By Toni Garrard Clay/Communications Coordinator
The word “pedigree” is used liberally in conjunction with Zac Harrell among Texas football aficionados. So when the Athens ISD board of trustees confirmed his position Thursday as the district’s new athletic director and head football coach, the glee was almost palpable.
“Coach Harrell has the background and necessary skills to take our athletic programs to new heights,” said Superintendent Blake Stiles. “I can’t wait to get him here working with our athletes.”
Harrell’s first day on the job — and his first as a head coach — will be Tuesday. He spent the fall semester as the football offensive coordinator at Waxahachie High School. Before that he was on the coaching staffs at Van, Prosper, Sweetwater, Denton Ryan, and Alvarado, mostly as offensive coordinator.
His father, Sam Harrell, has spent most of his career coaching football in Ennis, where he won the Class 4A state championships in 2000, 2001 and 2004. Zac Harrell was a senior and starting wide receiver during the 2000 title season. In 2001, his brother, Graham, was the starting quarterback as a sophomore. In 2004, Clark, the youngest of the three Harrell boys, began the season as starting QB until an injury sidelined him for the season. Graham, who went on to be an All-American QB for Texas Tech and spent time in the NFL, is on the coaching staff at the University of North Texas. Clark quarterbacked for the University of Tulsa and is now on the coaching staff at Sealy High School. Like they said: pedigree.
“I always thought Athens could be a great place for me. So I’m just beyond excited that I’ve been given this opportunity,” said Harrell.
Growing up in Ennis, where he played against Athens his sophomore and junior years, and later coaching against the Hornets during his time in Van, allowed him to become familiar with the program here, as well as the community and student population.
And, yes, there will be changes to the offense. Harrell has a successful history of transitioning football programs focused on the run — as Athens long has been — to a shotgun spread offense.
“Our quarterback almost will never take a snap underneath the center,” he explained. “Our offensive philosophy is that we want to try to spread out the field and get the ball in as many different kids’ hands as possible, trying to best utilize the athletes we have. … We’ll do what gives our kids the best chance to win, and that will look different year to year. But the base philosophy is a spread offense with four, sometimes five wide receivers on the field.”
Harrell’s single season as the offensive coordinator at Waxahachie came during a challenging time of transition for the Indians as they moved up to 6A with little time to implement a new system. During his four years total as OC at Van — in two separate coaching stints — the offense averaged over 40 points a game for a combined 39-11 record. His last two years as OC at Sweetwater, the team had a combined record of 25-2.
“I’ve been calling this offense for nine years at three different schools,” said Harrell. “At two of them, at Van and Sweetwater, I went into a situation very similar to Athens. When I got there, the kids had very little experience with passing. At both of those places, they loved this offense. It doesn’t take much arm-twisting.
“When I start working with them on how to be quarterbacks and how to be receivers, they’re going to take off and love it. It’s exciting. … More kids get to touch the ball. Any fear factor about a new system will quickly go away, because they’re going to really enjoy what we bring.”
Included among those who anticipate success in Athens is Harrell’s former boss, Denton ISD Athletic Director Joey Florence, one of the most successful AD’s in the business and a two-time state championship coach.
“Zac is an incredibly great hire for Athens,” said Florence. “He really is one of the good young coaches out there. He’s going to do great things.”
AISD Board Vice President Eric Smith said Harrell’s youth, energy, experience and personality combined to set him apart from a tough field of applicants.
“I’m excited about it, and I think the community and kids will be as well,” said Smith. “And it’s not just football. We expect to see his previous success translate all the way down the line in both female and male sports, to all our programs.”
Harrell said he views a successful athletic program as working in partnership with academic rigor. “Academics is obviously important. But athletics adds to it,” said Harrell. “In our programs, we teach such important lessons: your role in a team, how to deal with adversity, mental toughness. … We want to involve as many kids as we can in our programs because we think they’ll come out of them and be better prepared for life. That’s a huge part of the education process.”
Harrell said he is eager to become a Hornet and call Athens home. He and his wife Stephanie, an elementary school teacher, have two children: Gunner, 7, and Stella, 3.
“My wife and I both want our kids in a smaller community where we can get involved and know everyone. … I think Athens is a really great fit for my family.”