(Walker County, Georgia) – What was once just a line item in a study looking to boost the college experience for local students has become a major selling point for Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
The year 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of athletics at the school. This past decade has seen Bobcat and Lady Bobcat intercollegiate teams compete for and win region championships, battle in national tournaments and make a name for themselves against some of the top small college programs in the country.
But for Athletic Director David Stephenson, it means so much more than that.
“Our mission statement, if there is one, is ‘education, character and athletic development’,” he explained. “Our goal, first and foremost, is to get our guys and girls an education so they can go out later and make a living, while at the same time teaching them life skills. If we can do all of that, while at the same time giving them the awesome opportunity to play college sports, we’ve met our goal.”
“WE DIDN’T EVEN HAVE A PEACH BASKET”
A 2005 study funded by Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) schools asked students for their input in how to make the technical schools feel more like community colleges, and sports was one of top things mentioned by the students.
Bobcat Athletic Hall of Famer Jeff King was serving as the college’s Vice President of Administrative Services when he was informed by then-college president Dr. Ray Brooks of a plan by other TCSG schools to try and start up their own athletic programs.
“We didn’t have any teams or equipment or uniforms or anything,” King recalled. “All we had was a thought that we might do this. Just a wing and a prayer.”
Some stories were sent out by the school’s media relations department explaining the school’s plan to introduce athletics for the first time in more than 40 years. One of those stories caught Stephenson’s eye.
“There was a lot of prayer because everyone wanted to do this right from the start,” said Don Foley, one of the school’s public relations and media personnel who helped write and send out the stories. “We put a few (stories) out there about what it is we wanted to do here and David called us before we even posted the job opening.”
After the position was posted and the interviews were conducted, Stephenson got the call and the offer to head up the fledging program.
“I still remember the day Jeff (King) called and hired me for the position,” he explained. “He told me two things. One, he had no clue as to how much they could pay me because they had never done anything like this before and two, he said he was still amazed I would even take the job considering we didn’t even have a peach basket or a basketball to throw it into.
“For me personally, it’s just amazing to see how much we have grown.”
“We had about 12 guys show up to that first basketball meeting, some didn’t even play in high school,” King said. “Fortunately, though, we had some that did. That first team was mostly local kids and we played against other technical schools. The next thing you know, we didn’t lose a game and we had a lot of people showing up to our games too.
“We’ve gone from there to becoming an (National Junior College Athletic Association) Division III program and competing for championships. It’s grown beyond any of our thoughts and I hope it continues to grow. I give David total props for all of this. Someone without his persistence and hard work would have given up a long time ago. But at least we can pay him now.”
OTHER SPORTS ARE ADDED
Men’s basketball wasn’t the only sport that started up at the college that first year. Then known as Northwestern Technical College, the “Mustangs” were adopted as the team’s official mascot and the first Lady Mustangs’ volleyball team took the floor.
That squad, then-coached by Tricia Goodwin, traveled all over the Southeast, playing against various club-level teams from a number of different schools and even picking up a couple of wins against club teams from Southeastern Conference schools.
In 2010, Northwestern Tech and Coosa Valley Tech in Rome merged to form Georgia Northwestern Technical College with the “Bobcats” becoming the new school’s nickname and mascot.
Women’s basketball was added that same year under Jim Williams and the Lady Bobcats won a region title in its very first season. In 2011-2012, the underdog Lady Bobcats would earn the college’s first-ever national tournament berth in any sport as they advanced to the tournament’s Sweet 16 before falling to nationally-ranked Montgomery-Rockville of Maryland.
But despite the successes, there was air of trouble looming under the surface.
“I DIDN’T THINK WE WERE GOING TO MAKE IT”
Financial problems in the TCSG during that time were forcing a number of schools in the state to make deep cuts. Other schools merged in order to save money and for several schools in the system, athletics was some of the fat that had to be trimmed.
“There were a couple of years, honestly, I didn’t think we were going to make it because of budget cuts, college mergers and other things,” Stephenson said.
He said a number of people deserve the credit for keeping athletics at GNTC alive, in particular King and the school’s Student Life Coordinator, Dione Waddington.
“Jeff was serving as our interim president and campus provost during those lean years and he was the driving force in fighting for us,” Stephenson said. “He kept telling people that sports here would be a great thing.
“And for the first six or seven years of our existence, we were totally relying on Dione budgeting us the money to exist. Even in these past two or three years, when we’ve ran short or needed something that wasn’t in the budget, I’ve never known her to question any budget requests I’ve made of her. She’s even sacrificed some things on her part because she felt like athletics was that important. Dione has always been very supportive of me and what we’re doing.”
But survive the program did.
Today, the school still offers men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball, but they have since added men’s golf and co-ed competition cheerleading to its list with the most recent additions having seen quite a bit of early success.
The Cheer Cats qualified for NCA Nationals in Florida on their very first attempt and ended up placing seventh in the nation in their division. The squad has already qualified again for Nationals this April.
That same month, the Bobcat golf team will be looking to defending its GCAA championship. Georgia Northwestern, in just its second season as a program and in its first year of eligibility for regional and national play, claimed the 2015 Region 17 Division III title and earned a spot at Nationals in New York.
There, the Bobcats placed third overall in their national tournament debut and they had two golfers finish in the top six individually to earn All-American honors.
“To make the advancements we’ve made in just 10 years is remarkable,” Foley added. “You look at all the students that have come through here. It’s pretty fast growth for intercollegiate athletics.”
A BOOST FOR THE SCHOOL
While athletics is just a small part of the many facets that make up Georgia Northwestern Technical College, its impact reaches far beyond the sidelines and fairways.
“When we first talked about it 10 years ago, I had no idea it would grow this much,” Waddington said. “I think it’s been great P.R. for us. It’s definitely expanded our Student Life and it makes the students feel like they are a part of something.
“When we recruit students to the school and they find out we have athletics, it brings a sparkle to their eye. It makes them look at our school differently, knowing they might still have a chance to do what they love and play here instead of having to go off somewhere else and spend thousands of dollars. I think it helps legitimize the college even more.”
“Having (athletics) is definitely an asset to the college for a variety of standpoints,” said Stuart Phillips, the school’s Vice President for Student Affairs. “One of the questions we’re asked most is ‘do you have athletics? Even the kids that don’t participate in athletics, still want to attend a college that does.
“It’s added a new dimension for us. We’ve seen it grow under great leadership from David (Stephenson) and (GNTC President) Pete McDonald and we’re looking forward to seeing it grow further in the future.”
GIVING BACK TO OTHERS
The past decade has seen the school’s athletic department give back to the community as well.
Community organizations, such as Toys for Tots and the LaFayette Care Mission, have been benefactors of the support given by the school’s teams and staff in the form of Toy and Food Drive Games. The department has also worked hard to honor veterans, police officers, firefighters and first responders during special dates throughout the seasons.
“That’s something that has been very important to me personally,” Stephenson added. “I even told the interview committee when I applied, if you’re looking for someone who is only concerned about wins and losses, you’ve got the wrong guy.
“I wanted to use the program as a platform to reach out and do things for people in the community. Every year I’ve been here, our community outreach has continued to grow.”
While the program has enjoyed fairly steady growth in the last 10 years, Stephenson is optimistic that even more could be on the horizon.
“I would like to see us add at least one more men’s and one more women’s sport, even if it’s the same sport, within the next two years for sure,” he said. “I would to see us have our own gym facility, preferably on the new Catoosa County campus. I’d like to get to the point where we are totally self-sufficient and I would like to see our female athlete population rise. It’s starting to grow more than it has in recent years, but I want to see it take off to the point where there are as many females trying out for sports as there are males.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
While Stephenson deserves a lot of credit for getting the program where it is today, he is quick to name others who have also played big roles in getting the program off the ground and keeping it there.
Past and current school administrators like McDonald, Brooks, King and Phillips, staff members such as Waddington, Foley and Amber Jordan (public relations) and Stephenson’s current group of coaches, assistant coaches, staff members and volunteers have all been instrumental in the continued growth of the program.
Then there are others, such as Stump Martin and later Carthell Rogers, with the Rossville Athletic Center, numerous businesses and corporate sponsors and others who give of their time and work behind the scenes to keep the program on a first-class level.
“That very first meeting I had with our (prospective) student-athletes, I told them we were going to try to make this athletic program the same as any other intercollegiate (athletic) program of our size in the country and I think we’ve done that,” Stephenson explained. “It’s been my baby for 10 years and it’s been neat to see it grow from infant and toddler stages to running the way I knew it could.
“To be at this point with the awesome staff I have, it’s all a God thing. Plus, we’ve had some tremendous student-athletes and some tremendous support from our administration. When we started all of this, some technical colleges (that also began athletics) didn’t make it. Some of their programs folded after a year or two, but we’re still around.
“I can look at the photos on my office wall and see some of the outstanding student-athletes we’ve worked with over the years. I know we have impacted their lives, not just from an athletic standpoint, but from an academic sense and a character sense and that is probably what I’m most proud of.”