HOOVER, Ala. (WIAT) — The past four years have been rough for the Spain Park football team. The Jaguars haven’t had a winning season since the 2017-18 year. But with a new face at head coach, the Jags look to change their fortunes.
Tim Vakakes, spent his first nine years as a head football coach at Jackson-Olin High School in Birmingham. Vakakes compiled a record of 49-45 with three playoff appearances during his time at J.O. and in 2018 the Mustangs went 10-1.
Last year, Spain Park finished 2-8, marking the worst record in program history. Vakakes looks forward to the challenge of playing in a tough region such as 7A.
“I think it’s going to be fun to have the environments, you know, whether it’s a home game or an away game. The environment, the passion that comes with this region, I mean it’s second to none and I’m looking forward to that. Obviously, it’s going to be tough you know, and we’ll see where we stand,” Vakakes said. “I think we’ll compete, I think the way our kids have trained and the way we’re starting to wire ourselves, I don’t think we’ll be scared of anybody. We may not win every game, but it’s not going to be because we feel less than, we feel like we’re not as good, that’s out the window. We train too hard to feel like that with anybody.”
Coming to play in a region like 7A has its own difficulties, especially when you have to play teams like Thompson that are coming off three-straight state championships. But it was a challenge in itself for Vakakes to pack his things and leave J.O. to join the Jags.
“Anytime somebody asks me I tell them, I don’t think people realize how hard it was for me to leave. I mean, I tried to talk myself out of it, you know we did a lot there. The community, our kids, our parents, families, they succeeded and they did a lot of stuff that a lot of people said is not usually done there. All-Americans, playoffs, a lot of good stuff, so it was hard,” said Vakakes.
Vakakes says the main aspect that made him commit to coaching the Jaguars was the community’s focus on what’s best for the players.
“I think that any time you get to come to a place like this where, from the mayor, the superintendent, all of the upper admins, our principal, our AD, the teachers, when everybody from top-down is aligned and everybody wants what’s best for the kids, you have to take that serious… whatever needs to get done, it gets done, if it’s best for the kids. It wasn’t the prestige, it wasn’t the money, that’s not who I am. It’s the chance to compete at the highest level, when you can prepare the kids as much as the team across is prepared. And I think sometimes in the past, it’s like we hadn’t actually been playing with a full-deck in terms of the structure. So a lot of that went into making that change,” he added.
When playing in a region full of outstanding athletes, sometimes it’s the little things that can separate two teams. Vakakes is trying to instill a level of toughness into his team and being in the weight room can play a pivotal role.
“We’re going to work. We’re not going to be pretty, we’re not going to compare ourselves to other people, we’re going to work. We’re going to get in the weight room and we’re going to be in the weight room heavily. We’re going to train like a heavy-weight, I think that breeds tough teams,” said Vakakes. “In this region, you’re not going to out-athlete everybody because there are a lot really good players, a lot of really good coaches. You’re not going to out-scheme, not going to trick, there’s going to come a point in time where you just got to be physical and tough and you got to be able to fight and that’s kind of how we’re going to try to do this thing.”
The Jags had one of its best seasons in program history in 2015. They finished 12-2, defeated in-state rival Hoover twice, but in the end, the job was never finished as Spain Park was defeated by McGill-Toolen in the state championship. Since then, things haven’t been the best for Spain Park. They haven’t finished with a record better than .500 since 2017, and even then, it was only 6-5. Vakakes knows it won’t be easy to get the Jags back to the top.
“I don’t know if I’m the guy that can make a cup of coffee the right way, so I’m not going to sit here and say I’m just going to win a championship. But, I promise you we’re going to work everyday to do it. You know, they’ve gone to the finals here twice, they’ve gone to the semis two other times, so it’s worked here,” Vakakes said. “We’ve got a lot of guys on our staff who were here when Spain Park was working. So we’re just trying to get back to that, be hard-nosed, tough, physical play with passion, play for each other.”
“This day of age, there’s so many things out there that are just turning kids into individuals, that it’s so important to make our kids play for each other. You know, I got a lot of respect for these seniors and I told them the first day that I met them, I got a lot of respect for them because they’re still here. A lot of kids left and these days when things don’t go good, everybody’s leaving and jumping ship and these kids stayed together. So we owe it to them to make sure they go out the right way,” he added.
Shawn Raney was the head coach of the Jaguars for the past nine seasons, finishing with a 54-43 record during his time. He was the longest-tenured and winningest coach in program history. Vakakes appreciates everything he did for the program and for the impact he left on the team.
“He’s a good friend of mine. He’s a good guy, good person you know, so there’s no animosity there. I walked into a culture where these kids knew how to work. So it wasn’t like they weren’t working, they knew how to work. So that’s a tribute to him you know, and he’s a really good football coach. And look, life happens, doors close, others open, that’s just part of this profession. He’s a good friend of mine and he’s a really good person,” Vakakes stated.
Spain Park is set to get its season started Friday night and Vakakes has one request for his team and for the fans: believe.
“I think they just got to believe. They got to believe they can win, they got to believe they can compete. Too many times you look across the field and it’s like ‘well we’re not as big, not as strong’ that’s not going to happen. We got here back in December and we had nine or 10 kids power-clean 225 and right now we’re at 46,” Vakakes said.
“I’ll be shocked if we just totally get manhandled on any given Friday night, our kids are going to play hard. I think our people can know that our kids are going to play hard, they’re going to do it the right way, they’re going to play with passion, they’re going to play for each other, I think it’s going to be fun and hopefully we’re going to win some games in the meantime. But just set the structure and expectation of getting out there and just turning this thing into a legal street fight. Whistle to whistle be a dog, after the whistle be a man and let’s just get out there and fight. I think our people are going to see that,” he concluded.
The Jags begin their season Friday night against the Calera Eagles. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Jaguar Stadium.