Athens football coach Ryan Adams is a master of "coach speak."
He knows what to say and he’s not afraid to explicitly tell media members when they aren’t going to hear the answer to their question. But when he talks about his students and players, you can tell he’s invested in the conversation. As an Athens native, he is invested in improving the town he has loved his entire life.
Finding a niche
A much younger Adams, once sat in what he thought would be one of his final undergraduate courses. In 1994, during Spring Semester of his senior year at Ohio University a professor gave him the mantra for his career.
“When it comes down to what you want to do with your life, you better, one: make sure you’re good at it, and two: you love what you do,” Adams’ professor said during a lecture.
Adams had already changed career plans. He had gone from an aspiring physical therapist to wanting to be a special events coordinator. But as he reflected on his professor's comments, he "discovered his niche" and made another change.
“There is nothing that I enjoy or am more knowledgeable about than sport. ... Once I got into the world of physical education, it became a no-brainer that eventually I was going to go into this side of football and get into coaching,” Adams said.
Before earning the head coaching position, Adams logged countless hours as an assistant coach. He was initially hired in 1995 by former Athens Coach Matt McPhail to coach running backs, the secondary and special teams. He served as the defensive coordinator for two more coaches before taking a coaching sabbatical in the mid-2000s to spend more time with his young children.
In 2006, Adams was hired as a physical education teacher at Athens Middle School. One year later, he accepted the job as head coach of the Athens High School football team.
“(The school officials that hired Adams) went away from a guy who wasn’t as invested in the community ... to take a guy who was from here and was invested in the community,” Athens Athletic Director John Rogers said. “That was Ryan.”
The teacher and coach
At his core, Adams is passionate about all physical activity, not just football. He has one goal for the students that enter his gym, and he doesn’t care how it is accomplished.
“My day at AMS is 100 percent set towards making sure that kids leave my facility red-faced with sweat on their brow more than anything else,” Adams said. “I encourage as many kids to play soccer as I do football.”
He works two full-time jobs, but Adams said he enjoys the variety. There is no overlap between his separate responsibilities, Athens Middle School Principal Kara Bolin said.
“I never see (his other job) come here,” Bolin said. “I never think, ‘Oh no, the football team lost. He’s gonna be in a bad mood.’ He never shows that kind of thing.”
Adams carries a consistently enthusiastic, yet firm energy with him wherever he goes. It’s what Rogers said would be the biggest challenge in replacing Adams if he were he to leave the program.
His players are so used to their coach’s intense nature, they find it odd when he takes the edge off.
“He’ll try to crack a joke here and there and you gotta laugh just to make him feel good,” quarterback Brendan Sano said.
Adams said his intense nature remains the same, regardless of whether he is teaching middle schoolers or coaching his players. Sano confirmed Adams' sentiments, but with one small caveat.
“He was pretty much the same guy, just a little less vulgar,” Sano said of his time as a student in Adams' class.
His students feed off of his energy. Adams is a favorite amongst the students and their parents, as Bolin can attest.
“He talks to the kids as if they are young adults,” Bolin said. “They respond well and they want to please him. They want to make him proud. I have parents that want their kid to spend time with him and I think that’s the most important compliment.”
Similarly, Rogers said Adams’ players rarely leave his program without seeing him as a father figure. When his players talk about him, the overarching fatherly themes are apparent.
“I love the confidence he gives me,” cornerback Nate Gribble said. “He’s definitely shaped us into men. I’ll keep in touch with him, definitely.”
Going beyond football to bring back the field
The Bulldogs, when Adams took over, were a 1-9 team. Since then, Adams has gone 78-32 overall as head coach, including a four-year stretch from 2011-2014 where the team went 47-5, with a state finals appearance. Athens won its first league title since 1990 under Adams in 2009, but it was the following couple of years that showed Adams wasn't an ordinary coach.
In 2010, a tornado ripped through Athens and destroyed the football stadium.
The concession stand’s range hood was found about 300 yards away from the field. The practice field, once hidden behind lavish trees, was plainly visible amongst the destruction. All four steel girders that propped up the scoreboard had folded to the ground.
“You talk about devastation,” Adams said. “It was surreal. I’ve never witnessed anything like it as far as a natural disaster goes, and the field took the brunt of it.”
In 2008, Adams helped form the Bulldog Blitz, an additional booster group to be recognized by the school. Through the Blitz, Adams had tried to raise enough money for a turf field a year before the tornado hit, but he was unable to persuade big-money donors in the community to help out.
When the tornado hit, Adams saw an opportunity to rally the community to come together around a cause for his players.
“After (the tornado) went down, the Blitz guys certainly were ready to step up and try to do a major fundraising thing to be able to fix some things up,” Adams said. “It was a situation where we knew there was gonna be some insurance money involved and we thought we could get this turf field done.”
Adams was relentless in his effort to raise money for a new stadium. Through Bulldog Blitz, he built relationships with countless donors and sponsors. Being from the area helped Adams build relationships, but what stuck out to Rogers was Adams’ overwhelming commitment to the cause.
“There were years where — especially when they were raising all the money for the field — he wouldn’t even be at practice sometimes because he was out making relationships with people in the community, taking care of paper work, and raising money,” Rogers said.
The new turf field was built in less than a year, and the Bulldogs christened it with one of the best seasons in the team’s history. Athens finished undefeated in the 2011 regular season for the first time ever, made the playoffs for the first time since 1990 and beat arch-rival Nelsonville-York for the first time since 2003.
“It’s almost like a storybook ending to everything that you wanted to see happen this year,” Adams said at the time, according to a previous Post report. “We’ve come an awful long way in the five years we’ve been at this.”
Adams had built the football program he desired, but his impact on the community went far beyond the field he helped build.
Despite being in his mid-40s, Adams still considers himself a young man, so no one expects him to hang up the whistle soon. But when he does, his desired legacy is simple, and it speaks to his people-first, football-second approach.
“Nothing more than that, I treated the kids here right and gave them an opportunity to be successful every Friday,” Adams said.
Correction: A previous of this article incorrectly stated Ryan Adams age. He is in his mid-40s. The article has been updated to show the most accurate information.