have to be ready to move quickly since vacancies occur fairly frequently at this classification. Class 3A schools simply cannot compete with money and other perks associated with larger school positions.
But the one thing that small schools and their communities can offer is a sense of belongingness and a feeling of being wanted. And as I say this, I am going to go on the record to say this extends to teachers as well as every employee in a district. All of us want to feel wanted, appreciated, respected, and recognized for the work we do. Sadly, this principle is lost sometimes, and when it is lost, it usually results in loss of personnel.
With all of that said, Jeff Weaver is thrilled to be coming to Paris where he feels wanted. This may be a good lesson for all of us. We need everyone in our district and community to feel wanted and appreciated.
The district issued an announcement on Coach Weaver’s hire on Thursday night in a letter from assistant athletic director, Trey Prieur. The letter below, is the official announcement from the district, in its entirety.
Eagles athletic director, Casey Mainer shared with me, “We are excited to have Jeff Weaver here as our head coach. In my estimation, he is one of the top coaches in the state. He has proven that he is a program builder and he is a community builder. He has made a commitment to come here to Paris to build a program that will not only put Paris on the map every few years, but be in the conversation every year as a solid team. Coach Weaver’s coaching pedigree; you can trace it all the way back to his days at Greenwood and experiences he has had with Ronnie Peacock and Coach Jones. He was not comparable to any of our other applicants. The fact that he has gone to other programs that had struggled in years past and how he was able to come into the community and get some buy-in with the community and the players, and he has proven that at Mena and at Little Rock Christian. We are so excited to have him at Paris. We had some quality applicants from local coaches in the River Valley and we were very impressed with that. That’s a credit to Tyler Clark and the current staff in Paris and what they were able to do in Clark’s three years in Paris. It was a much more attractive job than it was when Tyler took it over. But at the end of the day, Coach Weaver’s pedigree and his success at different locations made us feel like this was a “no brainer” decision for us.
So, for Paris football fans, the “white elephant” in the room is the question that some fans have…What happened at Russellville, and why did Paris hire a Russellville coach that had the record he had in his final years leading the program? The answer to this question is not simple, and I will attempt to sort through all of the variables of this decision.
After doing some research that included talking to area coaches, Paris athletic director, Casey Mainer, and a Sunday interview with Coach Weaver, these are the facts that I believe shaped the recommendation for his hire. But before I go into detail, I want to go on record by saying that I believe Coach Weaver’s hire is a good thing for Paris: the community, the character of leadership he will employ with his players, and for the competitive football program that he will build in Paris that will sustain long-term success. Success that will not only be enjoyed this football season, but in years to follow.
With respect to Weaver’s tenure in Russellville, and with all due respect to the Russellville school district and athletic program, Russellville can be a very tough job for any head coach. In fact, most recently, the Russellville school board announced the termination of its superintendent, Dr. Mark Gotcher.
On April 21, 2021, the Russellville school district released a public statement regarding the termination of their superintendent. The statement reads, in part, “On January 20, 2021, the Board of Directors of the Russellville School District evaluated the job performance of its former superintendent…the employment contract between Dr. Gotcher and the district provided that the Board of Directors may extend the contract by one or more years if the Board of Directors , in its evaluation, determined that Dr. Gotcher achieved satisfactory progress toward realizing the goals set forth by the Board of Directors….The Board of Directors declined its option to extend Dr. Gotcher’s contract as part of the January 20, 2021 evaluation.”
The public statement from the Russellville Board of Directors went on to say, “Since that time, a range of issues persisted related to Dr. Gotcher’s relationship with the Board of Directors…Therefore, failing to resolve those issues and reach an agreeable end to his employment relationship with the Russellville School District….on April 20, 2021, the Russellville School District Board of Directors placed Dr. Mark Gotcher on paid administrative leave effective immediately and terminated his employment contract effective June 30, 2021.
(Source: Russellville School District) https://core-docs.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/asset/uploaded_file/1222959/RSD_Board_Statement.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1Jfu5fUc24uurHx3c2kRdwcnVGteHRUJIezxm7Tlsw4VOk2onwxIvoPI0
It is always a traumatic event for a district to terminate its superintendent. Add to this, the loss of other key personnel, and it all adds up to uncertainty for any district. Russellville is certainly not alone, and this is not intended to be of any disrespect for a very good school district.
The “word on the street” from several coaches I have spoken with all seems to point to coaching jobs at Russellville to be very challenging due to a very tough conference in which the Cyclones are a member, and, most recently, the turnover in administration in the district. It appears to me, and this is just my opinion from the research I have conducted over the past few days, that Coach Weaver may have gotten caught up in the turnover that appears to be taking place at all levels of administration and operation in the district. So, my opinion as of this moment is, although Russellville has many positive aspects to their district, it may be a very tough place to work at this time. I could be wrong, but that is my impression.
So the whole point of this is to suggest, for Paris fans, we should look past Jeff Weaver’s years at Russellville and look to the many years of his career in other districts. Russellville hired Weaver in 2017 to succeed Billy Dawson who left to take the head coaching job at Fayetteville High School. Dawson resigned at Fayetteville in 2019. Russellville hired Weaver because of his coaching roots in Greenwood and his demonstrated ability to build programs as he previously had accomplished in Mena and Little Rock Christian.
As I mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to visit with Jeff Weaver on the phone Sunday. The two of us spoke for approximately one hour, and I recorded his information for this story. I hope his interview will provide Eagles fans with an insight into the man, the coach, and the next leader and mentor for the current as well as future student athletes who participate in the Paris football program.
Our conversation opened with Coach Weaver expressing his excitement of moving to Paris and getting started in his new position. The new Paris coached began by saying, “We’re excited to be Paris Eagles and looking forward to getting to know everybody.”
I went directly to his experience at Russellville, and much to his credit, Coach Weaver addressed my questions head on. When I asked him simply, “What happened at Russellville?”, Coach began to tell the story. “Our talent…we did really well our first two years with the talent that we had. In 2019, we struggled. And in 2020, we were extremely young, extremely undersized, and we were actually very competitive. We lost five games by a touchdown or less. One of those losses was in overtime where we went for two to try to win the game against Lake Hamilton who finished runner-up in the state in 6A. We did a lot of things well, but we just came up short with the loss total over the last two years. Our talent dropped at the same time there were several other issues in the district and its leadership. We were very competitive, but we just came up short.”
To my earlier point in this story, I am putting it out there for Paris fans to consider Coach Weaver’s coaching record before his appointment at Russellville. When I made this point with Coach Weaver, he remarked, “All the years prior to that (Russellville tenure) have been extremely positive. We went over to Mena and took over a program that had won four games in three years, and our last three years there we were in the playoffs and practicing on Thanksgiving Day. So, we were able to turn that program around. Went to Little Rock Christian where they had fallen on some hard times, and the same thing…was there four years and the last three we were in the playoffs and made it to the state semi-finals. We were 13-1; 5A Coach of the Year, West All-Star coaching staff (offensive coordinator) and had great success there. And again, the first two years at Russellville, considering the talent we had, was very successful. We won games at El Dorado, Texarkana, and we beat Jonesboro in the playoffs. All of those teams had much better talent that we did. We actually gave Greenwood their best game, losing 20-19. So, I am proud of the work we have done, and I think we are really a good fit for Paris, and Paris is a really good fit for us.”
Jeff Weaver was hired by the Paris board of education last Thursday evening. In fact, he is now on contract with the district and began officially working for Paris on Monday of this week. But less than 24 hours after his hire on Thursday evening, Weaver was back in Paris, visiting with players in the program from the sixth grade up through his current returning senior high team. He has spoken with them, watched them work out, and has spent time developing new relationships with the players. Weaver, speaking to sixth grade students who are in or interested in playing football for the Eagles, told them that he would be their coach all the way through their years in high school. Coach Weaver plans to meet with Pee Wee coaches and all other levels of football coaches in between to teach his terminology and philosophy. So, every child who plays football in the Paris community will be practicing and playing with the same fundamentals and system that will be used on the senior high varsity team. In my opinion, that is how you build a program, and that is how winning is sustained every year by developing players and not changing systems every four years, or, neglecting the base talent of the program in Boys Club and middle school.
And it doesn’t end there. Coach Weaver plans to have many bonding and team-building functions with players, parents, and fans to bring all of them on-board and to invest fully in the community’s and schools’ football programs. Perhaps this is what Coach Weaver meant by not being a fit in Russellville. Perhaps, in larger cities and communities, certain philosophies do not fit well for program building. But in a community of the size and demographics of Paris, Weaver’s philosophies will fit like a glove. I have seen it work in many other communities similar to Paris.
The biggest compliment I can extend to the new Eagles coach is that of being of high character and being the type of coach I would want my own son to play for. Coach Weaver told me in our conversation that if he were only preparing boys to be good football players, he would be failing at his job. It is not enough to just be a good football player. He expects them to be good students, good citizens, and grow into good men who will later on become good husbands and fathers. That is his priority, and much like the philosophy of Tyler Clark, I have tremendous respect for both men. Our players in Paris are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play for Tyler Clark, and now, I believe that are equally as fortunate that Jeff Weaver will be their new coach and will carry these core values forward in the program.
In future stories in Resident Press, I will bring our fans more about the Eagles new coach. Paris returns excellent player personnel in the “skilled” positions of quarterback, running backs, and wide receivers. Weaver will run a four wide offensive set that will be balanced and can run quickly or can slow the tempo as needed. I expect returning senior quarterback Chase Watts to have an outstanding year. I expect Watts to flourish as a passer in Weaver’s up-tempo, passing offense. I expect Duke Walker to have an even bigger year, if that is possible, in the wide-open offensive philosophy that Weaver will bring. It is evident to me from our conversation that Coach Weaver is cognizant of the nature of Class 3A football and the fact that many players play both offense and defense. I expect him to adjust the install of his offense accordingly, not to move too quickly and keep his defense from getting adequate rest in cases of going three and out on offense. I also expect him to protect players from accumulating an undue amount of physical punishment during the season so that they are as injury-free as possible going into the playoffs.
Defensively, the Eagles return players such as Mequell Ellingburg who will lead the defense in 2021. I don’t expect to see Paris look too different on the defensive side of the ball than they did in 2020. But I will have more on these topics this summer as the calendar approaches preseason practice and the preseason scrimmage that signals the start of the upcoming football season.
So Paris fans…I have taken the long way around the corner in this story. But I have attempted to paint the picture for you on several aspects regarding the new football coach. My bottom line? Forget about Russellville, and look at Coach Weaver’s record previous to his stint for the Cyclones. I think this could turn out to be a huge hire for Paris, and one that could finally provide the Paris fans with a reason to be excited EVERY year, and not just every few years. But there is one thing for sure: Coach Weaver has already hit the ground running and is hard at work preparing for the upcoming season, and I bet he will find a way, despite the loss of valuable interior linemen, to move the ball and put points on the scoreboard. It should all be very exciting!
I get excited just thinking about it! And by the way…there are only 120 days (give or take a few!) until football season! Wow! It can’t get here soon enough!
So Coach Weaver, on behalf of Resident Press and the Paris community, welcome! Congratulations on your new position, and I hope you and your family are very happy and successful in our great community!