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PREP FOOTBALL: Familiar face, familiar place
Cawthon talks transition to head coach
Eastside FB
After spending 16 seasons on staff as an offensive coordinator, Jay Cawthon (right) is primed to step in as head football coach for the Eastside Eagles this fall. - Mason Wittner | The Covington News

COVINGTON, Ga. —  Jay Cawthon is ready to take the reins.

Last week, Eastside announced the former offensive coordinator, who was serving as interim head coach of the Eagle football team, had been named the program’s next head coach. It was a move 16 years in the making, and yet one the new head man hadn’t had on his radar until recently.

“My goals were never to be a head coach,” Cawthon admitted this week. “Even up to this year I enjoyed what I was doing in my role. That never really was in my plans whatsoever.”

Cawthon’s first stop as an assistant football coach was Wheeler High School in Marietta in 1997. Three years later he was promoted to offensive coordinator for the Wildcats, a move which he felt came prematurely but one that allowed him to begin crafting his play-calling abilities. 

“I wasn’t ready,” Cawthon said, “but who knows you are ready until you do it?”

He would go on to become the offensive coordinator at Central Gwinnett in Lawrenceville before coming on Eastside’s staff in the same capacity in 2005.

The waters were choppy at the start. When Cawthon joined then-head coach Rick Hurst’s staff, alongside the likes of recently-departed head coach Troy Hoff and longtime assistant Frankey Iverson, the Eagles found themselves in the midst of a 14-game losing streak. They tossed more dirt out of the hole, finishing their first season with another goose egg in the win column.

“I came from Central Gwinnett, and we’d just gone to the second round the year before. They went to the quarterfinals that year and we went 0-10 at Eastside. I was going, ‘Oh no. I don’t know if this is a good situation,’” Cawthon recalled.

Fortunately, it didn’t take much longer to right the ship.

Eastside went 5-5 in 2006 and 7-3 in 2007 before back-to-back 11-win seasons. Their 2008 state quarterfinal appearance was followed up with a trip to the semifinals in 2009 — the closest the program has ever come to capturing an elusive state title.

Cawthon made a name for himself in 10 seasons under Hurst, and he stayed on staff as an offensive coordinator when Hoff took over as head coach in 2015.

For the past 16 years, Cawthon has been content with being a cog that helps get the machine where it needs to be. Eastside has always prided itself on collegiality, and Cawthon never felt like his role was superior or inferior to anyone else on staff. 

“Yeah, I called the plays on Friday night, but there’s a ton of input from everybody,” he said. “I think that’s the real good thing about our staff is there’s not one guy that has it all. Everybody has input.”

While he’d previously not given much thought to being elevated to a head coach, his outlook shifted this winter.

After Hoff accepted an offer to become the next head football coach at Woodstock, Cawthon was approached by members of Eastside’s administration and coaching staff and asked to apply for the position. Despite his initial apprehension, he ultimately decided it deserved his consideration.

“There were obviously external candidates, but as as far as an internal search goes, coach Cawthon was a very clear, strong internal mandate that had very familiar knowledge of our program,” Eastside Principal Jeff Cher said. “He had very intimate knowledge of our kids, their strengths, their weaknesses. And he also had a familiar knowledge of what we do here that has yielded success for numerous years.”

On March 10, Eastside concluded its search and tabbed Cawthon to lead the football program. It was lauded as a home run hire by the Eagle administration and fan base alike. Well on his way to two decades’ worth of experience in the program, Cawthon’s transition into head coach is expected to be natural, if not seamless.

“We’ve had a great program the last couple years,” Eastside Athletic Director Phil Davidson said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The players have already adjusted to life under their new head coach as well.

“Our kids don’t flinch about change,” Cawthon said. “I’m sure it went thought their head, ‘Oh no,’ but they just put their head down and work. That’s the culture we have here.”

Under Cawthon’s guidance, the Eagles have produced two of their top-five scoring offenses in program history in the past three seasons. But the increase in point totals wasn’t the primary reason he was deemed the right guy for the job.

At the end of the day, Eastside wanted to name a head coach who understood the culture the Eagle athletic program has established over the past decade. And Cawthon doesn’t simply have a solid grasp of that culture.

He helped build it.

“I love this place. I’ve been here for 16 years now, and I want to carry on our culture,” Cawthon said. “It’s a great place to teach, a great place to live, a great place to coach.”

Cawthon’s goal for the 2021 season is to build off what he and his staff have done over the past several years. They went 10-3 last fall and made a trip to the state quarterfinals for the second time in three seasons. He isn’t aiming to reinvent the wheel, but rather keep it rolling along its course.

He believes the pieces are already in place to obtain that goal.

“We have a good thing going. We have great kids. And as we talk about all the time, players make plays, not coaches,” Cawthon said. “We’re going to put you in a position to make plays, yeah, but you have to make them.”

Eastside is scheduled to begin spring pratice May 17.