Perennial Glory in the Garden of East Texas

It was a few minutes into the 4th quarter of a top tier state championship clash of two programs with multiple titles in recent years, and Carthage High School out of Deep East Texas led Waco La Vega by 14 points. Carthage was knocking on the door of a game clinching touchdown, and on a second down run one of its offensive lineman had inadvertently lost his helmet. By rule, the helmet-losing player is required to miss the next play, a critical 3rd down where a TD was likely to be decisive. However, an even more obscure rule allows the player to avoid the missed play punishment – his team can call a timeout and immediately return him to the action.

I don’t watch most football games like most people, living the excitement or agony of every touchdown, turnover, and devastating hit. I watch thinking about what kind of play a coach should call, when is best to use his timeouts, and how to manage the action several plays (or even series) in the future. And when I saw that lineman trotting off the field, helmet in hand, I intuitively knew what a coach should do.

At that very moment, I looked down at the sideline below man, and Carthage head ball coach Scott Surratt calmy strode down the sideline towards his lineman. It hit me like a bolt of lightning – “HE’S GOING TO DO IT, HE’S GOING TO DO IT.” And that “it” was not just calling a timeout, but letting the play clock bleed 40 seconds before pulling the trigger on the timeout, thus taking more time away from the opponent’s ability to comeback from the two-score fourth quarter deficit.

Surratt called his timeout after running the play clock down to a second, put his lineman back in the game, watched his team score a game-clinching TD on the next play, and bagged his 7th state title minutes later. Very few people thought twice about that sequence, but it sticks with me 5 seasons later as the essence of the best football coach I’ve ever watched. In the seconds after the helmet came off, I’d wager there weren’t 5 people in the stadium of roughly 15,000 that knew there was an optimal course of decision making in that moment, and Scott Surratt was one of them. Of course he was.

How do you win 9 state championships in 16 seasons of coaching? Let’s step back from that. 9 state titles. Only 16 seasons. At a program that, in its history, had never won a single state championship before he arrived for the 2007 season. That’s titles in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2020, and 2022. A relentless onslaught of winning at the highest possible level. And even when the few losses do come – it’s almost always against the very best. Not surprisingly, Surratt has never missed the playoffs (albeit the Texas football playoffs are not difficult to make). In his 7 “failures,” he has thrice lost to the eventual state champion, and thrice lost to the state runner-up. Only a single team that wouldn’t ultimately play for a title has beaten Surratt’s Carthage, in 16 years of playoff competition. His overall record, by my count, is 214-31, including a beyond astonishing 100-2 record since the start of the 2017 season.

There is perhaps an insufficient number of superlatives to describe this resume. Last year, Scott Surratt tied the all-time Texas high school record for most state titles by a coach – 9 – set by legendary head man Gordon Wood. Wood coached 43 years across multiple Texas high schools, and at his height he won 7 championships in his 26 seasons at Brownwood. 7 seasons of glory, 19 years of something less. Surratt has won his 9 championships in just 16 seasons, with a record-breaking 10th title just three wins away. 9 falls winning the ultimate prize, only 7 without. Above .500 if the standard of success is “championship.”  Contemplate that for a moment, Surratt’s seasons at Carthage have netted a state championship 56% of the time, a number that could easily rise to 59% in a few short weeks.

The old adage of football adhered to the view that the “team with the most talent wins” the large majority of its games. Carthage has not had the most talent of the roughly 100 teams in its championship classification 9 times in the past 16 years; arguably and unprovably, it has never had the most talent in that span. But it has consistently possessed one thing in that 16 years – the best coach.

Let’s go back and answer the question of how you win 9 championships in highly competitive Texas high school football in a short 16 years. You build small advantage after small advantage. You start by being organized enough to attract the better athletes in your school to play and stay involved in your sport (and perhaps, a few from nearby towns that know where the most winning is done, tho small-town geography limits this in a place like East Texas). You ensure all your players know proper technique, as well as the plays and the importance of what they are doing on each play. You structure an offense that is hard to defend and which plays to your strengths (and even better, you adjust it to attack each opponent’s weaknesses). You call the right plays at the right time. You understand the value of “getting off the field” when your defense has a quality shot at a stop. And as detailed above, you deploy your timeouts to maximize your chances of winning.

Not all of those things are quantifiable for outside observers. It’s difficult to know how well organized a program is without being involved in it, though consistent winning points to that box being checked. But on the items that are verifiable to the observer, Scott Surratt-coached teams are maximally elite, the best of the best. Attending almost exclusively state title games and other contests deep in the playoffs (as I have), you never know what a Surratt-coached team will do that night. Some games, Surratt’s Carthage is a running team, methodically breaking down its opponent. Others, it looks like 1990s Houston Oilers reincarnated, a festival of four and five wide passing formations. The only thing the man appears truly committed to is an abiding love of the deep ball, as Surratt will invariably seek to stretch the opposing D with the long pass. There is no fixed system, it’s a season to season and even game to game adjustment about what will work with his personnel and against the personnel of the opposition. An unparalleled level of flexibility that we simply don’t see almost anywhere else in football.  Often you hear football coaches, even highly successful ones, laud their program’s “system”; the only system Surratt is tethered to is winning, he perpetually adjusts to get there. And there’s no need to further delineate the game management, including Surratt’s use of timeouts, it always adds to the many advantages his coaching provides.

Sooner rather than later, I anticipate that Surratt will leave Carthage, likely for a position (perhaps offensive coordinator at a Big 12-type school) that is well above the norm for a high school coach jumping to the next level.  His excellence is almost certainly no secret to college coaches across the southwest.  Ultimately, it is near fait accompli that he will become the head coach at a major college.  Expect him to win there – and win big, perhaps even the biggest prize.  He has everything it takes.

When that day comes, my lasting memory of Surratt’s high school coaching career will be my first.  In 2008, my then girlfriend and now wife asked me if I wanted to attend the state championship game her former high school was playing that coming Friday at the original “Cowboys Stadium” in Irving, just months before it would be torn down.  It was only my second Texas high school game.  On my way to the parking lot following a carnival of reverses, throwback passes, bombs, and a level of play calling creativity bordering on chicanery, I mused to myself “I can’t believe what I just saw, Texas high school football is even more magical than Texans claim.”  A few years later, as Surratt won his third consecutive title, I’d revised my opinion on that night to having seen a great coach having his first big night on a championship stage.  Following the addition of a few more titles to the pile, it was clear to me that I’d seen the best coach in the century plus history of Texas high school football, having just another typical night of excellence.