Clayton Varnum was named Mike Gottman’s successor as head coach of Durant’s football team last week.
There’s one particular Bible verse that’s really resonated with Durant football coach Clayton “Claybo” Varnum lately: 1 Timothy 4:12, which reads, “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”
It’s exactly the kind of encouragement Varnum needs as he prepares for the biggest challenge of his coaching career. Less than a month after longtime head coach Mike Gottman took the same position at East Bay High School, Durant decided to promote from within and named Varnum the Cougars’ next man up at the helm.
“The overwhelming support I’ve received, the amount of folks who have said such nice things and supported me and lifted me up, it’s been overwhelming,” Varnum said.
Varnum has spent his entire coaching career with Durant, starting in 2011 as defensive line coach for the junior varsity team and working his way up to the varsity level over time. Though he has coached on both sides of the ball, Varnum is a defensive guy by nature and most recently served as co-defensive coordinator with Frank Lane.
The new head coach knows he has big shoes to fill, though. It’s hard to find a program further removed from the phrase “coaching carousel” than Durant.
“I think, for one, it’s daunting,” Varnum said. “It’s like stepping into the shoes of Earl Garcia at Hillsborough. There’s a reason coach Gottman was here as long as he was. I’m excited to take what he built and take that to the next level.”
Gottman spent 18 years in charge of the Durant football team and won more than 100 games with four district championships. The move to East Bay is actually a move back to familiar territory, as Gottman was a member of the Indians’ coaching staff from 1995 to 2002. He took the head job at Durant in 2003 and came back to his old stomping grounds to take over for Frank LaRosa, who stepped down from the head job after 10 seasons as the Indians’ head coach.
Varnum has known Gottman for 14 years and called him a “great mentor” who taught him much about what it takes to be a successful head coach. Their relationship dates back to Varnum’s own playing days for the Cougars, which began in 2007. Varnum started assisting the coaching staff in the 2010-11 season, his senior year, and joined the staff on a full-time basis right after he graduated.
“Durant didn’t have to take a chance on me and bring me back as a teacher, but they took that chance on me early on and Durant continues to pay it forward,” he said. “I give a lot to this school because I want to. I’ve given to it and it’s given to me. I want the experience I had to be times a thousand for anyone who comes through Durant High School. I want them to feel the pride I have for this place and see the high ceiling I think it has.”
When he says things like “I bleed blue and gold,” it’s not just talk. Varnum is the real deal, a born-and-bred Cougar whose family has deep roots in the area around the school. He grew up going to Durant football games well before he put on the uniform himself. There’s no place he’d rather be.
“I’m a local guy,” he said. “My mom grew up in Plant City, my dad grew up in Pinecrest and here I am in the middle of both, building what I think is the best school in our area.”
The cultural evolution of the Durant program, as Varnum hopes to guide it, is to make the program into a point of pride for everyone involved in the same vein as “old-time, rural football teams.” That means building a tight bond not only with the players, but also the community at large.
“I want build a culture where you grow up in Durant’s district, you go to Durant, you play for Durant and you come back and watch Durant after you’re done,” Varnum said.
Though his cultural philosophy has old-school roots, Varnum’s game day plans are more modern. That particularly means taking an offense known over the years for its reliance on running the ball and getting much more comfortable with airing it out.
“We’ve got to open it up more,” Varnum said. “We’ve got some good athletes here. I want to see us be more open offensively. I want to be in a spread system, get the ball to our athletes and rely on our big offensive line we have coming back… some people equate the spread with getting fancy and throwing, but we’re gonna run when we need to run and throw when we need to throw.”
It helps that Varnum already knows what kind of athletes he has to work with, and he hopes to “build enough trust with the guys we have now to where they stay on and see this thing through.”
“It’s exciting to have a room full of guys that know me and that I trust, and that we can go forward already having a relationship… God has blessed me and put me in a great position,” he said.