As a veteran of nearly 40 years in education, coaching and athletic administration, Gary Long’s last name also seems like something of a descriptor.
Yet, as the two-time state Athletic Director of the Year reflects upon that lengthy career, which will officially come to an end with his retirement as Mill Creek’s athletic director at the end of the month, it seems somewhat more brief.
“It’s just been a blur,” said Long, who has been Mill Creek’s only athletic director since the school opened in 2004. “It’s all happened so fast, but it’s been a very positive experience. I say this without any reservation. When people ask me ‘Why did you do this for so long,’ I said, ‘I got out of bed every morning. I was excited about going to work.’ I worked with great people. I worked in a great community. I had great students. I absolutely had the best job.
“Of course, we had good days and bad days, but the good far outweighed the bad, that’s for sure. It’s been positive all the way through.”
Positivity is a trait that has followed Long throughout his years in education and athletics, starting with his stint as an assistant football coach at the now-defunct Peachtree High School in DeKalb County and a soccer coach at Central Gwinnett to his years as an administrator at Meadowcreek to the quarter-century as an athletic director at Meadowcreek, South Gwinnett and Mill Creek.
The results that the athletic programs he oversaw compiled are very apparent, particularly at Mill Creek, where he helped build the program from the ground up when the school opened 15 years ago.
Every Hawks sports team has built into being competitive at the highest level, including state championships for the boys and girls cross county, boys and girls golf, softball, and boys track and field programs.
However, as many of the coaches who have worked under Long have stated, his impact on Mill Creek’s sports programs have gone far beyond the results on the fields, courts, tracks, courses or pools.
“He’s clear on his expectations, and his expectations were never just wins and losses,” said Shannon Jarvis, who came to Mill Creek with Long as the Hawks’ head football coach in 2004, and has stepped down from that post to succeed Long as athletic director. “It really came down to how you treat the kids. One thing that a lot of people may not see in Gary is he really loves kids. He really wants to make sure those kids have a great experience.
“When we opened, he didn’t evaluate coaches on wins and losses. It was what was the experience he was providing for those kids and growth both academically, socially and athletically. So he goes after hiring coaches who have that reputation, and I think his leadership environment fosters that in coaches that continue to grow in that development of athletes.”
Jarvis isn’t the only ocoach who has worked under Long who feels that way.
“You have always been the first to congratulate and the first to console,” Hawks swimming head coach Rick Creed told Long in an email exchange between the two earlier this week. “You treated everyone with a great deal of respect and you show your appreciation with kindness. I just wanted to thank you for being an inspiration to everyone. You have left an impression on my life that I will never forget. I greatly appreciate all that you have accomplished and the athletic program you have built here at Mill Creek High School.”
Creed and Jarvis are just two of a handful of head coaches who were hired by Long when Mill Creek opened up and are still at the school 15 years later.
Jarvis thinks he knows why coaches like those two, along with others like baseball coach Doug Jones and tennis coach Tim Schroer, have stayed so long, and it goes beyond just the success of their programs.
“Take me out of the equation, but looking at the coaches that he’s hired and that have worked under him, obviously he’s had a tremendous amount of success (with results),” Jarvis said. “But you can’t undervalue his ability to hire those great coaches, support them and retain them. If you look throughout his career at South Gwinnett and Mill Creek as far as athletic directors are concerned, he didn’t have a lot of turnover. That’s a huge testament to him and his loyalty to his coaches.
“I think Gary does a good job of matching his personality with the coaches he wants to hire. … He’s got some strong-willed coaches working under him. And he does a good job when he gives you that program, he doesn’t step back and ignore it. He’ll support you, but he’ll let you have some freedom, and he supports whatever initiative you want within your program that promotes growth.”
It’s that kind of working atmosphere Long agrees he’s tried to foster throughout his career as an athletic director, though building that initial group of coaches, wasn’t an easy task.
Those months in which he juggled the assignment of building the first Hawks programs, all while still rounding out the school year as South Gwinnett’s athletic director, were among the most difficult, yet memorable and satisfying, moments of his career.
“I had not opened a school, and I thought it would be a great way to learn that end of the business,” Long said. “When I got to South Gwinnett, they had 40 years of history and tradition already. So you walk in and all of that groundwork has already been done. You’re coming in and just trying to improve on what’s already established. When you’re opening a school, nothing has been established. We didn’t have a mascot. We didn’t have school colors. I mean, it was a challenge that I fully embraced. I enjoyed it. It was a lot of hours. When we started hiring coaches, we started working immediately. Everybody (still) had full-time jobs at their current schools, and we were still trying to get ready for Mill Creek (opening).
“We were kind of shooting in the dark, initially. We were fortunate enough that we had a couple of schools that had opened recently right before us. Peachtree Ridge (and Grayson were) a year, maybe two, ahead of us, and we had what they had done (to learn from). So we had kind of a good starting block. … But it was still labor intensive. Interviews were done, but it was late in the day. We were working until 4 o’clock down at South Gwinnett and then driving up here, which takes 45 minutes. Well, back then it was 45 minutes. It’s probably an hour and 15 (minutes) now. We’d come up here and interview in a little construction trailer out there and things got cranked up, and there was no looking back.”
Well, Long will do a little looking back as his final days on the job wind down, including looking back on some of the key former mentors and peers who influenced his own career.
And it’s a veritable who’s who of major figures in Gwinnett County and throughout Georgia.
“T. McFerrin probably had the most influence on me both as a coach and as an educator,” Long said of the Hall of Fame football coach, who coached at numerous schools in Georgia, including South Gwinnett. “When I first came into education, … he had a tremendous staff. At that time, I didn’t know what I was doing. … but Coach McFerrin absolutely epitomizes the Southern gentleman. He personifies what all of us should be and inspire to be. I could go on and on about him. As a matter of fact, Coach McFerrin was the head coach at Elbert County when Shannon Jarvis was the quarterback. So Shannon got his baptism as a player under T. McFerrin and his first job (as an assistant coach) when we hired him at South Gwinnett.
“Mike Phillips, we’ve been together from the very beginning. Since my first year (coaching), … it seems like we’ve followed each other throughout our careers. So we’ve always been very close. He’s a very close friend of mine. … The passion he exhibits as a coach (and administrator) has been second to none.
“People like that are the ones that influenced me. I could talk about (former Central Gwinnett football coach) Tally Johnson. I could talk about (former Brookwood football coach) Dave Hunter. All of those guys were my mentors. (Former Meadowcreek and Dacula football coach) Kevin Maloof was big in that respect. As a matter of fact, Kevin Maloof got me my job as the A.D. at Meadowcreek years ago. When he left, he told the principal, ‘Gary’s the only guy.’ I ended up being athletic director and those first two years were a blur. It was such a huge learning curve. I had just become an administrator, and all of the sudden, I was right back into athletics. I didn’t realize at the time how happy that made me.“
As happy as Long has been during his years at Mill Creek and his other stops in his career, he is very much looking forward to retirement, and more specifically the opportunity it will allow him to spend time with something else that makes him happy — his family.
“You know, I’ve been asked that question so many times,” Long said when asked what was next for him. “For so long, I didn’t have an answer. But recently, I’ve thought it’s about family. It’s about reacquainting myself with my wife. She’s sacrificed more time than anybody should have to in a relationship. She’s been my backbone, my strongest supporter for my entire career. Now, it’s going to be time that we can spend together.
“We have four grandchildren under the age of 4 (years old) right now. I can’t tell you what that does. It just makes me a happier person. They have brought more sunshine into my heart than I thought was possible. Every moment with them is like the greatest event. I’m going to embrace that and spend as much time with them as possible.”