Wesleyan head coach Franklin Pridgen hit the 100-win benchmark this season, his 13th at the helm of the Wolves football program. Pridgen, a Westminster grad who played college basketball at Washington and Lee, led Wesleyan to a state title in just his third year after being promoted from defensive coordinator at the small private school in Peachtree Corners.
In this installment of “Getting to Know …,” Pridgen talks with staff writer Christine Troyke about a variety of subjects, including his love for ’80s rock, being set up with his wife, Amy, and what he learned from playing for one of the state’s winningest coaches in high school.
CT: Was the Westminster you attended, what we see now?
FP: No. Westminster Schools back in the ’80s when I was there was a lot smaller. So in that regard, that was a big difference. The school has maintained its Christian mission. The school has maintained itself as a place of academic excellence. So those things won’t change, but every institution evolves and develops.
I wish I got down there more often because I’ve still got a lot of friends there. I even think I’ve got a couple of teachers that are still there, from what I’ve heard. And I work with a lot of people up here that have connections to Westminster.
CT: It ends up being a little bit of a small world.
FP: It’s very much a fraternity of sorts in coaching — and I think that’s one of the things I love about it. People I’ve worked with are now working in other places and people I’ve known because we worked at schools that were opposing one another, or we got to know each other at conferences or maybe we played together, it makes this job a lot of fun.
CT: I always get a sense of mutual respect, too.
FP: As far as what I’ve experienced in my 25 years in this business, I haven’t seen a whole lot of animosity between coaches, even in rivalry games.
CT: Because, who else knows how hard you guys work?
FP: It really is kind of an esprit de corps. We all realize, even if our schools are different, our programs are all trying to do the same things, for the most part, and we’re trying to do it the right way, for the most part. Very, very rarely have I ever run into a situation with another coach where I really felt like he and I were adversaries. Our teams were opponents, but most of the time it’s very collegial.
CT: You played for Wayman Creel, one of the winningest coaches in state history, near the end of his career. Are there things you learned from him that still resonate?
FP: I remember Coach Creel as a very genuine person and a very hard man. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him and, honestly, the older I get and the longer I’m in this profession, the more I respect him and the more fondly I remember him. But, I gotta tell you, at the time, I was terrified.
CT: It was a different era.
FP: It was a different era. I don’t think I responded to Coach Creel the way I wish I had in hindsight. I think I’m a better coach than I ever was a player, which may not be saying a whole lot about my playing career. Or my coaching career. (laughs) But Coach Creel was a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” kind of guy. He wasn’t relational by 2018 standards.
He was a man who respected strength and he demanded toughness. I learned the value of both of those things through my experience with him, although I’m not sure I demonstrated much of each at the time.
CT: That’s probably true for most of us at 16 and 17.
FP: I think so. I think if Coach Creel were here today, I think he would be shocked that Franklin Pridgen is a high school football coach. And probably he would get a big laugh out of it. But the older I get, the more I appreciate him, the more I miss him, the more I wish I could have one more conversation with him and tell him thank you for the impact that he had on my life. Because at the time, it seemed very detrimental. But in hindsight, I can clearly see there was a method and a value to that.
CT: Is that one of the things that had you leaning toward basketball for college?
FP: Yeah, I think so. Because my football experience wasn’t great. I loved my teammates and I loved the atmosphere, but I definitely coming out of high school thought of myself as more of a basketball kid. And that played out in college for me. But, again, as I got a little bit older, I realized that my closest friends, I also played football with.
And then I was tremendously under the influence, and still am, of Marc Khedouri, who’s one of the greatest men I’ve ever known and just so happens to be the AD here. He was one of my high school coaches. That’s where our connection started. It was really Marc Khedouri who had the relational piece that Coach Creel was missing at times. He’s the one that took an interest in connecting with myself and with my teammates on a personal and spiritual level. He was an incredible role model. He was in his early 20s when I was playing in high school so there wasn’t much age difference between us.
So while Coach Creel was the hammer, I think Marc Khedouri, as tough as he was, was more velvet in that regard. He’s really someone I credit with guiding me toward this profession and he was a reminder of the good that came from my football experience.
It’s been the positive side of my football experience that I’ve tried to amplify in our own program here at Wesleyan and diminish some of the negative things that I experienced. I think a lot of guys my age look back on their experience and say, ‘it’s a whole lot different today.’ I mean, no water breaks and that kind of stuff.
I’ve always thought my challenge was to bring the value of that era into current times while trying to get rid of some of the stuff that quite frankly needed to be jettisoned. Abusive language and a lack of awareness of the toll that football takes on a body. We want this to be an uplifting experience. Football can, and is, and should be. So I want to bring all of the amazing lessons that I learned playing for a really hard man in Wayman Creel forward and I want to leave the few negative things in the past.
CT: Was one of the things that drew you to Washington and Lee that you could play both basketball and football there?
FP: I went up there with the intent of doing both and then I migrated quickly toward basketball. Washington and Lee appealed to me because of that. It appealed to me because I kind of thought of myself as more of a small-school kind of guy. At the time, Westminster felt like a small school and I liked the idea of being able to maybe become a big fish in a small pond. I love the history, the background of the place. Robert E. Lee is in my family tree, so that was interesting to me. So in a sense, I felt a personal connection.
It had at the time, and still does, a tremendous academic reputation. So it was a great opportunity for me.
CT: Were coaching and teaching the intent when you went off to college?
FP: Not at all. Law school, international business, banking — these were all things my parents talked to be about. Being a coach and teacher never once crossed my mind. Until about my sophomore or junior year. Incidentally, going back to Marc Khedouri, he went to graduate school at Liberty University in Lynchburg, for a couple of years while I was at Washington and Lee in Lexington, Va.
We were about an hour away so we spent some time together and I remember, I think it was my sophomore year that he began to talk to me about, ‘you may want to think about education.’
It got to the point that, as a senior, it was like, my plan is to go to law school and see what doors that opens for me. But I really don’t want to go straight from a rigorous academic environment like Washington and Lee, and go straight into law school. I thought, ‘What can I do for a year or two to catch my breath, study for the LSAT, get my self some experience?’
A teaching opportunity opened up at Athens Academy. A friend of a friend at W&L was an Athens Academy graduate and he heard that they were looking for someone.
I went to Athens Academy in 1992 thinking, ‘Perfect. I’ll teach in Athens for a couple of years and I’ll make some contacts at the law school.’ It’s my home state university with a great law school — makes perfect sense. Obviously my path changed.
CT: You never went to law school.
FP: I never went to law school. I realized I loved teaching and coaching. I loved relationship building. I loved working with young people, the energy and the optimism and the excitement. I loved the opportunity to feel like I was having a positive influence on those young people just like so many of my teachers and coaches had a positive influence on me. I was really happy and after two years, with my parents saying, ‘OK, time to go to law school.’ I finally said I didn’t want to.
Another one of my mentors at Athens Academy, Stuart Todd, who is there longtime athletic and admissions director, said, ‘Listen, if I had it to do over again, I don’t think I’d go get a master’s degree in education. I think I’d go get a master’s degree in business administration and learn the skills of organizational management and marketing. If you want to move up in education and coaching, I think that’s where I would spend my time.’ That’s what I did.
I went to business school at night. I thought about going fulltime at the University of Georgia, but in all this, Amy and I met. We came to Atlanta in 1996 because she had been accepted into Emory’s physical therapy program.
We were married in ’95. Her father introduced us. He was a teacher at Athens Academy. He tried for about three or four months to get me to take her out. She was a senior at Vanderbilt at the time. I was horrified at the prospect of some girl’s dad trying to get me to take her out. I was like, ‘I do not feel good about this. I think this poor, homely, socially awkward girl must have no charms whatsoever.’ Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, she was hearing about me and saying, ‘There’s no way, Dad, that I’m going out with someone that you picked for me.’
He finally put us both in a position where we couldn’t refuse. And it worked out. That was in ’93. We were married in ’95. He takes full credit for it and I think he should. He tells his grandchildren about it all the time.
But in ’96, she was accepted to Emory’s physical therapy school so me going to Georgia’s business school and her going to Emory didn’t work. We didn’t want to be apart or live in between.
So I entered the MBA program at Georgia State and took a job at Lovett coaching with Bill Railey, who is another dear friend and somebody else in my past that helped mentor me. I coached varsity football and middle school track. I bring that up only because on my middle school track team when I was 26 years old was an eighth-grader named Chip Myrick, who is our defensive coordinator here at Wesleyan and one of my closest friends. He reminds me, quite often, about what a better coach I am today than I was as a middle school track coach back in 1996.
CT: At least you know you’re making progress.
FP: But that’s a small world right there. Then in 1997, I was approached by Zach Young, who I had known at Westminster. He had just become the headmaster here and he wanted to start a football program and a high school. It was a great opportunity to be a high school administrator and defensive coordinator. At 27, that was pretty good. I leaped at that chance.
I worked for Zach and for Brian Kennerly, who was our first high school principal, and of course for probably my greatest coaching mentor, Will Jackson, who started the program and is a father figure in my life.
CT: Who is legitimately one of the best people I’ve ever met.
FP: He’s so nice and so kind. As great a man as he is, it’s not going to surprise anybody that he’s an incredible coach. That began our lifelong friendship. He never misses a Wesleyan game, even today.
After our last game when we lost to Prince (Avenue Christian) and played so well but came up short, (my son) Andrew and I were having a moment. It was his last game. I’m tearing up and Andrew’s tearing up. Amy, of course, is tearing up. But the person who was just dissolved in tears was Will Jackson. Because he understands and he appreciates. It was meaningful.
CT: So what was your first date with Amy when you finally both were cornered by her dad?
FP: I had been pressed into service to coach the Athens Academy basketball team at a Christmas tournament. I was the assistant and I had to take over for a couple of games. He came into the locker room, Andy Simmonds, my father-in-law, and said, ‘Great half. Keep it up. Good luck in the second half.’ And I thought that was so strange.
He reached out to shake my hand and in my palm he pressed a K-Mart receipt. He had been shopping at K-Mart for towel racks. On the back of that receipt he wrote his daughter’s name and phone number. He gave me a wink and walked out the door.
I was like, ‘This is so weird.’ But I felt like, after he did that, it would be rude now if I didn’t call. Because, like I said, he’d been trying for three months. So I called her and it took a couple of days to get connected — because she didn’t want to hear from me anymore than I wanted to call. I didn’t know her. I’d never seen a picture or anything.
CT: And there was no internet. You can’t go creepin.
FP: We finally got together and went to dinner in Athens at an Italian place called DePalmas. We talked for a really long time and ended up going to Waffle House because it was December and drank hot chocolate and then walked around Five Points. That was our first date and we were married two years later to the day.
In a few weeks, we’ll celebrate 23 years. Three kids and one about to graduate from high school.
CT: What’s her best quality?
FP: Oh, my gosh. My wife’s best quality is really hard to determine because there’s a long list of possibilities, but I would say her heart for other people. She is the greatest caregiver, the most compassionate and the most loving person that I’ve ever seen. She raises our children that way. She conducts her business as a physical therapist that way. Her friends, her coworkers universally agree that the level of care and compassion that she shows for other people is uncommon.
CT: What do you teach?
FP: I teach AP micro and macro economics. I teach a standard economics class. And I’m really proud that I teach what I consider to be a rigorous academic class and coach football. I’m really proud of my education and my background. I’m not in any way ashamed to me learned and at one time I was the only head football coach in Georgia with an MBA. I don’t know if that’s true anymore, but when I took over this job it was. That was a point of pride for me.
CT: You won a state title in just your third season as the head coach and sort of did it without a superstar. What first comes to mind when you think of that team?
FP: The incredible camaraderie, the team chemistry we had amongst us as a coaching staff and as players. The youthful energy of myself and key coaches on that team like Brian Krehmeyer coupled with the wisdom and experience of guys like Will Jackson, who was our offensive line coach, and Larry Sherrill, a longtime Gwinnett County coach who was our running backs coach.
I have so many memories of that team and what got us there, especially now that we’re celebrating 10 years since it happened. How did we do it? The question is an answer unto itself — ‘we’ did it.
We had an incredible young tailback, Kyle Karempelis, that year. We had an incredible young lineman named David Andrews, who’s doing OK (as a Super Bowl winner with New England) that year. But we also had dynamic leadership in all levels. We had young and old players that were completely bought in. We had an incredible junior quarterback, Connor Welton, and Merritt Hall, who went on to play at Georgia also and was the Class A defensive linebacker of the year twice.
We had players at every level making significant contributions. We only had nine seniors that year and they every single one played.
But what clicked was the identity of our team, the oneness we felt for each other and for our mission. That team started off 1-2. Not unlike 2018, starting off 0-3. There was power in the moment we realized, ‘Guys, there’s nobody else that cares about us except us. Nobody wants to join this bandwagon so let’s stretch out and get to work.’
There’s power in that — and in any group that feels the only people they can really count on are to their right and left.
Will Jackson pointed out to me at the end of our 2018 season that there was a lot of that going on from what he saw. He saw that connection and that made me feel really good. Especially coming from Will.
CT: What’s the offseason like for you?
FP: This is a really nice time of year because the season is wrapped up. I meet with all of our players individually to hear about their experience and set some goals for the future. We don’t begin our offseason training in earnest until January, but high school football in this state, if you take it seriously, has become a fulltime job. There’s always something for me to be doing before and after the school day regarding our football program.
We get a lot of kids who come wanting to hear about our program and I really enjoy sitting down with families and telling them about Wesleyan football and Wesleyan School.
And, to be honest, because football takes up so much of my time from June 1 to now, I spend a lot of time at home with my family. Andrew is about to graduate.
Being as much a part of his life as I can is extraordinarily important to me — more important to me that coaching — and I have two incredible daughters. Fortunately they’re going to be around a little bit longer around the house, but that has become a priority to me in the offseason. In season, too, but it’s a little bit different. I want to go to every swim meet and every lacrosse game and I’m looking forward to Andrew’s theater season coming up.
And every chance I get, I want to take my wife on a date. That’s what the offseason looks like for me.
CT: How did you guys decide on the names for your kids?
FP: Andrew is my father-in-law’s name. Andrew’s first name is Benedict. Amy’s uncle, my father-in-law’s brother, was a Benedictine monk. He passed away not too long ago, but for the latter half of his life he was a Trappist monk. Lived in a monastery.
CT: I really like their beer.
FP: Yes. Unfortunately they made fruitcake and not beer.
But his monastic name was Benedict. So Andrew is named after his grandfather and his great uncle.
Alden’s first name is Amy’s middle name. On her mother’s side, they are descendants of John Alden who was a pilgrim on the Mayflower. Alden’s middle name is Virginia and that’s my mother’s name.
Mamie Carroll, both names come from my side of the family. Mamie was a matriarchal name on my mother’s side and Carroll is my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. We gave her an opportunity, shortly before she passed away, to help us name Mamie and she asked us to use her maiden name.
CT: If you have the music turned up loud, what’s it likely to be?
FP: Bon Jovi. Def Leppard. Tom Petty. Maybe a little Aerosmith. Maybe a little Journey. Maybe Foreigner thrown in there. Are you seeing a trend? It’s going to be ’80s rock. Then some contemporary country. I don’t go for the twangy stuff.
CT: If you could have a talent you don’t, what would it be?
FP: I really love to cook and I am trying to work on that talent. I’ve got a good buddy around here, Chad McDaniel, who is our track and cross country coach, and he and I have explored outdoor cooking.
We love it. We did it on Instagram stories and we have a very unofficial amateur cooking show. We are cooking over the fire, both basics like smoking pork shoulder but we’re also getting into some more exotic things like a prime rib over the holiday and maybe some smoked oysters. Maybe a brisket. But it is great fun and great food, and we can involve our families. So instead of playing golf, which I also wish I was better at, or hobby has become outdoor cooking.
CT: Far less frustrating than golf.
FP: That’s right. I just want to get really good at it — the cooking, not the golf. I think sometimes Amy would say I’m really good at it and sometimes I miss the mark. But I really enjoy it and I really want to get better at it.