Ten seasons removed from its appearance in the Class 1-A state title game, Cloudland’s football program, which fell to its lowest low since the seventies with a 1-9 campaign one year ago, needed a jump-start.
In just three days of practice with the team, Brock Pittman has already got the juices flowing in Roan Mountain.
Pittman, 32, a starting lineman on East Tennessee State’s last two Buccaneer football squads, was officially announced as the Highlanders’ new head coach in a press conference Friday.
“I know that Cloudland’s only 10 years removed from a state championship appearance,” Pittman said. “If you walk around the hallways and look up on the walls and all of the trophies and the plaques and go out on the field, you can feel it. There’s a chemistry up here. It’s a football town. It’s in the atmosphere. That’s a good thing.”
Pittman returns to the region after a handful of coaching stops. Most recently an assistant coach under Stu Brown at Virginia high school football power Verona, located in Richmond, Pittman also brings experience from the NCAA Division I collegiate level as an assistant at the University of Richmond, working under former University of Tennessee offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, and Virginia Military Institute under Jim Reed, currently the associate head coach and defensive coordinator at the University of Virginia.
The opportunity to relocate to East Tennessee and take his first head coaching job was a dream come true for Pittman. His wife, Rachel, is a graduate of Elizabethton High School. Together, they have a daughter, Meadow, and want to raise their daughter and future children here.
“Let me (say) how happy we are to be back in East Tennessee,” Pittman said. “I also want to say, the whole process, the way things were handled, the interview process, everything was done in a complete, first class way by everybody involved.
“(Cloudland principal) Randy (Birchfield) called me at 3:28 p.m. on April 17 and said, ‘Tell you’re wife you’re moving back to East Tennessee.’ I’ll never forget that. It was a great feeling. I’m excited to be here and it’s like I told them, I’m not going nowhere. This is where we want to be. And this is where we want to raise our children. This is where we’re going to be.”
EXPERIENCE PAYS OFF
Pittman brings a wealth of knowledge to Cloudland as both a player and coach at his young age.
On the field, Pittman, a native of Mechanicsville, Virginia, played on both the offensive and defensive lines at Lee-Davis High School where he led the team in forced fumbles and earned All-State, All-Metro, All-District and All-County honors.
From there he spent one season as a defensive end at Fork Union Military Academy and went to Scottsdale Junior College in Arizona, where he earned first team All-Conference and All-Region accolades.
Pittman then joined former Fork Union teammate Brandon Calton at East Tennessee State, where he started on the offensive line for the Buccaneers’ final two football seasons. He played in 11 games with ten starts as a guard in 2002, then started at left tackle in 2003.
Clawson gave Pittman his first coaching opportunity with the Richmond Spiders as assistant director of football operations. He worked with the linebackers, defensive staff and special teams.
“I learned a whole lot in that one year,” Pittman said. “A whole lot. I was very lucky.”
Following his stop in Richmond, he received tutelage from Reed at VMI for two years.
“I was very lucky to get a chance to work with Coach Reed because he is really good at being a head coach,” said Pittman. “He’s a disciplinarian. He worked us. That’s what we all need to learn. He worked us.”
Pittman’s first high school coaching job followed at Fork Union Military Academy under Micky Sullivan.
“He is a legend over there,” Pittman said of Sullivan. “He has won multiple state championships and he also taught me a lot, not just about football and x’s and o’s, like Coach Reed, he showed me how to be a head coach.”
While dating his wife, whom he met at ETSU, Pittman decided to make a move up to Verona High School under Stu Brown.
“I knew I was probably going to ask her to marry me so I needed to get her and I didn’t think she’d want to move to Fork Union, Virginia,” he said. “I wanted a more attractive place to get her, so I got a job at Verona High School which is a very good, excellent school and is a football powerhouse. There’s no if’s and’s and but’s about that. It’s where every coach wants to coach, it’s where every player wants to play.
“Stu Brown, head coach, hired me and Coach Brown has taught me so much about how to run practice in the high school level. In the college level, you have so much more time. In high school, it’s kind of like a juggling act. You want to teach them, but you want them working so you’ve got to figure out how to get both of those things done at one time. That’s high school football. It’s so much fun in my opinion.”
Another tutor for Pittman was current University of Virginia defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Jeff Hanson, whom he credits with teaching him the importance of special teams at Richmond — something that will be a key fixture on his Cloudland teams.
“He taught me a lot about special teams when I was at Richmond and I learned a lot about defensive line play as well,” Pittman said of Hanson. “Special teams, he would let me sit in his office and he would say, ‘Come on Brock, let’s go in here and break down the kickoff return team and punt team.’ I just sat in there with him and I learned so much. Special teams is going to be a very important aspect of our football team. In high school, you don’t have as much time. But we’re going to make time for special teams.”
BUYING IN FROM DAY ONE
Making the five and a half hour drive from Richmond, Pittman has already dug into the program at Cloudland starting spring training on Thursday.
The ’Landers will be able to get nine of the 10 allotted days of spring workouts in, including a scrimmage at Happy Valley next Friday.
Cloudland High School principal Randy Birchfield, who will assist on Pittman’s staff alongside Jon Overbay and Jordan Hughes, praised the dedication and commitment Pittman has shown to his team.
“His dedication to our program has been phenomenal,” said Birchfield. “His knowledge of the game and the things he’s brought in two days have been phenomenal. Our kids are chomping at the bits and we were really, really fortunate to be able to hire him.
“For him to do what he’s done to get down here and Richmond is for him, by himself, is five and half hours away. He drove in Wednesday night, he was here ready to meet the kids, met the staff and had our first practice. … With his commitment, we’re going to get nine of the allowed 10 days in for spring training.”
Pittman and the Highlander staff will basically be rebuilding from the ground up.
Cloudland is coming off a 1-9 season, which saw the resignation of former head coach Robbie Turbyfill after an 0-3 start. The school has had a wide degree of success with its middle school program over the last decade, but have been unable to translate the championship results into the high school game.
“Everybody here is with us and they’re all very capable and qualified,” Pittman said. “As a head coach, I have a system that they’ve used, but the terminology has changed and everything. These guys are all willing to work hard and one of the jobs as a head coach is getting your assistant coaches straight. All of these guys are hard workers and they’re going to go out and they’re going to help us a lot.
“A head coach is only as good as his assistants. I’m going to make it a priority that they are the best they can possibly be and my ultimate goal would be for any of them at anytime to be a head coach one day like I have because I needed all the help I could get. Without that, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Pittman is looking to turn the tide and get Cloudland back to where it was, as a top-ranked Class A program less than 10 years ago. The new coach says everything he needs to do that is already at the school.
“I’ve been very pleased. I’ve been very impressed,” he said. “The facilities here for athletics, the locker room is unbelievable. … All the facilities and everything you need to win here, is here. It’s all here. One of my jobs as a head coach is I’m going to do my best to try to make (the players) better, but we’ve got what we need.”
Cloudland has had a solid turnout in early spring drills. Pittman has been impressed with the players and likes the school’s setup with the middle school and high school students in the same building.
“You can build what they call a system,” he said. “Our middle school kids will be running, offensively and defensively, what they’ll be running as seniors here. To me, that’s the equivalent of having a fifth-year senior in college. You have a kid whose been in the same system for five years, so when they get up to that senior year, we’re going to be knocking them out in practice. Practice will be clockwork for us.
“We’ve got talent here. We’ve got enough talent to win right now. One thing that I’m never going to do is I’m never going to say we have too many ninth graders or we don’t have enough seniors. As long as we’re playing high school teams that have ninth through 12th-grade kids too, what’s the difference? It’s our jobs as coaches to make them play at a higher level than they should play. A freshman, we’re going to try to make them play like a sophomore. A sophomore, we’re going to try to make them play like juniors. That’s our job.”
Schematically, the Highlanders will run and throw the football in many different ways on offense and put players in position to make plays on the defensive side.
“Football is a game of chess between coaches,” said Pittman. “You get into a formation and see what they’re going to do. You get into another formation, you try to figure out what they’re going to do. When you figure out what they’re going to do, then you figure out what you can do and can’t do.
“We’re going to adjust. We’re going to teach our kids how to play and how to adjust to certain formations. Our goal as coaches is not only coaching them up, but we need to put them in the best position possible to be successful and that’s our job, period.”
ONE WEEK AT A TIME
Pittman already knows about the Highlanders’ biggest football rival. And what has annually been the biggest date on the team’s football calendar.
“It’s obviously a big deal to beat Hampton,” he said. “I actually had the pleasure of meeting Coach (Mike) Lunsford this morning. Me and him are going to get along just fine. … He’s a real nice guy and he’s a great coach and he’s proven it. It’s obviously going to be a challenge for us, but we accept. We accept.”
But Pittman made it clear that the date with Hampton wouldn’t be circled yet. There’s a lot of work to do and a lot of other teams to worry about.
“Right now, all I’m thinking about and all we’re thinking about is Happy Valley,” he said. “We have a scrimmage on Friday, it’s our first test for me and our coaches. After that, we’ll start thinking about week zero and that’s how we’re going to take this thing. We’re going to take it one week at a time.
“But when we get to Hampton, we’re going to want to beat Hampton the same way we’re going to want to beat Unaka. The same way we’re going to want to beat whomever we’re playing that week. You can’t think too far ahead. If you think too far ahead, the kids will think too far ahead.”
Judging by their workout Friday, the Cloudland players are buying in and motivated about their future. Pittman wants the community to buy in, as well.
“What I told them was exactly what I told all of the coaches. What we need in order to be champions, you need a full commitment, you need to buy in, you need to realize that every decision the head coach makes is for what’s best for the team and not the individual. Not only am I going to be asking that from the kids, I’m also going to be asking that from the community as well. Everything we do here is what’s going to be best for the program, for the team. Make no mistake about it, we want to win.”
He’s hit the ground running and isn’t looking back. Brock Pittman is all Highlander and is ready to turn the corner with an eager group of assistant coaches and players.
“We’re just going to look forward and go,” Pittman added. “The kids right now are doing a great job and we’ve got talent. We’ve got talent.”