A series on Georgia’s nine assistant coaches has been running over the summer. Following is the unabridged version of the one I wrote on UGA tight ends coach John Lilly. It ran in print a few weeks ago but never made it online. Below you’ll find links to the others that have run so far. Kirk Olivadotti is up next week. So, for your perusal and commentary, here is . . .
TEN THINGS ABOUT JOHN LILLY
ATHENS — Georgia tight ends coach John Lilly had the luxury of having one of the most talented and experienced position rooms in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall the past couple of seasons. All-star tight end Orson Charles was in there, along with senior Aron White and, at various times, Bruce Figgins.
But this year, all those guys have moved on to the NFL and Lilly finds himself having to replace 144 career catches and 24 touchdowns.
“There’s no doubt it’s a big transition year,” said Lilly, who has been at Georgia since 2008. “You look in that room now and Artie [Lynch] has got two catches his freshman year and Jay [Rome] hasn’t played and Ty Smith hasn’t played. It’s a totally different room.”
Here are 10 things you should know about Lilly:
1. He hails from Beckley, W.V.
Lilly grew up in Beckley, W.Va., a medium-sized coal-mining town where his parents, Jack and Ethel Lilly, both held administrative jobs at the local Veteran’s Hospital. He played football, baseball and basketball at Woodrow Wilson High.
“Sports were my deal. That’s what I did,” Lilly said.
2. A Bobby Bowden man early on
Lilly was a West Virginia fan like most everybody else in that state. That’s when he first became aware of Bobby Bowden, who was the Mountaineers’ coach during Lilly’s childhood.
“But all us smart folks in West Virginia ran him off,” Lily said. “I remember my Dad saying, ‘that guy was a really good football coach and we’re going to regret that.’ So he went to Florida State and I followed him because my dad did.”
3. He played football for love of game
Lilly attended Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., where he was recruited to play quarterback. The Quakers played Division III ball.
“I was so good at quarterback they moved me to wide receiver halfway through my junior year and I played there the rest of my time,” Lilly says with a laugh. “I honestly went there because I enjoyed playing football. I wasn’t one of those guys where all the schools were knocking the door down to come play for them. My recruitment was a hotly contested battled between Guilford and Glennville State College in West Virginia. I probably got one call from each one of them. Not once a day or once a week, just one.”
4. He’s undefeated as a head coach
Lilly hung around Greensboro, N.C., after his graduation. Initially he took a job as a warehouse manager for a sporting goods store. But in less than year he completed his teaching certification and went to work at Northwest Guilford High school as a social studies teacher and coach.
Lilly was an assistant in football, track and basketball and became the head coach for the girls’ junior varsity basketball team his third year.
“That’s the only head coaching job of my career so far,” Lilly quipped. “But we did go 21-0 that year. I had shirts made up to prove it. I may still have a few. They’re collector’s items if anybody wants one.”
5. Lilly’s a master networker
Lilly made the most of his off time while teaching and coaching in high school. Almost every Saturday in the fall, he would get coaches’ passes for home games at N.C. State, North Carolina, Duke or Wake Forest. Lilly would make it a point to get to the games very early so he could watch the teams warm up and maybe hobnob with some of the coaches.
It was on one of those Saturdays, when Florida State was playing at N.C. State, that Lilly would make a connection that ultimately changed his life. He was introduced to FSU tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Ronnie Cottrell. As Lilly tells it, Cottrell made the mistake of handing him a business card and saying “give me a call sometime.”
“He said, ‘if you ever get a chance to, come down, and if you ever see any real good players, give me a call.’ I probably bothered him a lot more than he originally thought when he said it. But to make a long story short, I did go down there a few times over the next few years and I’d call him whenever I saw players I thought might be their caliber of player.”
6. He became a Seminole in 1995
Apparently Cottrell was impressed with Lilly’s ability to evaluate talent because in 1995 he asked Lilly to join the FSU staff as a “quality control specialist,” which is a fancy way of saying “video guy,” according to Lilly. Though the job paid “next to nothing,” Lilly accepted and moved to Tallahassee.
Initially Lilly’s job was breaking down video for the defensive staff, which included defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews and assistants Chuck Amato and Jim Gladden. Eventually a graduate assistant slot opened up and, finally, a full-time assistant’s job. Ironically, Lilly succeeded Cottrell as tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator in 1998.
“I remember it was a Thursday afternoon that Coach Cottrell left to go to Alabama and we had three or four official visits coming in the next day,” Lilly recalled. “So it was kind of like, ‘hey, why don’t you just take this and run with it and we’ll get back to you later. There just wasn’t a lot of time. We were getting ready to play Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl that year, it was toward the end of final exams and we were starting bowl practice that week. So there was a lot going on at that particular point in time. So Coach Bowden just said, ‘get in there and do your thing and we’ll talk about specifics later.’”
7. Became a Mark Richt guy
Moving over to offense, Lilly was now answering to Mark Richt, who was offensive coordinator for the Seminoles at the time. They would work together for the next three years and forged a relationship that eventually would lead to Lilly to Athens.
“Anybody who knows Coach Richt at all knows what you see is what you get,” Lilly said. “As a coach you really appreciate that in a coach you work for and that’s why you don’t see guys scrambling to get off his staff. He’s just an extremely consistent person. He was coaching Heisman Trophy winners and offenses that led America in yards and scoring. But he has not changed at all in the way he goes about his business and does what he does, his focus, his humility and all those kinds of things. He’s just better known now.”
8. Follows Richt to Georgia
Richt left FSU for Georgia after the 2000 season and Lilly remained in Tallahassee with Bowden until 2007. After that season that a slot opened up on the Bulldogs’ staff when Dave Johnson left for a job at West Virginia.
“It was very difficult from the standpoint of the relationships that you form over 13 years at a place,” Lilly said. “We had some tremendous success there and, obviously, Bobby Bowden is a guy I felt I owed a lot to because he gave me the opportunity to be in the position I was in. I value loyalty a lot and that’s the expectation I like to give people, that I’m going to be loyal to them. So it was difficult in that regard. But It was very easy in the regard that I felt like Cheryl and I, she was my fiance’ at the time, we both felt like it was a move that the Lord was engineering and leading us to make. So that made it easy because you felt like you were doing the right thing.”
9. Lilly was late getting married
Lilly, 44, didn’t get married until after he came to Georgia in 2008 and then had to do it on spring break in Tallahassee. He and his wife, the former Cheryl Brown, lived in Tallahassee for 13 and and 11 years, respectively, but they didn’t start dating until shortly before he left for Athens.
“Everything was supposed to happen in Tallahassee, but the opportunity to come to Georgia came up and it was something we both agreed I should do,” Lilly said. “But so many things were going on at the time. We were building a house in Tallahassee, we each had a place there and we planned to get married there. If we had not felt 100 percent confirmation from the Lord that was what we were supposed to do we definitely wouldn’t have done. It took us totally out of our comfort zone.”
They ended getting married during spring break of 2008 in Tallahassee. Today they have two children, Allison, 3, and Caleb, 1
10. 2012 a transition year for tight ends
Though he’ll be charged this season with breaking in a lot of new talent at his positions, Lilly said the key is that the players Georgia has brought in are indeed talented. That’s why he’s as enthusiastic as ever about getting the Bulldogs ready to play this fall
“It’s not a lot of experience, but it’s exciting at the same time,” Lilly said. “Those guys are eager to get out there and prove themselves. You know there’s going to be some mistakes made; that’s how you learn. You just hope to make more of them in practice that you can learn from than you do on Saturday evenings.”