Todd Murray played football for his father at Northwest Whitfield High School, then coached alongside him as assistants at Southeast Whitfield.
“Growing up, he had always been a mentor to me,” Murray said of his late father Don, who passed away Jan. 10. “I’ve seen him change a lot of lives.”
Now, the younger Murray will continue impacting young people’s lives — but now as a head football coach.
Murray has been hired as Southeast’s head football coach. He replaces Sean Gray, who stepped down in November 2019 to spend more time with his family. Murray has been on the Southeast football staff for the past 16 years, most recently as offensive coordinator.
While Southeast enjoyed success at times under Gray, the program has entered a rebuilding phase. The Raiders finished this past season 0-10 and 0-6 in Region 6-4A. In the upcoming season, Southeast will play a non-region schedule that includes games against Coahulla Creek, Murray County, North Murray and Northwest Whitfield. By playing a non-region schedule, Southeast will be ineligible for the playoffs.
One of Murray’s main focuses is building the football programs at feeder middle schools Eastbrook and Valley Point with a goal of increasing the number of players. Just a few years ago, Southeast had upwards of 100 players. In 2019, they ended the season with 52 players.
“We’re in a little bit of a building process,” Murray said. “We’ve had some down years as far as numbers so we’re trying to build the numbers up. One of my big focuses will be at the middle schools. We want to start getting the numbers up because you can’t expect kids to play high school ball that didn’t play middle school. We want to get them in there and start learning whatever system we decide to go with offensively and defensively.”
Southeast athletics director Mark Lentych is well aware of the challenges ahead for the program, which just two seasons ago went 7-3 and narrowly missed the playoffs.
He received about 50 applications for the position and 17 candidates were interviewed. That list was whittled to four finalists. Lentych and principal Denise Pendley discussed their options and decided Murray was the best fit for the school.
“He’s been very loyal,” Lentych said. “He’s been here through good times, through bad times and he’s worked really hard. He loves our kids, and our kids love him. He got a really warm reception when we introduced him (Wednesday) to the team. I know I’ve depended on coach Murray, I know he’s got a great football pedigree. He’s bright. His heart’s here so we know we made the right choice.”
In Gray, Murray is following one of the most successful head football coaches in Southeast history. Gray, who graduated from Southeast Whitfield in 1992 and played safety for the football team, has the most wins in school history with an overall record of 32-49. Gray’s most successful season with Southeast was in 2017 when the Raiders finished 7-3. He led the team to an appearance in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs in 2014.
That year was the program’s first non-losing season in 28 years.
“Coach Gray brought us definitely a firm foundation and some continuity with him staying here for eight years as a head coach so we want to be able to continue that,” Lentych said. “To bring someone like coach Murray in, we know that he’ll be here for a long time.”
Longevity is a goal for Southeast in their head football coach as there has much turnover at that position through the years. Murray is the 14th head football coach since the school opened in 1975. Gray played for three head coaches in four years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“We’re not a city school, we don’t have a ton of tradition so it’s important that we have someone who knows our community and has connections in our community and Todd has that,” Gray said. “He’s been here 16 years. He knows the quarterback club members, he knows momma Raider, he knows everybody that plays a big role here.”
And in Gray, who plans to remain a teacher in Whitfield County, Murray has one of his strongest supporters.
“It’s a unique situation because usually the outgoing head coach leaves on bad terms, so we’ve got a good relationship and I’m willing to help him with whatever,” Gray said. “Two years ago we went 7-3 and coach Murray’s offense scored more points than any team in Southeast history, so I’m excited about that. He’s going to do a great job. I think Todd’s the guy to get us back on track.”
Murray moved to Whitfield County in 1981 from St. Petersburg, Florida, after his father moved his family here for the Northwest head football coaching job.
The younger Murray long had an interest in being a coach because of his father’s 53 years coaching. After receiving his masters degree in athletic training from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Murray took a job as defensive line coach under Southeast head coach Chip Kell. Murray later coached linebackers, then with Gray’s arrival for the 2012 season moved to an offensive assistant and has been offensive coordinator for the past seven years.
Murray told his father before he passed away about possibly being Southeast’s head coach.
“He was excited. He told me what I needed to change and what I was doing wrong,” Murray said with a laugh.
The lessons that Murray took from his father are many, and he will apply them in his new role.
“He showed me the head coach needs to be probably the most organized person in the school,” Murray said. “You have to have everything laid out, everything ready but you also have to be flexible and be able to change with any situation. That’s one of the biggest things I took from him.”