Bruce Ollis: ‘I’ll always be a Wolverine, there’s no doubt’
Bruce Ollis stood at one of those dadgum life-changing crossroads with a decision to make.
He was a football coach in need of a job, and Dublin City School District in central Georgia seemed like it might be that opportunity. His good friend Lemont Jones, whom he both coached and coached with and was already at Dublin, called and told him about the opening. Said he should drive down from his South Carolina home right away and apply. So Ollis did, and he wound up meeting the principal and superintendent and darn near half the town.
But Dublin took its time deciding next steps, and that left Ollis in a bind. He also had a head coaching offer in hand from a small school district in Western North Carolina and a deadline approaching to respond. He needed an answer from Dublin, but none was forthcoming. So he thanked school officials for their time, politely removed his name from consideration and decided he, wife Jane and their four kids were moving north.
And Polk County High School had a new football coach.
What would the fortunes of Polk County’s football program have been had Dublin officials decided to hire Ollis? How would Ollis’ career unfolded had he not come to Polk County? To borrow one of Ollis’ favorite sayings, and he’s got quite a few, “if its and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.”
What is certain is that Ollis and Polk County made for a pretty good marriage. Eighteen seasons. Six conference championships. 150 victories. Head coach for well more than half the games in school history and owner of almost two-thirds of the Wolverines’ all-time wins.
All those numbers mean much. But perhaps the most important thing to come from Ollis’ tenure – which ended with his resignation in November in advance of his planned retirement in June – isn’t measured in wins and losses, players sent to college careers or championship banners hanging in the field house, but just this: In those 18 seasons the Polk County football program formed an identity while Ollis found much more than a job.
“I feel like even though I wasn’t born and bred here, or raised here, this is home to me,” Ollis said, voice cracking.
“Polk County is our home. I’ll always be a Wolverine, there’s no doubt.”
Go back to the beginning and you can see that perhaps Bruce Ollis’ life could have unfolded no other way.
Athletics were a constant in the Ollis household. Jim Ollis – Big Jim, most called him – played football at Appalachian State well enough to be enshrined in the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame, then had a brief professional career for the semi-pro Atlanta Rebels. Playing days over, he first became a high school football coach, then a college coach of multiple sports at St. Andrews in Laurinburg. Mary Kay Ollis started girls golf and track programs at Scotland County High School and helped coach basketball as well.
So when their son finished his own playing career at Presbyterian College, determining a post-graduate career path wasn’t a difficult decision.
“The seed was planted pretty early,” Ollis said. “I never was pushed in that direction. When I was 12 years old, I was going to play professional football. Most kids idolized Johnny Unitas and used to watch the Baltimore Colts and lived and died with with their win or their loss. That’s what I wanted to do.
“But then I was smart enough to realize, having the opportunity to play college football for Presbyterian, that the need for six-foot, 230-pound offensive guards probably wasn’t too high in the National Football League. I thought the next best thing to stay involved with football was to be a coach. Both of my parents were educators. So it was kind of in the blood, and that connection to the sport motivated me to become a teacher and a coach.
“And coaching is teaching.”
And thus began a 43-year odyssey, first as an assistant coach at Laurens High School in South Carolina, then as an assistant coach at Lenoir-Rhyne. Ollis served as strength coach, offensive line coach and offensive coordinator while at Lenoir-Rhyne, growing knowledge in three areas that would be foundations of his head coaching career.
Ollis also briefly filled in as the Bears’ head baseball coach – “please don’t share my record,” he says with a laugh. He also encountered a senior football player in Jones who would be a recurring part of his coaching life.
“He was very adamant about the little things, and he was one of the younger coaches on the staff,” said Jones, now the head boys basketball coach at Polk County. “He is the same detailed guy now as he was back then.”
That attention to the little things helped Ollis land his first head coaching job at the age of 29, taking over the program in Butler, Ga. He brought Jones in as an assistant coach. He inherited a roster that included future Georgia Tech standout Michael Williams. He took the Bulldogs on the road to face rival Hephzibah in the 1987 season opener.
First drive of the game, Butler marches 62 yards in three plays, scores, takes a 7-0 lead. Stayed that way until the end of the night thanks to two good defenses and bad weather.
The new coach learned a few things.
“We go out there and bang, bang, bang, touchdown. I’m thinking, man, this is pretty easy stuff,” Ollis said. “And then it poured rain.
“As a result of that, as my first head football job with the game plan in my hand, I started laminating my game plan every game after that. Being a young coach, it was all in my brain, so I didn’t panic. But I started laminating that and having my go-for-two thing on the back, how much time you can run out if they’ve got one timeout and there’s two minutes left, those kind of things.
“I felt like I was prepared, I really did. I’d been at the program at Laurens and we won a state title. Buddy Jennings was a tremendous mentor. I can remember in my first year at Butler, I basically installed everything we did there. Offense, defense, special teams, same terminology, and we won 11 games that first few year at Butler and were region champions. Played (future Heisman Trophy winner) Charlie Ward in the South Georgia semifinals and Charlie got the best of us. But it was a lot of fun. We had some great players.”
Ollis coached five seasons at Butler, then six at Lee County High in Sanford, then four at Crescent High in Iva, S.C. The Anderson County District Three Board of Trustees decided late in that fourth season at Crescent, despite three straight playoff appearances, to relieve Ollis of his coaching duties.
In hindsight, perhaps that was the best thing that could have happened to Ollis, starting him traveling on a journey that would end in Polk County.
2004 season at R-S Central. Late in the game we were up by less than a touchdown when R-S threw the ball down field on fourth down. Justin Jackson, who has the record for most interceptions in a season and career, went to pick the ball off instead of just knocking it down. The ball deflected off his hands and into the hands of an R-S receiver who raced down the field for the go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute to go. Bruce pulled the kickoff return team together and told the group “Hey, men, they might screw up here and kick it to the fastest man in America (Daniel McEntyre). We are going to run our cross middle return here. If they kick it to him we are going to score and win this game.” Over the headset he asked me “surely they are not going to kick it deep here?” I said, you never know, people do dumb stuff all the time. They lined and kicked deep, where D-Mac caught it around the 5-yard line. Bruce starts repeating “They just kicked to the fastest man in America” over and over again. The R-S cover team parted like the Red Sea and Daniel bolted right down the middle of the field for the winning touchdown as Bruce repeated the same line louder and louder as he ran.
— Jamie Thompson
Polk County football wasn’t exactly broken in late spring of 2002.
Dennis Stokes won 20 games in his first three seasons. Marshall Seay won 22 in five years. Despite playing in the tough Smoky Mountain Conference, Jeff Wilson improved the program in each of his first four seasons until a rough 1-10 campaign in 2001.
The Wolverines, though, had no conference titles and just two playoff wins in their first 13 seasons. Room for improvement certainly existed.
Then Wilson decided to step down as football coach and become athletic director, leaving Polk County looking for a head coach at the same time that Bruce Ollis was looking for a program to coach.
Ollis was intrigued by the opportunity from the time he first met with school and district officials. “I was really impressed with Jeff Wilson and Bill Miller and Susan McHugh and their want to have good football,” he said.
Dublin’s lure of higher pay and better facilities also certainly piqued Ollis’ interest. But they who hesitated lost; Ollis said yes to Polk County and arrived in Columbus to a roster full of sophomores and freshmen and just four returning starters. It made for a bumpy first season – five straight losses to open, his first win at Polk County (26-16 over Cherryville), a 1-4 finish to close the campaign at 2-9.
But that young roster had names that Wolverine faithful still fondly recall – Gossenreiter, Singogo, Tackett, Covil, Edney, McEntyre. And, of course, Jim Ollis, the first of three Ollis sons to wear Wolverine colors and without doubt one of the best all-around players in the program’s history.
“I remember people telling me, they just hired you because of your sons. I said, that’s not a bad thing,” Ollis said. “I always played it to my advantage. I said, to me, that’s a plus. They’re going to help me win a few football games. They wrestled pretty well. They’re pretty good baseball players, could run track if you need to.”
Jim Ollis did everything well in 2003. So did the rest of the Wolverines – Polk County opened the season with 10 straight wins before the toughest week of Ollis’ tenure, beginning with the death of Big Jim Ollis on Monday and the first loss of the season to Hendersonville on Friday. Polk County finished the season with a 11-2 record, the most wins ever by a Wolverine squad, then repeated that record a year later.
It would be the start of 11 straight seasons with eight or more wins, the Polk County program becoming a model of consistency and the envy of many. All-state players. Shrine Bowlers. Conference titles. Playoff wins.
And then, Ollis decided to leave it.
In Bruce’s younger years, he was a lot more rigid than he is now. We had to find another game for some reason, so we played a Saturday afternoon game at Camden Military Academy. This was a three-hour trip, so we took a chartered bus. It was 90-something degrees. We go out for pre-game warmups and Bruce notices that several players were not wearing our game-issued high white socks, but were instead wearing short ankle socks, Fired up, he tells the whole team that players not wearing the high socks would not play. This sent all the assistant coaches into panic mode. Some of the players wearing the short socks included Daniel McEntyre, Micheal Gossenreiter, Stewart Davis, Justin Jackson, Ken Tackett, Jarvis Garrett and Justin Covil. For some reason I had a couple pairs of long white socks in my bags, but we needed more. Chris Mintz got a hold of somebody who picked up enough pairs. We went on to win that day.
— Jamie Thompson
One day, not long after the 2013 football season, Bruce Ollis faced another of those dadgum life-changing decisions.
Tom Wilson, a former Presbyterian teammate who had become superintendent of Anderson School District Five in South Carolina, called and asked Ollis if he might be interested in returning to the Palmetto State to coach at either of the district’s high schools, Westside or T.L. Hanna.
“Right off, I said, Tommy, I’m not interested. I’ve got the best job in Western North Carolina. I love my job, my family loves being here, we’ve got a beautiful home,” Ollis said. “And he said, here’s what we’re going to pay. I kind of went quiet for a minute and said, ‘You’ve got my attention.’ “
Ollis eventually decided to take over the T.L. Hanna program, lured by a six-figure salary and the chance to work with longtime close friend John Cann, who left Landrum to become T.L. Hanna’s athletic director. His Hanna tenure began much like his time in Polk County – a 1-10 record in year one, then a remarkable turnaround to finish 8-5 in his second season. But after a 6-5 mark in year three, Ollis decided to step down as head coach, uncertain where he would coach next but not looking back on the move to South Carolina’s highest level of competition.
“I never regretted it one time,” he said. “I think it was it was good for me to see things like that, and be a part of kind of getting the program off the ground again.
“Not that I’m taking credit, but John Cann and I did a lot of good things there. John wound up retiring a year ago and did an incredible job. He was the state athletic director of the year a year ago and got some national recognition.”
When Ollis left Polk County, longtime assistant coach Jamie Thompson took over the program. Ollis has often said that outside of his immediate family, he is closer to no one than Thompson, and that unique relationship led to one of the more unusual and unforseen events in any school’s football history – Thompson began talking to Ollis about returning to Polk, and the two finally agreed that Ollis would return as head coach and Thompson would resume his duties as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.
The decision was announced March 13, 2017, rocking North Carolina high school football.
The Ollis-Thompson pairing would resume where it left off, with Polk going 8-5 in 2017. A 5-9 record in 2018 snapped the run of eight-win seasons, but that team put together a playoff run and reached the final eight in the state. The Wolverines reeled off three straight winning seasons, including an appearance in the 1A West Regional final, before a 5-6 record in 2022.
“Having the opportunity to come back here was was a godsend,” Ollis said. “It was like coming back home. A lot of people would even say that. Some people would say welcome back, and then other people would say welcome home. That made me feel good, and it’s good to finish here.”
Jones helped coach football with Ollis shortly after his return, providing a unique opportunity to see how the veteran coach changed from career start to finish.
“He’s chilled out a little bit and trusts people more, but he’s still a putting in the hours kind of guy,” Jones said. “He’s still hard-working, hard-nosed, not going to give up on anything. He’s probably one of the hardest workers that I’ve ever been around.
“As far as building a program from top to bottom and sustaining it, he’s probably the best. I’ve seen some state championship coaches that Bruce would stand right next to. This place is going to change without him. It doesn’t matter about the wins and losses. It’s going to change the landscape.”
A year removed from the upset victory we had pulled off against Tuscola at “The Little Big House,” we found ourselves tied with the Mountaineers with less than two minutes to go with the ball near midfield. Tuscola was loading the box to stop Andre Overholt, the same player who ran all over them from the quarterback position the year before. They jumped out of zone coverage and went man, and I made Bruce aware of the situation. At the same time, the sideline official said to Bruce, “Did you know Donnie (Kiefer, the head coach at Tuscola) said they were not going to play overtime?” To which Bruce responded “I do now.” Then Bruce called Right 49 Naked A Wheel, which meant a linebacker had to cover Joel Booker. After he made the call, he looked at the official and said “We’re not going to need overtime.” When Joel caught the ball and raced to the end zone, no one ever got within 15 yards of him.
— Jamie Thompson
If Jane Ollis doesn’t decide to retire, perhaps Bruce Ollis is busy right now planning for Polk County’s 2023 football season.
He still, after all, had not reached his self-imposed criteria for retirement – being unable to demonstrate blocking and tackling and throwing and other drills. No problem with any of that.
But watching his wife be able to leave as desired to see kids and grandkids, that left an impression, especially on a man who has come to enjoy being called Grandaddy O as much as being called Coach.
“We have an opportunity to go see the grandchildren. We’ve got four, and none of them are close,” Ollis said. “The Nashville one is decently close, but then we’ve got three up in Connecticut. And then my two younger sons, Jordan and Austin, are out in L.A. So the family time was a lot of texting and Face Time rather than face-to-face, and I’m looking forward to that.
“Certainly I’m looking forward to spending more time with grandchildren and with Jane and traveling. She loves to travel, and she’s kind of put the travel bug in me. I’ve never been to Rome. I’ve never been to Paris. I can see those things happening.”
Ollis largely decided last summer that the 2022 season would end his Polk County tenure, and he wasted no time affirming that decision not long after the Wolverines’ playoff loss at Maiden.
“I gave this some consideration during the summer, but it never affected my work ethic,” Ollis said. “My wife and I talked about it and I actually even discussed it with (superintendent Aaron Greene). We thought, well, this, this and this will happen if you make that call.
“My major focus, and making the decision as early as I did, is to get someone in here, get somebody hired quickly, have him much prior to spring football. I think that my best interest for Polk County football had a lot to do with that. I certainly want it to continue to be a productive thing that people want to be involved with.”
While the program has been productive for quite some time, it’s not the on-field results of which Ollis is most proud. The 237 total victories, 150 of those at Polk, are absolutely memories he will cherish, but the things to which he will point with the most pride are achievements away from the playing field.
“The thing that sticks with me is that the longer I was in coaching, the more I realized that we were supposed to take boys and turn them into young men,” Ollis said. “And I think we did a good job. And if you’re doing that, you’re going to win your share of games. That’s the way I’ve always felt, that if kids are saying yes sir and no sir and they’re being mannerly, they’re working hard when you’re not looking.
“We told them that most of the time, you’re going to be away from us, and and you’re going to be put into positions where you have to make a choice. And, hopefully, because of your association with your teammates and this football program and these coaches, you’ll make the right decision. Those are the kind of things that make me happy.”
The deepest source of Ollis’ happiness, though, remains his family. They sit at the heart of his decision to retire, they fill many of his conversations with friends. He beams as he talks about the work his daughter, Lauren, is doing as an event planner based in Nashville as well as the careers each of his sons has fashioned. Coaching that trio remains Ollis’ most precious athletic memory.
“I was gone a lot. I don’t know that I made up for it during that time, but there’s not many jobs where you can go and be with your sons,” he said. “Being with them in fourth period lifting and then at practice and then at ball games and bus rides and everything in between.
“After that, the boys went to the Air Force Academy, and then Jordan finishes up at Brevard College, and we’ve kind of had a pipeline there since. You know, we’ve got a kid there now, Mitchell Yoder, who has done very well. It opened up some doors for football players here, and that was the high point of my career.”
At Ollis’ side at every coaching stop has been Jane; the two met at Presbyterian College and have been married since 1981. Jane Ollis is currently serving as a substitute at Polk County High through the end of this school year, and Ollis says “it’s kind of neat that we’re going to finish together and maybe walk out the door together that last day.”
Ollis often jokes, though, that he may have seen Thompson as much or more than his wife during his time in Polk County.
“The one constant in all this, it’s been Jamie Thompson,” he said. “Jamie’s been with me for all of these good times, and the bad times and the tough times. He’s been my right-hand man and always been the most loyal person I’ve ever worked with. He was the head coach while I was gone, so he had that experience. And when I came back, I even gave him more responsibility. I don’t know if he was happy about that or not.
“I always say that Jane has been like an assistant coach. She’s taking pictures and putting them on Facebook. Parents love that. She’d take four or five hundred pictures at a game. Fixing meals for us here at home games, helping with the cheerleaders. We’ve kind of been a team, there’s no doubt about that. She never called any plays or designed any coverages or fronts or stunts, but she was right there with me. And she’s made all those moves that I’ve made as a coach without ever failing or saying no, wait a minute. She always packed the bag and jumped in there and was willing to go.”
Those packed bags will now be for vacations, though Ollis isn’t ruling out doing some coaching on visits to California, where Jordan Ollis serves as head football coach at Chadwick Academy, with Austin Ollis one of the team’s assistant coaches. That will help scratch the itch formed during a lifetime of coaching and decision-making, including the big one that proved to be the most pivotal in Polk County’s football history.
“It is an unusual feeling to know you won’t be a head coach again come next August when things crank up full tilt, but I’m at peace with it,” Ollis said. “I’ve been blessed more than most, and I know that.
“I hope I’ve got a lot more years on this Earth, and I get to see the fruits of my labor, so to speak, and see these young men go on and have their own families and maybe become coaches and productive members of society. My pride gushes over when I look and see what young men have done after football here. I think that means we’ve had a positive impact on them.”
No dadgum doubt.