Trouble in Titletown

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VALDOSTA, Ga. — There is no joy in Titletown, as this South Georgia city calls itself.

The Valdosta Wildcats are undoubtedly one of America’s most successful high school football teams, with more than 900 victories, two dozen state titles and its star players seemingly on a conveyor belt to football meccas like Georgia and Alabama. Greatness is a given here.

So the Wildcat faithful can only bemoan the scandal suddenly unfolding before them, one involving mysterious hirings and firings, rampant rumors and allegations of dirty dealing by some of the South’s most famous college coaches. Poignantly, this racially split community seems unsure whether it can come together even around football.

For now, Valdosta is plumb out of coaches, with its current head coach on administrative leave after he was caught on tape whispering about a recruiting slush fund and the previous one, a white man, alleging racial discrimination after he was fired, though a five-touchdown loss to a local rival can’t be dismissed as a factor.

Who links these disparate threads?

That would be Michael Nelson, the recently deposed (meaning both fired and placed under oath) executive director of Valdosta High’s Touchdown Club. Nelson boasts that he is one of the fiercest Wildcats fans in town history and calls himself a “one-armed white Jihadist.” He lost his right arm at 13 and since then has used his other hand to sign his name as “Nub.”

Nelson’s deposition in former Coach Alan Rodemaker’s discrimination lawsuit transformed Titletown’s family dysfunction into headline news. It was Nub, too, who secretly recorded the current coach musing about corrupt recruiting schemes he said were carried out by the likes of Kirby Smart, Nick Saban and even Bear Bryant, dead nearly four decades.

All of this has magnified some of the area’s longstanding obsessions.

“Valdosta is known for two things: the Mary Turner lynching and winning high school football games,” said Thomas Aiello, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Valdosta State University.

In 1918, Turner, who was eight months pregnant, was among about a dozen African Americans lynched in this community, 25 miles north of the Florida line, in retaliation for the murder of a white plantation owner. Her death became a focus of the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaigns through the 1940s.

Racial injustice persists here as everywhere, but the locals have long seen football as a refuge.

“Everybody loves the Wildcats,” said Dominique Moses, a 2004 Valdosta graduate who is Black and owns Fit Fighters Fitness, where many of the Wildcats train. “Football is the one thing that brings both sides together.”

Or used to, anyway.

Not many people know that Nub Nelson’s real first name is Michael. He got the nickname after his horse stepped in front of a pickup truck with him in the saddle. That was the end of the horse and might have been the end of Nelson if the doctors hadn’t taken off his gangrenous arm at the elbow. Nelson, 65, said that he has never considered the loss a tragedy.

His only regret was that he never got to be a Valdosta Wildcat.

“It kills me; I’ll never get over it,” said Nelson, who carried his firstborn son home from the hospital in a Wildcats helmet.

How big a deal is it to be a Wildcat? When a famed coach died suddenly in 1996, 7,000 mourners packed Cleveland Field to pay their respects as his body, dressed in the Wildcats’ gold and black and cradling a football, lay in repose on the 50-yard line.

In 2002, Nelson joined the board of the Touchdown Club, a now-70-year-old booster club. After some lean years for the Wildcats, he reckoned that if the team was going to lift its game, the Touchdown Club had to do the same.

Nelson decided that what Valdosta really needed was a $500,000 scoreboard, and he set out to get it, promising the Board of Education it would pay for itself as local businesses bought advertising. A barrel-chested bantamweight with a salt and pepper hair, Nelson made casino greeters look lazy, joining lunch tables uninvited and working his Bluetooth like an air traffic controller landing jets at Kennedy Airport.

It didn’t take him long to hustle up half the money and it took no time at all for the school board to kick in the rest.

When then-assistant coach Rodemaker was elevated to head coach in 2016, Nelson was on his way to tripling the Touchdown Club’s budget to nearly $250,000 a year. He soon became its salaried executive director.

“It meant better equipment and allowed us to feed our kids a full breakfast and supper each school day all year round,” Rodemaker said.

Valdosta won the state championship in Rodemaker’s debut season, its first title since 1998. It appeared the new coach and a revived Touchdown Club had paid dividends.

Rodemaker compiled a 36-17 record in four years, including a 10-3 record in 2019, when Valdosta made its second consecutive appearance in the state quarterfinals. After the season, the schools superintendent, William Cason, who is known as Todd, recommended to the board that he be rehired. But the board voted the other way.

“I was blindsided,” Rodemaker said. “I still have never heard why I was not renewed. No one came and talked to me. There were no complaints I knew of. My file was squeaky clean.”

Mostly white fingers pointed out that the 5-4 vote fell along racial lines, with the new Black majority voting to oust the white coach. Surely, the thinking went, the board would replace Rodemaker with a Black man. After all, Valdosta High was 71 percent Black, but it had never had a Black football coach, and plenty of people in town thought it was about time.

Still, there was enough support for Rodemaker to force the board to revisit its decision at a meeting a few weeks later.

On Feb. 10, 2020, the townspeople packed the 900-seat Valdosta High School Performing Arts Center, selected because it was large enough for the expected crowd. Many pleaded for Rodemaker to keep his job. But the Rev. Floyd Rose, a longtime pastor and civil rights leader, reminded the Black board members that Black voters had put them there and urged them to reaffirm their decision.

“Whites have made decisions on behalf of the Black community for years, but when a white man is dismissed all of the sudden hell breaks loose,” he said.

The Black board members voted again to let Rodemaker go, against the recommendation of Cason, who is also Black.

William Love, a former school board member and not part of the vote, gave a deposition for Rodemaker’s lawsuit. He said that the current member Warren Lee, who is widely considered the leader of the Black majority, made decisions on racial grounds.

“One really big example was when he said, ‘What we need to have in our football program is a coach of color,’” said Love, who is white.

Another white board member, Kelly Wilson, who voted to rehire Rodemaker, said in a deposition that she also believed the coach was let go partly because he was white.

“Do I think that was a factor?” said Wilson, who has since resigned. “Yes. Do I think it was the sole factor? No. But I do believe that was a factor.”

Jerry Lumley, the lawyer for Lee and Kelisa Brown, another Black board member, said Rodemaker was cut loose primarily for a reason any Wildcats fan would understand: He was 1-3 against Valdosta’s biggest rivals, Lowndes County and Colquitt County.

Rodemaker’s 71-35 loss to Lowndes at home in 2018 was particularly painful because it occurred in what is known as the Winnersville Classic. Lowndes, in the same county as Valdosta, opened in 1959 and quickly became the high school of choice for white families fleeing integration in town. It is bigger and more affluent, and many former Wildcats from the glory years send their sons and daughters there.

“Mr. Lee was not pleased with the direction the team was going,” said Lumley. “He believed they needed someone else to get Valdosta back on track.”

That someone turned out to be a coach with white skin, a history of winning and a train load of baggage.

Rush Propst has been called the most famous high school football coach in America, which in 2006 was accurate. Viewers of the MTV reality show “Two-a-Days” saw Propst use his honeysuckle drawl and televangelist patter to bully, con and cajole his team to glory. Over nine years at Hoover High, he won 110 games and five Alabama state championships.

By the time he resigned in October 2007, however, Propst was America’s most infamous high school coach.

After months of rumors, Hoover’s Board of Education released a report that said Propst, who was married with children, had a second family in another part of the state and had an affair with a school administrator who had changed some grades of Propst’s players.

In the South, however, having an underperforming football team can be its own kind of scandal, and Propst soon landed at Colquitt County High School near Moultrie, Ga., where he became the state’s highest-paid coach at $141,000 a year. He amassed quite a record: An investigation found that he gave his players medication, misused school district money and owed nearly $450,000 in delinquent federal and state taxes.

On the other hand, he racked up 119 wins and won two state championships, with back-to-back 15-0 seasons in 2014 and 2015.

Which helps explain why, three weeks after Colquitt fired him, the same five Valdosta school board members who fired Rodemaker hired Propst.

“It’s just an honor,’’ Propst told reporters. “I don’t think there’s a coach in football that hears the word Valdosta and doesn’t think of good football teams. Valdosta is synonymous with winning.’’

Steve Nichols, a local radio personality, said he saw Propst’s hiring partly as a legal maneuver.

“There was no reason not to renew Rodemaker,” he said. “The community started screaming foul and at least the board had sense enough to hire a white coach to tamp down the lawsuit.”

Cason, Valdosta’s schools superintendent, insisted that no one ever told him he had to hire a Black coach. Of the top dozen candidates, Cason said only two or three were Black.

“There were no African-American candidates that applied had a stellar enough record as a coach,” he said.

Black people in Valdosta had heard that before. Moses, the gym owner, said he still believes Valdosta will get a Black coach someday. “We’ve been asking for a while,” he said. “If we keep pushing it will happen, maybe not for this coach or the next coach, but soon.”

Nub Nelson is going viral. A recording of the conversation he had with Propst on May 16, 2020 is piling up hits on social media and YouTube and fanning arguments on message boards and sports radio.

In 14 minutes of chitchat with Nelson, the most (in)famous high school football coach in America managed to besmirch almost everything beloved in the South and, in doing so, ended up on administrative leave.

Bear Bryant? He built an illegal recruiting slush fund with seed money from donors from Mobile, Ala., said Propst: “Coach Bryant had that set up in the 1960s.”

Next up were Georgia Bulldog Coach Kirby Smart and former star running back Nick Chubb. Smart, according to Propst, paid Chubb $180,000 to return to Georgia for his senior season in 2017: “Three $60,000 donations for him to stay in school.”

Chubb shrugged off the suggestion in a terse social media post.

The recording continued. From whom did Smart get the idea to pay Chubb to stick around?

“Nick Saban,” Propst said, referring to Smart’s stint as an Alabama assistant coach.

Having implicated some of Alabama’s finest coaches and athletes, Propst then turned on some of Alabama’s finest. When he was coaching at Hoover High, he said, cops provided him with the spoils from narcotics raids they conducted on Interstate 20.

“They gave me $30,000 of drug money,” he says.

Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, the Alabama police and the ghost of Bear Bryant did not return a reporter’s calls.

Championships, Propst seemed to be saying, are expensive. At Colquitt, he told Nub Nelson, boosters sweetened his salary with an additional $4,500 a month, picking up his truck and cellphone payments and part of his mortgage. Now, in Valdosta, he needed to take care of four- and five-star recruits he was trying to bring to town.

“We have to have some funny money,” Propst could be heard saying in the recording, adding that “at least $10,000 cash” felt right.

Nelson said he did not leak the tape. But he did turn it over to Valdosta school officials and investigators for the Georgia High School Athletic Association. He also spoke with athletic compliance officials at Georgia and Alabama who are looking into Propst’s allegations.

Neither Propst nor his lawyer responded to phone calls, texts and emails.

Titletown is a bit unhinged heading into spring football. Social media and message boards abound with conspiracy theories.

A perhaps more cogent theory was offered on a Georgia high school message board by someone going by the handle Wildcat521.

“When those 5 black board members voted rod out it rattled a lot of white people. Never have I seen so many mad white folks,” Wildcat521 wrote. “It’s really not about rush. It’s about trying to hold on to the good old boy system that was the downfall of Valdosta football in the first place.”

Rodemaker, the ousted coach, is still pursuing his lawsuit. His lawyers negotiated an $800,000 settlement that would have included a letter saying there was no cause for his dismissal, but last month, the school board voted not to approve it.

“The statement is a lot more important than the money,” said Rodemaker, now the defensive coordinator at Colquitt. “I want to get hired as a head coach again.”

Nelson is also looking for work. He said he was fired from his job as the executive director of the Touchdown Club for talking too much about Propst and the problems in the program. Gone is his $32,000 annual salary, along with the good will of some of the Wildcat faithful.

He seems untroubled. At lunch at Covington’s, a popular restaurant here, he kept having to put down his French dip sandwich as a bank president, school district officials and other ’Cat backers stopped by to say hello and ask what he had heard.

After lunch, he was back in his Toyota, punching the buttons on his phone and musing about coaching candidates who might restore football glory. Titletown, after all, is bigger than a school board, a reality TV coach or a “one-armed white Jihadist.”

“We are the winningest high school football program in the country — the Valdosta Wildcats,” he said, a cigarette curled in his mouth. “There’s all kinds great coaches who’d want to come here. This is all going to blow over.”

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