Leader of the Warhawks

Ricky Bowling, new Great Crossing High school football coach.

Although the “interim” tag was never officially attached to Paul Rains’ title as Great Crossing High School football coach, it was evident that the twice-retired leader’s role was to light the torch and briefly fan the flame before passing it to someone else.

It was also clear to anyone closely affiliated with the Warhawks that Ricky Bowling was the one being groomed for that relay. As offensive coordinator, his oversight of a switch from the spread offense to triple option seven games into GC’s inaugural season paid immediate dividends with the program’s first and only win to state.

Great Crossing administration has endorsed that exponential progress by selecting Bowling to follow Rains and become what it hopes is long-term leader of the program.

“Six years ago I had a five-year plan. I wanted to become an offensive coordinator within five years. I knew it would give me a chance to evaluate if being a head coach was something I wanted to after that,” Bowling said. “Last year I had a great opportunity with Coach Rains, the mastermind, just to be a sponge and soak it all up. It made me decide I could do it and build a program.”

Bowling, 30, is young, energetic, and a legend in the modern era of Kentucky high school football. 

Although he has apprenticed as an offensive assistant at alma mater South Laurel, Whitley County and Great Crossing, he is best known for a right arm that still keeps him near the top of every KHSAA all-time statistical category for quarterbacks.

Now he’s putting down roots in a community that knows all about football greatness, thanks to Scott County High School’s dual state championships and lengthy run of 10-win seasons.

“We think it’s somebody who could be here for a long time,” Great Crossing athletic director Austin Haywood said. “Our community has really been spoiled, if you look at guys like Jim McKee and Billy Hicks (SCHS football and former boys’ basketball coaches), not just with the number of years but the success they had. Our hope is that Ricky will be that type of guy.”

Bowling initially came to town with Jason Chappell, under whom he worked at Whitley County, when Chappell was chosen as GC’s initial head coach in January 2019.

Four months later, Chappell announced his resignation, citing the difficulty selling his house and relocating his young family. Bowling made the fateful decision to stick around and learn from Rains, an architect of more than 200 career wins, including a state title at Lexington Christian.

“We’ve talked a lot about his values, how there’s a lot more than goes into being a head coach than a coordinator,” Haywood said. “Paul really started to give him a lot of those responsibilities last year, not necessarily thinking it would be this year but maybe three or four years down the road. Ricky has already shown tremendous loyalty to Great Crossing. Even after Chappell left, he stayed and fought through a 1-9 season.”

Bowling’s decision with Rains’ blessing to retool the Warhawks’ attack in midstream led to an unforgettable 28-20 district win at Grant County.

It earned the Warhawks what seemed an unlikely playoff berth in a rugged five-team district after crushing early losses against a schedule heavy with Class 5A and 6A powers.

“That was a huge change for me. My preference is spread it out, no huddle, high tempo,” Bowling said. “We wanted to do that so badly, but it got to a point where we just had to look at our kids, and they were excellent kids, but probably our biggest struggle early on was that we didn’t know our kids well enough to help them achieve their full potential.

“Paul and I sat down during the bye week and I told him I was ready to go split back veer. We had to do something to move the football and get some first downs. Eventually we settled on triple option, which I think is a great offense for our kids and still translates into an ability to spread the field.”

Great Crossing fielded a first-year roster loaded with raw, impressionable freshman and sophomores. They had experienced substantial success at the county’s three middle schools but weren’t ready for the physical or mental challenge of the traditional Friday night lights under normal circumstances.

In addition to his development of the offense, led by quarterback Kalib Perry and fullback Kaspen Colbert, Bowling was instrumental in two crucial areas through the inaugural school year.

First and foremost was overseeing the Warhawks’ work in the weight room. Above all else, GC simply was out-sized by its opposition in year one.

“We’ve seen so many of them make huge gains,” Bowling said. “Kids are able to look in the mirrors and see some muscle developing for the first time. Strength allows you to do so many different things in football, both offensively and defensively.”

That daily work came to a screeching halt, of course, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, closing school buildings and stopping all related activities. 

Aside from texts and Zoom calls, Bowling hasn’t been able to make those day-to-day connections. He is confident, however, that players have bought into his philosophies enough to get an honest day’s work done on their own.

“I think this time has made our kids see even more how important the weight room is,” Bowling said. “It’s made them become more creative in their workouts at home.”

Having to use technology to his advantage fits in with Bowling’s other most visible project in his year as a Great Crossing               assistant.

He has developed the program’s extensive social media presence, one that includes everything from a regular “Meet the Warhawks” feature with underclassmen to a video interview with each graduating senior during the recent quarantine.

“So much more goes into head coaching now than 20 or 30 years ago,” Haywood said. “You have the social media. Every kid has his own highlight film on Hudl a few hours after every game. Ricky really understands that part of it.”

It’s all part of building a brand in a city that has been dominated by Cardinal red for two generations and counting.

“At the end of the day, kids like that ‘like’ button,” said Bowling, who also teaches special education at Great Crossing. “They enjoy that validation of people who like what they put out there. People may think that’s crazy, but it is what it is. We do what we do for the kids. If that’s what they like, then we’re going to do it.

“We want our kids to have a visible presence in the community, so we’re going to put their faces out there as much as we can. We’re here not just to teach football but develop good servant leaders in the community.”

Although he experienced bends in the road like any high school and college student, Bowling knew community service was his life’s calling.

His initial inclination was to become a minister. That aspiration led him to Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, for one year.

“I decided I missed football too much, so I ended up back at Lindsey Wilson, where I played one year,” Bowling said. “By that time I thought I wanted to become a pharmacist.”

Foreshadowing the Warhawks’ watershed win almost a decade later, Bowling quarterbacked Lindsey Wilson to the first win in school history over Pikeville in 2010.

He soon recognized that his future in the game was down a different avenue.

“A lot of people around me finally said, ‘Ricky Bowling, you are a football coach. That’s what you do.’ And I knew that was the right path and started that process,” he said.

Current players aren’t old enough to remember Bowling’s remarkable career on the gridiron, but surely they know some of his neighbors on the state’s all-time honor roll.

Bowling’s 947 pass completions remain the most ever in KHSAA football. His 133 touchdown passes are tied for second-best with none other than Tim Couch of Leslie County and University of Kentucky fame.

Only two signal-callers — Zach Lewis of Clay County and Elijah Sindelar of Caldwell County — threw for more yards than Bowling’s 12,575.

“The older I get, the more appreciative I am of those accolades,” Bowling said. “I still believe what I said when I was 17, 18 years old, which is that would trade all those numbers to have won a state championship. But looking back now, when you see your name up there with Tim Couch, that’s kind of a big deal.”

Haywood, formerly on the football staff at East Jessamine, had nightmares about Bowling long before their paths would ever cross in Georgetown.

“I think it was my second year there, he lit us up for seven touchdowns and 500 yards,” Haywood recalled. “When you’re looking at a career that broke some of Tim Couch’s records, that’s pretty amazing. I certainly knew Ricky Bowling’s name early on.”

Changes due to the coronavirus surely were more of a setback for Great Crossing than more established programs, although everyone is in the same boat of not knowing if or when their season will start or how the grid landscape will look this fall.

In a district top-heavy with Scott County and Frederick Douglass, Bowling has his eyes fixed on the big picture, anyhow.

“As a first year program, then having to deal with COVID-19, we’re really just looking to build our program and develop the culture,” he said. “Obviously we’re in a very difficult district and region. The goal right now is just to get better every day.”

There is, admittedly, another five-year plan in the back of his mind.

“I have no doubt with all the talent in this community that within the next five years, we’ll be competing for those district and region championships very soon,” Bowling said.

Such talk about the future is music to administrative ears.

“We have a lot of young kids, and he has built a great relationship with them,” Haywood sia.d “I think with everything he brings to the table, he’s a perfect fit for us.”

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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