In 1981, Clinton native Jim May moved to Oneida to accept a job as head coach of the high school football program.
May made the move back to East Tennessee with his family — wife Mary Anne, and sons Jimmy and Richard. At age 12, Jimmy May was too young to be a part of his father’s first high school team at Oneida. But he was nevertheless a part of the program, joining his father as one of the team’s managers.
Exactly forty years later, the 52-year-old Jimmy May slides into his father’s old shoes as head coach of the program he has dedicated his life to. It’s not his first stint as head coach, of course. But it’s his first time as solo head coach, calling all the shots.
“There’s some nervousness,” May admitted when asked last week, as his team prepares for its season opener against Williamsburg in the Cumberland Falls Bowl this Friday. “It’s exciting. The kids have responded well to me and I’ve enjoyed being around them every day. I just love being out there with them. They work hard and that makes it fun going to practice.”
Jim May built the Oneida program into a perennial championship contender before he collapsed on the sideline and died of a heart attack during a game against Cosby in 1997. He was only 57 at the time.
By that time, Jimmy May had gone through his father’s program as a player, and had spent several years on his dad’s staff as an assistant coach. He would soon be named co-head coach of the program, spending six years at the helm along with Keith Henry.
When Jim May died, he was Oneida’s all-time winningest coach. When the school opted to move away from the co-head coach arrangement after the 2004 season, Tony Lambert left Larry Kerr’s staff at Anderson County and joined the Oneida program, where the intention was for him to eventually become head coach. He stepped into that role prior to the 2007 season. And, when he resigned earlier this year to accept a job on the staff at University of the Cumberlands, he left as Oneida’s second all-time winningest coach, behind May.
Those are tough acts to follow, May and Lambert. For the past 40 years, Oneida football has been coached by one of those two men for 28 years. They’ve amassed a lot of wins and both endeared themselves to the community. In fact, Oneida now plays its games inside Jim May Stadium.
“There’s a little bit of pressure,” Jimmy May said. “When your dad’s name is on the back of the stadium you’re in, you want to do well.”
It’s not as if May is waltzing back into the picture after having been absent for the past 15 or so years. He returned to coaching as John Brewster’s offensive coordinator a decade ago, and has spent the past nine seasons as Lambert’s offensive coordinator.
“Following Coach Lambert is not going to be an easy job,” May said. “He did a great job for so many years.”
Lambert’s Oneida teams never failed to make the playoffs, in 11 seasons. They advanced to the Class A semifinals in 2008.
Jim May’s teams were also playoff regulars. The Indians won the Class A state championship in 1992, and made it to the semifinals in 1989, 1994 and again in 1997, the season in which May died.
Jimmy May has been there for most of those wins and playoff appearances in some capacity — for every one of his dad’s wins, and as an assistant coach for all but two of Lambert’s teams.
“I wasn’t out looking to become a head coach again,” he said. “It happened, I got an opportunity, I’ve waited a long time, and I’m going to work as hard as I can to continue the success.”
Working with both his dad and Lambert has prepared him for this moment, May said.
“I got to coach with my dad for all those years and see what it was like and how to treat people,” he said. “Then I got to coach with Coach Lambert for a number of years and go through it with him and see how it goes.
“It’s a little bit of pressure,” May added. “But I’d rather be in a place where it’s like that and be in a place where there are expectations than to be in a place where they don’t expect anything out of you.”
In some aspects, May is the anti-Lambert. He’s an offensive coach, Lambert is a defensive coach. Lambert is loud and vocal with a booming voice that carries throughout the stadium even when it’s crowded, and May is much softer-spoken. He’s much less demonstrative on the sideline. May is a product of his father’s system, while Lambert is a product of the Jack Diggs system.
But there are some similarities between them, too. For starters, they’ve both spent their entire lives around high-quality football. And they both know what it takes to win at a high level, starting with their insistence that the kids come first.
In fact, May would be the last person to say that this season is about him, as the program’s new head coach. He’s spent an entire offseason preaching that this whole thing is about the name on the front of the jerseys — Oneida — and not about any individual player or coach.
“If you’ll give everything to the team and sacrifice yourself for the team, all the other stuff, the individual stuff, will come later,” he said. “Just worry about the name on the front of your jersey and play for that.”
May has spent a lot of years giving everything to the Oneida program. As the son of the man who in many ways defined the program, all roads have always led back to Oneida for May. They led back after he went to college and returned to join his father’s program as an assistant coach. And they led back after that 2004 administrative decision interrupted his coaching career.
Now, 40 years after it all began, after he first came to Oneida with his father as a 12-year-old aspiring quarterback, Jimmy May will slip into the shoes and make the program his own.
“This is a special place to be,” he said. “Not every school is like this. I’m just thankful for this opportunity and I’m ready to try to do the best job I can. The kids have been great. I just want to mold them into good young men so they can be productive in life.”