The Tribune got an exclusive meet-and-greet with new Cullman High School head football coach Matt Plunkett on Thursday, when he and his family took a tour of the campus with CHS Principal Kim Hall and Cullman City Schools Superintendent Dr. Susan Patterson. Pictured, from left to right, are Patterson, Allison Plunkett (holding 1-year-old Makenzie Plunkett), 3-year-old Maddison Plunkett, Coach Plunkett and Hall. / Nick Griffin
There's something about being a Bearcat, and I just couldn't be more excited.”New CHS head coach Matt Plunkett
CULLMAN – The Cullman City School Board Friday morning approved the hiring of Matt Plunkett as the new head football coach at Cullman High School. Plunkett, who has served as head football coach and athletic director at Gardendale High School since 2013, will take over the Bearcat program from longtime Cullman coach Mark Britton, who retired last season.
“Coach Plunkett’s football expertise, knowledge of building successful programs, developing young men as well as his emphasis on multi-sport athletes makes him the perfect fit for the Cullman City Schools’ football program,” said CHS Principal Kim Hall. “It is with great pride that I introduce to you Coach Matt Plunkett as Cullman High School’s head football coach.”
Plunkett is an Arab High School graduate who grew up in Joppa. He attended the University of North Alabama and the University of Alabama, and was a student assistant coach in both football programs. Out of college, Plunkett held assistant coaching titles at Pittsburg State University, Carson Newman College and Missouri Southern State University, serving as offensive coordinator, recruiting coordinator and tight end and wide receiver coach. In 2010, Plunkett accepted a position as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Magnolia West High School in Magnolia, Texas. In each of these schools, Plunkett chose to lead Fellowship of Christian Athlete programs.
In 2013, Plunkett returned home to Alabama to take over the reins as the head football coach and athletic director at Gardendale High School, a 6A program. At GHS, Plunkett led his teams to four straight state playoff runs and winning seasons, posting a record of 37-22. In 2014 and 2015, his teams earned back-to-back school-record-breaking seasons on offense while the teams earned 6A quarter-finalist statuses. In 2015, the GHS Rockets achieved the school’s first 10-win season in more than a decade. During his time at Gardendale, Plunkett had 18 football players go on to sign collegiate scholarships.
Plunkett told The Tribune he has always felt like he had roots in the Cullman community and it’s only made him more excited to get started; he's already preparing for week one in August and has some ideas for the culture he wants to have in the football program.
The new head Bearcat also said he’s happy to be able to bring his family into the community and school system.
"It's a big-time thing for us to be able to come to Cullman, that was big," Plunkett smiled. "Whether its eating lunch at Busy Bee or something like that with my grandmother and bringing lunch to my granddad, Bill Andrews and Edgar Plunkett both worked here, so those are big memories that I have growing up in eastern Cullman County in Joppa. Cullman was the first big city that I knew about and going there was always a big deal, so Matt Plunkett being announced in Cullman is a big deal to me and our family.”
He continued, “I couldn’t be more excited. I've got a lot of blood, sweat and tears that my family has put into this county and this community working here for a long time; I'm talking 100 years of heritage between the Plunketts and the Andrews so I'm excited.”
Plunkett is ready to take on the challenge of getting in and getting to work.
“It's a tremendous opportunity to get the opportunity to follow a great coach like Mark Britton and getting this program where he first built it and continued to build it and move forward with these guys, but it’s a new day and we'll be excited to move on. It's not about Matt Plunkett, I'll tell you that, it's going to be about these Bearcats,” he shared. “I'm excited to get to lead these guys, but the reason we're going to be successful will be these players and what they're going to put into this community and what they do in the classroom first and foremost. We wouldn't have this football team if it wasn't for this school and the education that they are provided. I'm so proud that my daughters will get to be educated in the Cullman City Schools system, what a tremendous opportunity for them, the best in the state. It's all really exciting so I can't wait to get to work. Cullman men are tough and I'm excited to build on that; there's something about being a Bearcat and I just couldn't be more excited.”
What’s he focused on? The Jasper game.
“We've got a big game against Jasper coming up and that’s the most important game right now; that’s the only thing we're going to talk about until August rolls around is those Jasper Vikings so I'm real excited and motivated for that."
Plunkett is proud of what he and his staff were able to do at Gardendale and is confident that the Rockets are in a good place going forward, but he said the timing at Cullman was too good to pass up.
"We've got a tremendous football team at Gardendale; they're going to be fantastic. That program is better today than it was, and I take a lot of pride in what our players and assistant coaches were able to accomplish. Gardendale is going to be fantastic the next two years. Those guys will play some of the best competition in the state and they're going to be good so I'm excited to see what they will still accomplish," Plunkett said.
"I was really looking forward to working with those kids because we had worked really hard for five years to build that program to where it was state-respected, and we played in a lot of playoff games and some other big games and I was very fortunate to be the head football coach there, but when it was obvious there was some mutual interest (at Cullman), I pursued it and it was really a timing thing. Everything fit right; doors were opened at the right time and doors were closed at the right time. Nothing was out of the ordinary or weird and everything seemed to happen for a reason, so the timing was perfect.”
Plunkett told The Tribune he’s always wanted to be at Cullman High.
“I knew I would want it if it came open and I honestly thought it'd be a little later in my career,” he said. “A lot of people have told me they thought this would be a great stepping stone job, but I don't see Cullman as a stepping stone, I see it as a great job to raise your children in a great community and get them through school and build a tremendous football program that is respected across the state. When people come into this stadium and when we get off the bus at our opponents’ stadiums, people are going to respect Cullman. We're going to play with class and character, and that was my vision when this job came open. I could always see myself coaching here and I knew when I had that vision that it was the right time to make the move and I'm really excited."
The search to replace Britton
The search for a new head football coach at CHS saw the school administration, along with Cullman City School Board Superintendent Dr. Susan Patterson, employ a rigorous process to find the right person to step into Britton’s shoes. In an exclusive interview, Hall and Assistant Principal/Athletic Director Mark Stephens sat down with The Tribune to discuss the particulars.
The process began with a parent meeting where Hall created a survey and asked parents to provide sample questions or other things they wanted to see as a part of the search. Then, she worked with the administration, along with Patterson and other head coaches, to formulate a rubric to score the incoming resumes.
“It’s a very calculated, academic process because there’s a lot of qualities that we’re looking for in a head coach, including that coach being, or wanting to become, an invested member of our community,” Hall said.
A five-member search committee, made up of a cross-section of people from the community, was formed to assist in the selection. Until now, the names of committee members were not released, in order to ensure the validity of the hiring process.
Hall said she felt fortunate to have the committee members helping in the search and talked about why each was selected, starting with Cullman football great Wayne Trimble.
“The first committee member is Wayne Trimble. He’s a Cullman High School graduate and played on the 1962 state championship team here at Cullman. He is a current resident of Arab. After he graduated high school he played football at the University of Alabama for Bear Bryant and he also played in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers,” Hall said. “He has experience as a high school head coach; he’s been a high school principal and a school board member, so the perspective he brought was first and foremost the football knowledge, plus the tradition that we look for in our community.”
Next up was another CHS alumnus and athlete, Donovan Lovell. Hall said she valued Lovell’s input as both a parent and former athlete.
“Donovan graduated from Cullman High School and he was a multi-sport athlete here at Cullman. He is a local business owner; he owns R.E Garrison Trucking, and he has been a parent in athletics as well, a very recent parent. That was very valuable to us. His son Owen played football and baseball here at Cullman and now Owen is playing baseball at Mississippi State, so we thought that he had a good understanding of what it takes to be competitive in high school sports. The Lovells have been active booster club members, as well, for multiple sports.”
Gary Hollingsworth was the third member of the committee, and his football experience, parental experience and academic commitment were things that Hall felt brought a lot of value to the committee.
“Gary is originally from Hamilton and he played football at the University of Alabama as well. He is married to Sharon Hollingsworth, who teaches in the Cullman City School System. Gary is a resident here and a business man in the area and he has also been one of our parents. His son played baseball here and his daughter was on the swim team and did track and field. One of the other things we were looking for was parents that were focused on both academics and athletics, and Gary brings that with along with a lot of football knowledge.”
Stephens backed up those sentiments and touched on the burden that high school sports can put on parents within the program.
“Both of his (Hollingsworth’s) kids were high performing academically and athletically, so he understands the challenges it presents to parents especially in our baseball program,” Stephens said. “It’s a high-demand program and he was on the parent side of that and also had high expectations academically, and like Mrs. Hall said, he also has extensive football knowledge, so he brought a lot to the table as far as the committee was concerned.”
The faculty representative on the committee was coach Brent Patterson, who was brought because of his valuable experience running the 6A baseball program for Cullman.
“Coach Patterson represents our faculty as well as our other head coaches. He was able to provide insight into what it takes to a run a high-level, competitive 6A program. We’ve been a 6A school for a few years now and competing at this level has been a challenge in every sport because the competition is different,” Hall said. “He’s been able to provide great insight to our faculty and as a representative of our school he’s been able to speak on behalf of our teachers and coaches. That’s something we’re looking for in a head coach, being able to mesh well with other head coaches because when you are a small 6A school, you have to make it a priority to support other programs and to work with multi-sport athletes.”
Chris Henderson rounded out the search committee. Henderson, a current CHS parent, has a son playing both football and baseball. Hall said she valued the perspectives of the parents when putting the committee together and Henderson was able to bring that to the table.
“Once the season was over we added Chris Henderson. His son Hayden plays baseball and football and he’s a senior this year, so we added Chris because he was a parent that is currently in the program,” Hall said. “He’ll finish out after this year and he was really able to add the perspective of the current parents to the committee.”
Hall is confident that the administration, along with the committee, found the right person for the job.
“We ended up with over 90 applicants. We had some people that would inquire about the job, maybe choose to apply and maybe not. Like I said before we did have applicants from large schools, small schools, in state and out of state,” Hall said. “We did a lot of homework into what goes into a 6A program and maybe what are the next steps that we need to take. We got a lot of input from parents and then when we got our committee together and looked at what parents were saying, what we as a staff had to say, what our teachers and other coaches thought we needed and it was really very cohesive. Then it came to the point of looking for the person that could make those things happen for our school.”
One thing is clear. Plunkett has big shoes to fill, taking the place of longtime and much-loved coach Britton, who announced his retirement on Sept. 22, after 17 winning seasons.
“Coach Britton has never had a losing season here and there are a lot of variables that come into play when you’re looking to fill his shoes because those are really some big shoes to fill,” shared in November. “That’s why we’re trying to be very cautious in the process, to be very thorough, and you know there isn’t a surefire answer to who the right person will be. You have to have all the right pieces of the puzzle working together and Coach Britton has had a very special career and we’ve been blessed to have him and his leadership. He loves the kids; he’s very passionate about our school and our community, so finding that kind of balance will be very difficult.
“In a coach, we’re obviously looking for strong leadership skills and someone that will help us to raise young men to be strong leaders in our community. Yes, we want a great football mind, but we also want someone that is invested in Cullman and that acknowledges and respects the commitment that our teachers and other extracurricular sponsors show,” Hall said.
Said Plunkett, “The coaching profession is about leading people to success; I believe this is my strongest asset. A championship work ethic will be displayed on a daily basis and instilled in the life of each and every person (in our program).”
Plunkett is married to Allison Plunkett from Texas. The couple has two children, Maddison Jane (3) and Makenzie Brooks (1).
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