The only thing between Sean Pender and his new job as the head Brunswick football coach is a quick ride down Ga. Highway 32 from Pierce County to the relaxed coastal town surrounded by the marshes of Glynn County. If you wish, Jekyll Island and St. Simons are a quick boat ride away. It is easy to see that the two programs and communities might as well be worlds apart.
Pierce County competes in Class AAA, and the entire county has around 19,000 residents. Brunswick is in Class AAAAAA and has 15,000 or so people in the city and approximately 80,000 in the county. Not a bad upgrade in talent-pool selection for a coach who turned around a Pierce County program nearly overnight.
Pender, who took the Brunswick job in January, is leaving Pierce County after six winning seasons and playoff appearances in each of them. Last year, after a 2-2 start, Pender led the Bears to the state quarterfinals, where they lost to Crisp County 56-21.
“Pierce County was a really good job to have, even though they were struggling when I got there,” said Pender. “I knew they had the makings to be a really good program.”
In the years before Pender arrived at Pierce, the Bears had consecutive 2-8 seasons and were not in late-season playoff form. In Pender’s first season in 2011, Pierce went 8-3 and lost to Cook County in the first round of the playoffs. Since that season, Pierce became a playoff fixture in Class AAA, advancing to the quarterfinals twice, in 2014 and 2016.
“The challenge as a coach got me to Brunswick,” he added. “Don’t get me wrong, I loved Pierce County. It is a great community, and I have nothing but good things to say. But it is AAA ball, and I had the chance to go up to AAAAAA ball.”
Pender said he previously had opportunities to move up in classifications, but this time it seemed right.
“I had a chance several years back to go to Glynn Academy, but I just didn’t feel the timing was right for me," he said. "I felt the timing was right this time around. You pray about certain situations, and certain things come up. The challenge that it presents is very, very intriguing to me in Brunswick."
For Pender and his family -- wife Dana, and four children, a change of scenery has been welcomed, and the transition to the low-country life has been smooth.
“Right now, we are in our brand-new home," he said. "I live on Blythe Island now, and I have been commuting up until a couple of days ago. But right now we are on spring break. We sold our house in Pierce County, and we are now residents of Brunswick. A day like today, where it is absolutely beautiful, I am ready to get my pole wet. I am ready to go fishing.
“I love the Brunswick area. It is a beautiful area. When we came down here, even when we were in Pierce County only 45 minutes away, we are always going to Jekyll Island and St. Simons. We figured it would be good, as a personal deal ... would be a good opportunity for us as a family.”
Pender enters Brunswick as the first white coach at the program since the 1979 season under Frank Springer.
“Brunswick has not had a white head coach since 1979, and the last time they had a white head coach, um, a lot of the players boycotted and did not play,” Pender explained. The Pirates went 0-10 that season under Springer.
“I just felt this would be an opportunity to come to Brunswick as a sign that the times are changing. You know, I am not getting the job because of the color of my skin, but based on the job that I was able to do. I am being viewed as a coach, not a white coach or black coach, which is how it should be.”
After Springer’s 0-10 season, Brunswick hired John Willis who coached from 1980 to 2001. In 1999, Willis led the Pirates to a 14-1 season and a championship-game appearance, where they lost to Lowndes 17-0.
“Coach Willis, when he took over here, it was the same thing," Pender said. "He wanted to be noted as a coach ... instead of a black coach. He thought, "you know, I am here for the kids and I am going to do a good job." I am the same way. I want to be known as a coach, not a white coach. I am here for the kids, and we want these kids to be successful.”
Pender took time Tuesday to discuss Brunswick, Pierce County, and a few other things:
Q. Tell me about the difference between Pierce and Brunswick.
A. Well, the business aspect of it, Brunswick has always had some really good athletes. I really feel you can compete for a state title here. When I was at Pierce County, I really felt that I did all I could do there. We made it to the third round a couple of years, and that’s the thing ... when I took the Pierce job, I wanted to make Pierce a perennial playoff team. Even the bad years, you make it to the playoffs, but when you have those “up” years, you can really make a run. But I just kept finding that when we got to the Elite Eight at Pierce, we were running into, if you didn’t run into them earlier, you were running into some teams that we just did not match up with athletically. We just did not have the same type of athletes at Pierce. That will not be the case in Brunswick. In Brunswick, I, we, will be able to match up with teams with our athletes. Not just region-wide, but state-wide. So that was alluring to this job.
Q. Do you have any history with the Brunswick progam?
A. Oh well, yeah. I have a lot of history with them in the summer time. It started when I first got the head job at Brantley County High School. When I first got there, Maurice Freeman was the head coach at Brunswick and Brantley was the team that went 0-20 in 2000-2001, the two seasons before I got there. They were a bad program. At Brantley County, I wanted to change their culture, which is like what I want to do now at Brunswick. I want to change their culture and get them to have a winning attitude. But what I did is, Maurice Freeman was really big on 7-on-7 in the summer. We would bring our whole team over to Brunswick, and we would compete against Maurice Freeman and Brunswick in 7-on-7. We would bring our linemen over and they would drill against their lineman. Whether it was running in the sand box or playing tug-of-war with a tire or anything. Just to compete against a higher-level competition. That built a great relationship between me and Brunswick.
Q. Tell me about your relationship with the fan base down there.
A. It is growing. Right now, of course we haven’t even entered spring ball yet, so there is a lot of curiosity. I have done a meet-and-greet. I have another one coming up soon. In these meet-and-greets, I am getting them excited about our program and what we do. The fan base that already knows, of course this isn’t the biggest area in the world, I worked and was successful in programs close to Brunswick. They are familiar with the work we do, and they have watched us, with the help of YouTube and stuff. They are excited about the style of play that we will be bringing to Brunswick. So far, the fan base has really been good. These fans are excited about what we are going to do.
Q. Is there a message to the fan base?
A. Our goal is to put a team out there to be proud of and a team that can compete for state titles. We also have programs in place that will help us out academically. We want them to be champions in life, also. That is the biggest thing I preach. We don’t want to just be champions on the ball field. We want to be champions in whatever we do, beyond football. Trying to get them to look at life a little bit differently. Don’t settle for being in one area; let the world be your oyster. Really push forward to make the best out of the opportunity they have in front of them.
Q. When a player leaves your program, what kind of skills do you want them to have. As a player and as a person?
A. You want them to have the tools to be successful. You want them to be able to look at whatever challenges they have or endeavors they have in front of them and be able to know that they have the tools needed to overcome it. We will do that by putting them through some adverse situations. We want, with today’s kids and social media and what have you, we want them to have the social skills needed, as well. Be able to look somebody in the eye when they are talking to them. Give that firm hand shake. Be productive citizens. Be good husbands and fathers. That is what we are talking about in our program when we talk about becoming champions. Be able to not just keep a job, but excel at a job. Be able to work with others. Team work. All of the stuff that you can get through football. And especially, no matter what the challenge is, think you can win. Think you have a way to beat it.