Monday night, the first building blocks for the athletic programs at Cleveland Central High School were put into place.
The Cleveland School District approved the hiring of Leroy Cotton as athletic director and Ricky Smither as head football coach of the Wolves.
“Our obligation is to hire the best people for the job,” Dr. Randy Grierson, CCHS principal, said. “The hardest part about this job is when you have so many good applicants that are capable of doing this job and you have to narrow it down to one. At this point, you wish you could have five ADs or five head football coaches.
“We do feel that committees that were up helped select the best two people for those positions.”
Smither, 52, is familiar with the Delta, particularly Cleveland. He played football and earned his master’s degree in education at Delta State University.
He served as a graduate assistant at Delta State University and as an assistant coach at Cleveland High School, Coahoma Community College and Mississippi Valley State University.
After his time at MVSU, he was head coach of the East Side Trojans from 2004-05, leading the team to a 20-6 overall record with two trips to the third round of the 3A State Football Playoffs.
After East Side High School, he went on to coach at Foley High School for a season and then he went to Northeast Community College in 2007.
After serving a year as the offensive line coach, he named head coach in 2008 where he held the position for seven years, posting an overall record of 23-41 finishing second on the school’s all-time win list.
After leaving NECC, he served as offensive coordinator at Cordova High School in Cordova, AL, in 2015 and offensive coordinator at Caledonia High School last year.
Smither said he is honored to return to Cleveland to coach the new school.
“When I was at East Side as well as Cleveland, I thought if you ever combined these two schools it would be something special and I always wanted to be a part of it,” Smither said. “When I saw it was coming open, it really sparked a lot of interest in us to come back home. I’m really excited about the opportunity. It’s really a dream come true.”
Smither said he wants the community to rally around the team. “I think those kids are ready to move on as well as the coaches,” Smither said.
“There is going to be some healing to do in the community and that’s one thing we really want to focus on. I think football brings the community together. I know there are going to be some wounds and some scars but I think the kids are ready to move on. Everyone I’ve talked to is excited about it. They’re embracing the move up to 5A and really embracing the fact that they’re going to get to play with their friends and cousins. “The thing is if we can come together as a football team, we can bring our community together,” Smither added.
“That’s going to be one of the big things that we’re going to put on our shoulders and carry. We want to represent our community and want all of Cleveland to be proud of us. The black and gold are gone, and we want the purple and black to be our new colors. We want to welcome in some new times, and we’re really excited about the challenge ahead of us.”
Grierson felt that Smither has what it takes to lead the football program.
“Running a football program is more than Xs and Os,” Grierson said. “It’s organizational skills, it’s running a business. I used to tell people all the time coaching at Delta State football was 20 percent of it. Eighty percent of it was off the field things that you had to make sure you monitor. The levels that he’s been has put him in a situation to be successful in that regard.”
Cotton has been the athletic director at East Side High School since 2005. In his time as AD, many of the programs have had great success. Cotton has been working in the Cleveland School District since the fall of 2001 where he started as the head boys basketball coach at East Side, a position he still holds.
His record as head coach of the boys program is 317-185 with five region championships, one 3A North Half Title and a 3A state-runner-up finish in the 2013-2014 season.
Cotton is also the assistant principal at East Side High School.
“I’m ecstatic to have an opportunity to serve Cleveland Central High School and Middle School as athletic director,” Cotton said. “I’m appreciative of the opportunity from Dr. Randy Grierson and the Cleveland School Board to serve in that capacity. I’m looking forward to working with the coaches we have on staff and trying to prepare for the 2017-18 school year.”
Cotton said bringing everyone together will be essential for success in the upcoming school year.
“Unification is really important,” Cotton said. “Getting everyone to pull together to develop competitive athletic programs and a sense of pride for our community as a whole is the goal that we have.”
Grierson said Cotton knows how to handle a lot of responsibility.
“He’s had a bunch of responsibilities in a bunch of different areas,” Grierson said. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with him the last couple of years as assistant principal. He’s learned a lot about that aspect along with the athletic aspect of it. He’s still going to hold responsibilities in both. Now, it’s going to be geared more toward athletics and some in administrative duties.”
Smither and Cotton both believe academics are essential for student-athletes.
“We know they can play and we know what they can run and we know what Cleveland High and East Side has produced,” Smither said. “We’ve just got to get them to be grounded. We’ve got to get them to be more of the student. On the student-athlete aspect, we want to put a lot of emphasis on the student part.”
“Academics is always at the forefront,” Cotton said. “I think being a student athlete is very, very important. I would like for our athletes to stand out as great academic students and good citizens overall.”
Smither added that he would start work on March 1.