The Polk County High School sticker is back on his truck, the Wolverine T-shirts and shorts are full-time dress once again and Bruce Ollis is a happier man because of it.
“I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be,” Ollis said. “It’s an awfully good feeling.”
When Polk County begins spring football workouts on Monday, the familiar face of the school’s all-time winningest coach will once again grace the sidelines. After leaving the school in early 2014 for T.L. Hanna High in Anderson, S.C., a remarkable set of circumstances fell in place this spring to allow Ollis to return to Columbus, to rejoin the program where he won 110 games in a 12-year period, to once again don the blue and white of the Wolverines.
It’s a reunion that no one would have predicted, especially the coach who has spent more than three decades in the profession. But no one is more grateful that it happened than Ollis.
“Polk County feels like home,” he said. “All three of my sons graduated from here and we still own a home here. It’s like I never left, to a certain degree. I’ve still been connected to the coaches and to the community.
“A lot of people have said welcome back. But a lot of people have said welcome home. That’s how I feel.”
That appreciation is at the heart of Ollis’ return. He certainly could have remained at T.L. Hanna, where he rebounded from a 1-10 season in his first year to win 14 games the next two, including a pair of region runner-up finishes, against a schedule packed with some of South Carolina’s top programs. The Yellow Jackets reached the second round of the state 4A playoffs in 2015 and suffered a tough 24-20 opening-round loss to Hillcrest in the 5A playoffs in 2016.
T.L. Hanna built a state-of-the-art weight room during Ollis’ tenure. Division I coaches routinely dropped by to scout players. Ollis was one of the highest-paid coaches in the state and had the chance to work with close friend John Cann, the school’s athletic director, as well as former college classmate Thomas Wilson, the district’s superintendent.
But Ollis never found the same level of satisfaction in the job, despite its many perks, that he found at Polk County. That, ultimately, led to his decision to leave the Yellow Jacket program.
“I took a leap of faith,” Ollis said. “I wasn’t pressured to step down. I wasn’t told they were going to make a change. I made a decision that was somewhat of a gut feeling. In the big scheme of things, for lack of a better word, I wasn’t real fulfilled with the job.
“I had an incredible opportunity to be at Hanna. . . But you can’t place a value on happiness, and this is the place where Jane (his wife) and I were happiest. To have the chance to come back here is amazing.”
The opportunity wouldn’t have presented itself without the unheard-of decision by longtime Polk County coach Jamie Thompson to ask Ollis to return. Ollis’ defensive coordinator for nearly all of his 12-year run, Thompson took over head coaching duties when Ollis left, played for a conference championship his first year and led the Wolverines to the state 2A playoffs in each of his three seasons. As with Ollis at T.L. Hanna, no one asked Thompson to step aside, no one suggested he might soon be replaced.
But with three kids, all active in scholastic and youth sports, Thompson made a decision he felt was best for his family and for the football program upon hearing of Ollis’ resignation.
“Jamie called me a couple of days after (his resignation) hit the papers,” Ollis said. “He said, ‘Do you want to come back to Polk County?’ I asked him what he meant. He said, ‘You come back and be the head coach and I’ll come back and be the defensive coordinator.
“Jamie’s lack of ego and wanting what’s best for the football program is the reason we’re having this conversation. This football program isn’t broken. We’re looking to improve the win-loss percentage, but the kids have been working hard, and there are good athletes here. I feel like we can raise it back to where it was in terms of wins and losses.”
Fueling that optimism is the success that Ollis and Thompson previously had from 2002-2013, a partnership rooted in football knowledge as well as hard work. Polk County coaches meet on Sundays during the season to review film and prepare for the next opponent. Thompson used to arrive hours early for those sessions, he and Ollis preparing together to help shorten the time required for other coaches.
“Jane used to call him my football wife,” Ollis said. “Just the camaraderie and the relationship is the best I’ve ever had with a coach.
“Jamie is the best defensive coordinator I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with a lot of incredible people. We make a pretty good team.”
And now, that team is back together, with the same goals they had in their initial run.
“My goals are always the same as a head football coach,” Ollis said. “Winning the conference is a big deal. We did it five times and we got to hang a banner every time. That’s fun.
“After that, we want to have an opportunity to play for a state title, no bones about it. We’ve had teams here that were capable of being in that position and I feel like we can get to that position again. As Casey Kasem used to always say, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
Ollis says his family, including Polk County graduate-sons Jim, Austin and Jordan, are nearly as excited about the return as he is. He and his wife have already talked about where they might like to build a retirement home in the county.
After stepping away for bright lights of Upstate South Carolina football, Ollis is back where he wants to be.
And with a message for Wolverine Nation.
“I’m here to stay,” he said. “I guaran-dadgum-tee-you.”