Bob Christmas is no stranger to resurrecting football programs.
He turned around Bainbridge High and North Hall in Georgia and brought success to Jefferson Forest, twice.
But at age 66, Christmas faces perhaps the biggest challenge of his storied career — rebuilding Amherst County High from smoldering ashes during the age of the coronavirus, which has placed unprecedented and unpredictable roadblocks in front of high school programs across the United States.
“I think we really turned the corner. I know we had prior to COVID and I think we still have,” Christmas, in his second year at the school, said last week as ACHS began a 10-day hiatus from workouts so students can get settled into the new school year. Students returned to classes Wednesday with a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. “The program has definitely hit rock bottom and is on its way back. I think the future is bright. I really do.”
That much was obvious earlier this year. The program, Christmas noted, was making noticeable improvements. More than 100 players attended workouts, making strides in the weight room and learning offensive and defensive schemes that are still relatively new. Christmas and his staff — which includes his two sons, Kevin and Matt, along with longtime area coach Ed Landis — set up a program they call “Football U,” meant to educate players about the intricacies of the sport.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, erasing many of those gains. Like every other program, the Lancers had to shut things down.
Christmas, who will begin is 46th season as a coach when football returns for an abbreviated campaign in March, has never gone through anything like this. No one has. That, at least partly, is what makes playing sports during a pandemic so difficult; each school division in Virginia must navigate unknowns and numerous variables as they try to return to sports under VHSL and state-wide guidelines.
“I was talking to my [coaching] buddies in Georgia, and they open up tomorrow,” Christmas said last Thursday, referring to that state’s opening night. “I would never have dreamed this.”
Amherst now averages around 50 to 60 players for voluntary workouts, Christmas said. The coach expects some players who were present for pre-coronavirus sessions may eventually return. Others, he said, likely will sit out the season because of concerns about the virus.
Still, there’s reason to believe the sun will soon shine again on a program that’s won just three times in the last two seasons. Former coach Cecil Phillips took ACHS to the VHSL playoffs in nine of his 10 seasons — and to the championship game twice. He left to become an offensive coordinator in Georgia prior to the 2018 season, and the division hired Trevor Porter to take his place. Porter, though, resigned two weeks prior to Amherst’s season opener after just a few weeks on the job, a move that forced assistant Jeff Crews to step into an interim role and pick up the pieces with little notice. The Lancers won one game.
Christmas took over last year, following a five-year stint at JF, and ACHS won twice.
Don’t be surprised, though, if things start to look different.
“I think our kids are super resilient,” Amherst athletic director Robert Curd said. “I think what they see is the love for the game that Bob has; not only that but the passion he has for them as individuals. He’s working hard, as we all are, to develop good athletes but also to develop good people of high character. The kids see his commitment to them and to the program, and I think that helps them in their progression.”
Now, Amherst features a veteran lineup after losing just a handful of players to graduation in 2019. Quarterback CJ Rose is back for his senior year. A stable of backs and a couple top-notch receivers should give the Lancers multiple offensive options. Most linemen return, too. And Christmas is excited about new additions: The rising ninth grade class, which led the JV squad to an undefeated season last fall.
Building and rebranding teams has always been the coach’s forte. That much was obvious in his first tenure at JF, a nine-year stint that began in 1988 after the Cavaliers went 0-10 the year prior and included back-to-back state championships. When he returned as head coach following 2013’s four-win season, Christmas got right to work instilling the wishbone again, and won 24 times in two years.
Now he sits at 281 career victories, a stat he prefers not to focus on.
“Last year didn’t help any,” he said with a laugh about his record. “That JF team I had coming back [in 2019], we probably could have made a run. But I’ve never really worried about that kind of stuff. Every program I’ve taken over — the first time at JF they had been 0-10 the year before and it was the same way at North Hall and Bainbridge. None of that helps your record any, but that’s what I enjoy doing.
“I’ve honestly never really thought much of my record, just enjoy building programs. That’s why I’m so excited about Amherst. We took our lumps last year but we made progress.”
Practice resumes late next week for the group Christmas said is itching to compete. The new season — assuming it takes place — will be unlike any other in VHSL history. But just as he has throughout his career, Christmas won’t shrink from the challenge.
“I still enjoy the strategy end of it,” he said. “But what you really enjoy is seeing young men change. Seeing them not only develop as players — and I enjoy that — but I think football is one of the greatest tools in the world to develop young men, and I really enjoy the process of seeing these guys develop into quality men. It’s the relationships that keep me going.”
Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter
Sent weekly directly to your inbox!