PELL CITY, Ala. (WIAT) — Sitting in his office in Pell City, Rush Propst is surrounded by reminders of his long and sometimes-controversial career.

But instead of talking about these things, from his State Coach of the Year Award by the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association to a plaque marking his tenure with the Hoover Buccaneers, Propst is getting ready to embark on a new journey. It’s a journey that has involved a few sleepless nights lately as he gets ready for the Pell City Panthers’ opening game of the season Friday night against the Moody Devils, his first game in three years.

For Propst, whose time with the Buccaneers put him on the map as one of the most exciting coaches in high school football, his new job is about trying to turn things around for the Panthers, who finished last season 1-9 and gave up over 50 points in five of its first six games.

Propst knows it won’t be easy and that it’ll take one day at a time.

“We’re just trying to win one game and it takes time to build it,” Propst said from his office at Pell City earlier this week. “We’re opening up with three quality opponents in Moody, Leeds, Clay-Chalkville and even Center Point… We’re trying to get a defensive culture, we’re trying to create a lot of different cultures. Maybe if we can steal one of these first three and get to feeling a little bit better about ourselves, we’ll know what we’re up against.”

The Pell City Panthers during a recent practice. (Courtesy AJ Holliday)

With Propst’s return to Alabama has come memories of his many earlier successes and scandals in the state. Despite having coached for years before, Propst’s first wave of major success began in 1999 when he arrived in Hoover. Over nine years, Propst led the team to five state championships, including a four-peat. Hoover quickly gained traction as not only one of the top teams in the state, but the country, being ranked in the nation’s top-25 polls from 2003 to 2006. In 2006, Propst and the program reached a new audience with the MTV series “Two-A-Days.”

However, the end of Propst’s time at Hoover would soon follow after several allegations were made against him, including an investigation that revealed he was supporting a second family, leading Propst to resign at the end of the 2007 season.

After leaving Hoover, Propst traveled across state lines to Georgia, where he coached Colquitt County for 2008-18. In 2014, he helped the Packers win its first state title since 1994, repeating again in 2015. But mistakes and controversy continued to follow him. In 2016, he was suspended for the season for head-butting a player during a game, but appealed and was given a reprimand instead. He was dismissed from Colquitt County in 2019 after it was determined that he had violated several code of ethics standards.

After a year working as a volunteer consultant for the UAB Blazers, Propst was hired at Valdosta High School in 2020, only staying with the team for a season before being placed on administrative leave following allegations that he recruited players and their families, soliciting money to pay for their living expenses. In January, Propst returned to Alabama to take the head coaching job at Pell City.

Rush Propst, center, seated with his family at a Pell City Board of Education meeting as he is named head coach of the Pell City football team. (Courtesy Taylor Kauffman)

Propst recognizes that his second go-around in Alabama has already brought a lot of attention on both him and the Panthers, but that the focus should be on the team, not him.

“I think the media is trying to make it about me and it’s not about me; it’s about our kids and I really believe that,” he said. “I know people say I’m a TV star and I’ve been controversial in certain things, but I’m trying to downplay that as best I can and make it about our kids and about our program. I want these kids to leave this program, these seniors that have worked so hard since June 5, I want them to have some success to where they can grab on to something.”

Propst said success this year isn’t as much about wins and losses, but about improving. He hopes the team can finish the season .500 with an opportunity to make the playoffs. There are several key games on the schedule, but certain region games they have circled give them a good shot at postseason play.

“We’ve got to improve each and every day,” he said. “And I think, that’s what we’re trying to instill, a professional, serious way of doing things and these kids are having to learn that process.”

Propst said that despite being in high school football for over 40 years, he’s continued to grow and learn new things. It’s a lesson he first learned in 1982 when he met Eddie Robinson, longtime coach at Grambling State, during one of Alabama head coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant’s last speeches.

“He had a notepad and he was writing and I asked him ‘What’re you writing down that you don’t already know?’ He said, ‘Son, I’m going to tell you this: in this game, until you draw your last breath, you’re going to always be learning,'” he said. “That was very impressive to me to see an older guy that had been coaching 40-plus years still jotting down notes and all that stuff, trying to continue to learn as a older football coach.”

Sign outside of the Pell City football locker room. (Courtesy AJ Holliday)

Propst admits his career has had its share of ups and downs. There are also things he wishes he could do over. However, his main focus these days is on his players at Pell City and having the opportunity to make the program better.

“The fear of losing is what drives really good coaches. It’s not the winning, it’s the fear of losing,” he said. “Have I been controversial? Yes. Are there some things I wish I wouldn’t have done? Yes. But overall, we’ve had a good career, but it’s not over. And it’s not about me, it’s about these kids at Pell City. I think I’ve made an impact at other places and I think we’ll make an impact here.”

For Propst, Pell City will likely be his last stop. And on the day that he decides to call it a day on his career, there are some things he would like to be remembered for.

“That I was innovative, that I was an outside-of-the-box thinker,” he said. “I didn’t go status quo, I always stayed on the edge, kept my team on the edge, kept my coaches on the edge. I feel like I’ve always found a way to gain an edge and that’s what’s keeping me up at night right now. These last few nights, I haven’t slept very well, because I’m trying to find every little thing I can find, to gain an edge for Friday night.”

Kickoff will start at 7 p.m. Friday in Moody.