Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

August 10, 2013

A team divided: Father-son bond makes mutual split a score for both sides

Aaron Snyder
The Independent

MOREHEAD — Living 58 miles away from Boyd County’s new football coach is a senior who wears No. 58 for a rival program.

No amount of distance can weaken the bond that is father and son.

When John Gilliam fell victim to the Morehead State University coaching staff overhaul this past winter, it was a no-brainer to join Rowan County head coach Kyle Singleton and company when he received the invitation.

After all, he would have the opportunity to coach his son, Austin Gilliam. He hadn’t encountered such a chance since Austin’s Pee Wee days.

“It was very appealing,” recalled the 48-year-old John, who spent 17 years on MSU’s staff.

Two key factors, though, paved a new path for the older Gilliam — Rowan County couldn’t offer him a full-time teaching position, and Boyd County wanted him as its head coach and a social studies teacher.

“It was a tough decision, even then,” said the coach.

But the decision was made to move. Mutually, in fact.

“I wanted to make sure he was comfortable with it,” John said.

“I was excited for him, happy for him,” said Austin during Rowan County’s team picture day. “He needed it, I think. He wanted to be a head coach, and it was really good for him.”

One decision led to another, though. Would Austin leave his Morehead roots and jet to join Dad in Cannonsburg?

“I (considered a transfer) for a little bit,” Austin said. “I mean, it’s my dad ... But then, I realized, that this is my team. As a leader, I owed it to these guys (to stay). All my friends are here and we’ve all played together forever.”

Austin Gilliam is one of 17 Vikings seniors. A two-time All-Area right tackle, Gilliam made a choice that proved pleasing to Rowan County.

“I’m glad he didn’t go,” said Rowan County senior fullback Keontae Moore. “He’s a big part of the offense, the O-line. I kinda thought he might (leave), but we’re real close (as a senior group).”

Austin and John have elected to create fun out of the situation.

They have posed for pictures in each other’s school gear, one of which can be found in the Rowan County football program — John, in his Boyd County red coaching shirt, and Austin, in his Rowan County green and black, complete with a caption of John wishing Austin luck on the season.

In another photograph, John stuck a finger signaling No. 1 above Austin’s head.

John recently attended the Vikings family/player picnic, where he sneaked up behind Singleton and uttered, “Hey, hide the playbooks.”

John has also driven to Morehead for practices. He plans on taking in a few of his son’s games from the bleachers, thanks to a few Saturday dates. The Lions’ coach said he never does and won’t treat it as a scouting opportunity, using that time to simply focus on his son.

The date with the heaviest Sharpie circle on the calendar is Oct. 11, when Rowan County travels to Boyd County. As if the district battle needed any more spice — the Vikings won the last two meetings by a combined 13 points — the Gilliam duel will add some fuel.

“I’m sure me and Dad will be in contact that whole week,” Austin said, chuckling.

“I’m looking forward to it,” John said. “I told him, ‘Don’t stress out about it. Let’s have fun, and may the best man win.’”

Austin would’ve assuredly helped the Lions had he joined them. One of their biggest question marks heading into the season is the front line. He plays both offense and defense, but Austin has caught the attention of colleges — including Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State and Wofford — with his offensive line skills.

“From a selfish standpoint, I would’ve loved for him to come with me. I toured him through the new high school, I don’t know if that’s recruiting or not!” John said with a laugh.

Said Austin: “He never put any outgoing pressure on me or anything like that. He wanted me to come, but it was never anything like begging.”

Austin figures largely into Singleton’s plan of rebounding from a 4-7 season, one in which the Vikings achieved the No. 3 seed in the district with a 28-25 win over Boyd County.

“He’s grown up here, he is Rowan County,” said Singleton, entering his third season. “He grew up around the game, understands it.”

Austin also excels in the classroom and carries himself well off the field, said John.

“I’m as proud as I can be of him,” said Gilliam, the father. “He’s a model citizen on and off the field. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

All the warm and fuzzy feelings aside, the trash talk has already begun.

While it may sound strange, John hopes to have a bad Thanksgiving. His son plays for Rowan County, his sister teaches at Raceland and his nephew, Shawn, plays for Ashland. All three teams visit Cannonsburg this fall.

Austin, meanwhile, hopes to hold a “1” over his father’s head for the rest of his life.

AARON SNYDER can be reached at asnyder@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2664.