Rebuilding a football program at one of Georgia’s largest high schools has presented Noel Dean with many challenges over the past three years, but if one thing has become clear during that time, it’s that coaching is his calling.
There just won’t be much longer left at Tift County High School.
Dean announced his decision to step down as head coach of the Blue Devils at the end of the 2023 season last month.
In a letter addressed to the Tift County football community and shared on the school district’s Facebook page, Dean, a Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee and three-time state champion coach at Lowell, said he hopes his announcement “will bring would put an end to the drama and distractions that have characterized our program in recent weeks, allowing our coaches and players to fully focus on the task at hand for the remainder of the season.”
Dean also said the challenges that came with his son Doak Dean’s cancer diagnosis in November 2022 helped make it clear it was time to step down.
“It has become clear to me that it is time for us to begin a new chapter that is about healing and recovery,” Noel Dean wrote in the letter.
Doak, a 2021 Lowell graduate, is in remission and has returned to his studies and the wrestling team at Harvard.
Dean took over a Tift County football team that went 2-8 in 2020 and had just three wins in 2019. He led the Blue Devils to a 6-5 record in 2021, which included a playoff berth and the program’s first win over a regional opponent (Michigan’s equivalent of a conference opponent) in 1,100 days.
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But the Blue Devils have gone 1-9 in 2022 and are currently 1-6 with three games remaining in 2023, and in a soccer-loving community, those results led to a petition on Change.org calling for Dean’s removal demanded.
“As concerned members of the Tifton community, we are deeply disturbed by the lack of progress and consecutive losses under the leadership of Tift County High School head coach Noel Dean,” reads the petition, which was started anonymously and has received more than one 1,000 signatures. “We believe a change in coaching staff is necessary for the upcoming 2024-2025 football season to rebuild our team and restore pride in our community.”
Tift County’s 2023 team included five sophomore starters between the offensive and defensive lines as well as two freshmen starters, and in a phone interview with MLive, Dean said his program is heading in the right direction.
“I know what I have done in the past, I believe in my methodology and I know I can apply it elsewhere,” he said. “It worked here and we would win a lot of football games over the next two years. Most of my team right now is ninth and tenth graders, and we play in a league – for example, Detroit Catholic Central, Rockford, those are the teams we play, but we play one of those teams every Friday night. ”
In his letter to the district, Dean said the decision to resign was difficult and that he was proud of what the program has accomplished on and off the field over the past two-plus years.
“While the decision to step down is undoubtedly difficult, I am proud of the achievements we have achieved together,” he wrote. “Establishing the Four Tridents: Academics, Commitment, Character and Strength has positioned the program and its student-athletes for success. Our team’s grade point average is now over 86, with a participation rate of over 95% in team activities. We have seen a dramatic decrease in ISS/OSS incidents among football players, remarkable growth in the weight room, and dedicated community service totaling hundreds of hours. I would like to express my gratitude to our players for their unwavering commitment and work ethic.
“The impact on the community has been significant. From bringing the Red, White and Blue Devil Game to Tifton, to the enriching experiences of the Special Hearts Legends Game, to engaging youth through the Tift County Football LiTeracy Campaign, our program has remained true to its commitment to being a community-oriented Program. We have given our student-athletes the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and foster a sense of loyalty and duty.”
So what’s next for Dean?
In the five years since he stepped down from his 22-year run leading the Lowell program, Dean has learned that he belongs on the sidelines.
“I still have 20 years of coaching experience in me and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last five years it’s that I’m a coach and that’s what I love to do and that’s exactly it “I want to be me,” he told MLive.
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With a daughter in Grand Rapids, a son in Ann Arbor and a son and daughter-in-law in northern Indiana, Dean said he could see himself and his wife, Jill, who works as a speech-language pathologist for Tift County Schools. He is moving back to West Michigan and taking over as head coach of high school football beginning in the 2024 season.
“We’re training again,” he said. “We would like it to be somewhere between Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne, and it’s about our kids and all that.” We like West Michigan and have a lot of really good friends and people who have been very supportive of our family over the years and we would like to go back there and be with them and be close to them.”
An unlikely landing spot is Lowell, currently coached by Dean’s close friend Jacob Henige, who has the Red Arrows at 5-2 with two games left in the regular season.
“I will never take this job,” Dean said of the head coaching job at Lowell. “Part of me coming here was to create distance between Lowell and me in proportion. We’re looking for something new and I would prefer to be at a level where you wouldn’t necessarily compete against Lowell either.
“I love Lowell. Lowell is a great town and they’ve been very, very good to us and very kind to our family, and it’s one of my favorite places on earth.”
Dean’s resume as head coach at Michigan, which includes a 241-68 record, 11 district titles, eight regional championships and six state finals appearances, will make him a sought-after candidate for high school football programs this offseason, but he said he Doing the right thing will be likely to bring him back to the sidelines.
“I think it has to be the right mix of people,” he said. “We want to commit to excellence. We want to have children who demand high academic standards and we will work to grow men and build men.
“It’s going to be a two-way street, however we do it, and if the right mix doesn’t come about, I don’t have to coach football, I can wait another year or two. “As a family, we’re in a pretty good place ourselves , so I want to find someone who wants to do it right and advocate for the whole child.
“This is very important to me, especially at my age. I see how important this is today, more than ever as a young man. I want to build, I want to be a person who really, really focuses on the holistic, because when you have kids who are committed to excellence in the classroom, who are committed to excellence in the weight room, who are committed to showing up for everyone day and the way they treat other people with their character and how they can serve beyond themselves and think about other people will win you football games. That will happen.”