The desire to spend more time with his family has led Rocky Stephenson to announce he is stepping down as head football coach at Whitwell High School. Fortunately for the Tigers, there was someone already on staff — defensive coordinator Owen Kilgore — who is ready to take over, making for a smooth transition.
Those decisions were announced Monday morning, with Stephenson adding that he will remain on staff as an assistant.
"I have a son who's 10 and I've already missed some of his games, which was tough, so now I need to be able to be with my family more," Stephenson said. "It's just time for someone else to take over, someone who has the time and energy to get in the hallway and keep kids excited. I will continue to help in any way that's needed."
Kilgore, a 2008 Whitwell graduate, had been an assistant at his alma mater for two years, working as the defensive coordinator this past season. He began his coaching career as a student assistant at the University of Tennessee, where he spent three seasons before joining the Jacksonville State staff for eight seasons — first as a graduate assistant then as a cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator.
"I'm very excited to get started," Kilgore said. "Coaching in college would have required me to move and travel a lot more and that wasn't something I wanted to do. My wife is from Cleveland and we wanted to be closer to home and our families, plus we just had a baby girl and that changed everything and led us to come back.
"I learned to love Whitwell while I was away. It's home. I've always loved it here. This school has a lot to offer kids and the familiarity helps. We've got some good athletes coming up and I want to help develop them. We want kids born and raised here to stay here.
"It was very important for Coach Rocky to stay on staff. I'll lean on him for a lot of advice."
After the Tigers claimed the 2018 Class 1A state championship, the program suffered through a stretch of back-to-back losing seasons before Stephenson was hired. He guided the team to a 4-4 finish, which included qualifying for the playoffs during the covid-shortened 2021 season, followed by 8-4 and 9-3 finishes, reaching the second round of the playoffs both years.
"When I took over, we were coming off a losing season and our numbers were really low," said Stephenson, a former two-sport athlete and 1989 graduate at Whitwell who joined the staff in 2015 as an assistant. "I knew we needed stability to get things back on track and that's what we were able to do.
"I knew I wasn't going to use this job as a stepping stone. I wanted to see the program prosper and I wanted to see things through with the group that I started with. I was happy to be able to help get things turned back around, but now it's time for someone else to take over."
Under Stephenson, Whitwell's roster numbers became revitalized, with a total of 46 on last season's team. The Tigers will also return eight starters from this fall's 8-win team.
"He really got us back in a good place," said Whitwell principal Teena Casseday, praising Stephenson's work. "I know we all appreciate what he's done and we're excited to continue having Coach Rocky's knowledge and influence on staff.
"I see Owen in the halls talking to the kids and you can see how they relate to him. He knows how to build relationships with them and that will be important to keeping our football numbers up and keeping those kids involved. I'm really excited with what he can bring to our program."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].