Panther Walk

Ridgeland head coach Mark Mariakis (left() and a group of RHS students speak to a class at Stone Creek Elementary as part of the “Panther Walk”. The group talked to every student at the school during the two-hour trip. (Messenger photo/Scott Herpst)

Many people in the work force put in five eight-hour days before getting to spend the weekend doing all they can to forget about work for the next two days.

Head football coaches aren’t afforded that luxury.

For head football coaches, their days begin before the sun rises and usually end as the sun is starting to set...sometimes even longer.

For the better part of three decades, the last 11 as head coach of the Ridgeland Panthers , Mark Mariakis has put in countless hours — like most coaches, away from his family — to try and win football games, build up the program in the eyes of the community, and most importantly, to prepare his players for life after football.

Monday through Thursday, Mariakis arrives at Ridgeland at 6:15 every morning, supervises four periods’ worth of weight training classes, takes a 30-minute lunch and arrives at the fieldhouse between 1:30 and 1:45 p.m. to prepare for practice that afternoon. He’s generally on his way home by 7 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, by 6 on Wednesdays and by 5 after Thursday’s walk-through.

Fridays, however, are 17-to-18-hour marathons with very few free moments and not all of it is spent on football.

Recently, the veteran coach let me tag along on a Friday and be his shadow for a full day — and most of a night — to get a first-hand look at what all goes into prepping for those three important hours when the team takes the field.

6:15 a.m. - After signing into school with coffee in hand, it’s time for his daily morning conversation with J.C. Caldwell, school custodian and grandfather of senior defensive standout Ian Hayes, to discuss the evening’s game and current events.

7 a.m. - Zero period weight training. His only class of the day. Mariakis supervises between 20-25 students, some school athletes, some regular students, who because of class schedules don’t have the time take the class any other time during the day.

7:50 a.m. - While the commons area is loud and teeming with students socializing before the final bell to start classes for the day, Mariakis, some of his assistant coaches, Athletic Director Robert Stinson, Principal Glen Brown and a few others are in the office’s conference room. Recent sports news is discussed while they take advantage of several boxes of donuts brought in by a friend.

8:02 a.m. - Mariakis stands outside the conference room door to offer encouragement to a group of students who just sang an outstanding acapella rendition of the school’s alma mater over the P.A. system. Then he begins coordinating various students for today’s Panther Walk.

“The Panther Walk began about five years ago,” he explains. “It was just me and some football players at first, but it’s evolved into band members, ROTC members, cheerleaders and sometimes athletes from other sports too.”

8:28 a.m. - Today’s Panther Walk at nearby Stone Creek Elementary School will be the last one of the year. Mariakis leads a group of 12 from classroom to classroom, meeting, talking to and answering questions from students. Although tailored to the different grade levels, the message to all is the same: choose to do the right things, behave and make good grades and the students could one day play football, be in the band, or do any of a wide range of high school activities.

“Ridgie”, the school’s costumed mascot, is a big hit with the kids, as are the five band members, who demonstrate their instruments for their captive audiences. Several classes greeted the group with homemade “Go Panthers!” signs, complete with hand-drawn images of footballs and paw prints.

10:45 a.m. - After almost 20 different class talks and band tunes, the group heads back to school to resume their day. Television trucks have already arrived at the stadium and technicans are already setting up equipment for the night’s live broadcast of the Panthers’ game against Northwest Whitfield.

11:15 a.m. - Back in the fieldhouse, a couple of Quarterback Club volunteers are already hard at work prepping food that will be served to the media and coaches in the pressbox later that evening. Mariakis is sampling the mini chicken salad sandwiches for what he calls “quality control”.

11:30 a.m. - After a quick drive-by of the football field to make sure things are properly in place, it’s time for his traditional Friday lunch at Arby’s in Fort Oglethorpe. His order is usually the same every week, topped off with an apple turnover with extra icing for dessert. All of the employees know him and he knows them by name. They wish him luck on his way out the door.

“I’ve been coming here pretty much every Friday for 11 years,” he says. “When they closed to remodel the building, I had to drive to the one in East Ridge. I couldn’t break tradition.”

12:32 p.m. - Back at the school, it’s time to pick up his mail and give Stinson the night’s list of offensive and defensive starters. Walking through the halls, it’s apparent that Mariakis is extremely popular with the students, many of whom say ‘hi’ and wish him luck for later.

12:55 p.m. - Mariakis climbs to the top level of the pressbox to set up the team’s video camera and do another check of the field. The game will be on TV later and he takes extra precautions to make sure everything is set up in its proper place, even down to the last sideline chair.

1 p.m. - For the next two hours, Mariakis uses the alone time in the coaches’ office to check his email and make sure all of his assistant coaches have a detailed schedule of all the pregame activities that will take place once school is out. From 3:20 until kickoff at 7:30, every minute is accounted for and not a second is wasted.

“It’s a rundown I developed years ago,” he says. “Kids like routines and coaches like routines.”

3:20 p.m. - Following a pep rally in the school’s gym, Mariakis addresses his full team for the first time that day in the school’s auditorium across from the gym. After briefly touching on special teams, he and other assistant coaches challenge the team to have fun and play for each other. He then turns the meeting over to a guest speaker, Chattanooga resident Gary Highfield, a local businessman and entrepreneur.

3:55 p.m. - Two waiting school buses transport the team and coaches to the pre-game meal. Mariakis drives one of the buses. Not a word is spoken during the short drive. Most players listen to music through headphones or try to catch a brief power nap.

4:06 p.m. - The players file in and sit down to tables filled with plates of BBQ chicken, green beans and baked potatoes. Mariakis doesn’t sit but walks around thanking and chatting up the volunteers who have done all the cooking. He also doesn’t eat a single bite.

“It’s mostly nerves,” he offers up as a reason for not eating. “I haven’t eaten a pregame meal in probably 30 years.”

4:26 p.m. - There’s no time for dinner conversation as there is a schedule to keep. Just 20 minutes after walking in the door, Mariakis is calling for clean-up and the 50-60 players throw away their trash and start heading for the buses.

4:40 p.m. - More motivational talk in the auditorium from Mariakis and the always-excitable Rocky Bradford. “’One heart, one mind, one team’ sounds great in the auditorium, but it’s a matter of getting it done between the lines when it counts,” Mariakis tells his team before heading across the parking lot to the fieldhouse.

5:11 p.m. - After greeting and welcoming some of the Northwest Whitfield assistant coaches, who arrived at Ridgeland a few minutes earlier, Mariakis ascends the stairs from the track to the top of the fieldhouse. Waiting for him at the top of the stairs with a handshake is Middle Tennessee State assistant coach David Bibee, who has come down to Rossville to scout Ridgeland players, most notably Hayes.

5:15 p.m. - The full team meets downstairs in the film room to go over some key points of the night’s opponent. The first half of the meeting is spending going over the Bruins’ defensive tendencies, while the second half is reserved for offense. Mariakis lets his coordinators do most of the talking while he reinforces key points.

5:46 p.m. - With film study over, the team heads to the top practice field above the stadium for a quick walk through. The walk-through lasts 10 minutes and it’s back inside as the players begin to put on pads and uniforms.

6:09 p.m. - “The calm before the storm,” Mariakis says as he sits in his cramped and cluttered office. He sits and talks with his good friend Bradford about football and life in general, trying to relax and find a little solace before he puts his game face goes on.

About 20 minutes later, the coach grabs Bradford’s hand and pulls him into a brotherly embrace. “It’s time to go look into the players’ eyes and see if they’re ready,” he adds.

6:40 p.m. - After putting players through a series of stretches in the fieldhouse basement, Mariakis opens the door to lead them onto the field for pregame warm-ups. He keeps an eye on the first few sets of drills while saying hello and talking briefly to Northwest head coach Josh Robinson at midfield.

The team splits into individual units as Mariakis paces between the two groups, clapping his hands and shouting words of encouragment. Thirty minutes later, he signals for the team to head back inside.

7:10 p.m. - Despite being filled wall to wall with football players, coaches and trainers, the room is eerily silent. Mariakis names the captains for the game and continues pacing in a small circle in the center of the room. “Think about what you have to do between the lines,” he says in a calm but urgent voice.

About 10 minutes later, he spots his father, Andy, near the front of the room and gives him a handshake and a quick kiss on the cheek. After a couple of final hugs with his assistant coaches, the players take a knee and form a semi-circle around their coach awaiting his final words. The energy picks up quickly as Mariakis delivers a fiery and impassioned final pep talk.

With a final battle cry, the team heads upstairs to begin their final walk out the door, past the baseball stadium and down the steps to the football field where a the crowd and TV cameras await their traditional team entrance.

7:30 p.m. - Kickoff.

8:42 p.m. - The first half ends in a 10-10 tie and Ridgeland is set to kick off to begin the second half. The coaches think they’ve seen something they can exploit and Mariakis sets up a play for the third-quarter kickoff. Then he and the coordinators meet separately with the offense and defense. Again, he lets the coordinators do most of the talking.

“I love the energy. It’s contagious,” he says just before the team heads back onto the field. “This is where we really find out where we’re at.”

10:20 p.m. - The final horn sounds and although his team has put up a valiant effort - outgaining the Bruins in total yards - the Panthers can’t overcome three costly fumbles in a 41-30 loss. After shaking hands with the Northwest coaches and answering a few questions from the media, Mariakis and the rest of the team begin to trickle back into the fieldhouse.

10:38 p.m. - Mariakis gives out a few more hugs and handshakes to his players as they begin to leave the locker room for the night.

10:42 p.m. - Mariakis reunites with current Georgia Bulldog defensive back Devin Bowman, who is back in town for the game. He gives his former player a quick tour of the fieldhouse upgrades that have been made since Bowman graduated.

10:50 p.m. - The coach finally sits down for the first time in nearly five hours, a plate full of sandwiches in his lap as he occupies a chair in the corner of the main coaches’ office. The team’s coaches, wives, children and a few others are sitting down to a postgame spread that the wives have laid out on the table.

“We’ve been doing these postgame meals for a while now,” he says. “It’s just a time to see family and friends that we haven’t seen all day, celebrate wins and console each other on losses. The kids especially like to spend time with their dads. It’s a nice touch at the end of a long day, no matter what the score. It’s also a reminder that football is just a game.”

After the last of food has been packed away, the coaches and their families say good-bye and start heading for home. Mariakis lets his assistants set their own schedules for Saturday so they can spend time with their families, as long as the coaches have their film broken down and players’ game grades ready for the next scheduled meeting at 2 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.

The coaches will meet for four hours on Sunday to review Friday’s film, discuss personnel and start pooling ideas on how to gameplan for the next opponent on the slate.

But that is still some 36 hours away and now it’s time to go home and finally get some sleep. For Mariakis, with any luck, he’ll get at least six or seven good hours in before heading to exchange some game film at 9 a.m. the following morning.

Time is of the essence. The next game is just about a mere 160 hours away.