BY COREY CUSICK THE TIMES-GEORGIAN
Michael Cleek is getting the band back together.
When the Carrollton High School head wrestling coach recently found himself with a vacancy on his staff following the retirement of veteran assistant Jeff Sharp, he immediately drew up a short list of highly-qualified candidates to bring to CHS Principal David Brooks and Carrollton City Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Albertus.
Cleek considered the possibility of landing a former fellow assistant as somewhat of a long shot given his rise in the coaching ranks upon becoming one of the top wrestling names in the state of Georgia.
But Nick White not only entertained the notion, he suddenly embraced the vision of coming on board and developing a new "dynamic" to the Trojan coaching staff as the assistant head coach.
A former Bremen standout who learned under the tutelage of Blue Devil coaching legend Tony Armas during his prep days, White spent the past three years as the head coach at Haralson County High School. It was a program he started from scratch and built into a Class AAA power in a short matter of time, highlighted by a top-10 finish in Macon this year and the Rebels' first individual state finalist.
On the outside looking in, White understands it may have some folks scratching their head, but he feels it's all part of a fresh philosophy on building an elite program.
"I wouldn't leave to make a step-down move. I know it sounds crazy to a lot of people, but I really feel like we're going to set the standard for this. The new way to coach high school wrestling is going to be as a team," White said. "I like the word, 'Dynamic,' to be a dynamic team. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses and I feel like our strengths absolutely complement each other."
Cleek and White, both of whom are former Times-Georgian All-Area Coach of the Year selections, previously joined forces in building Mount Zion into a household name on the Class A landscape several years ago, and the Trojan head man was elated to rekindle the relationship in what he considers an incredible hire for Carrollton.
"This is a relationship that goes back years. We've coached with each other, we've coached against each other. You see the character of a person when you face adversity and we've been in the heat of battle beside each other and the heat of battle against each other," Cleek said. "Through it all, we've always been respectful to each other. We've always had each others' respect, and that's huge."
Cleek was also appreciative of the Carrollton administration for allowing him to seek out such a high-level individual, although he expected nothing less from a first-class operation.
"They were good enough to me to say, 'Go get the guys that you can work with,' and that's what they did. So they trusted me that much. I can trust them to do the background checks," Cleek said. "I'm not going to hire somebody and they're not going to let me hire somebody that's not quality."
White, too, was thoroughly impressed by how the Carrollton brass rolled out the red carpet for him during the courting process.
"I got a phone call and I was fortunate enough to sit down with all the major players at Carrollton High School and they pulled out all the stops," White said. "I walked in for my interview and I had always heard the term, 'The Gold Standard.' When I walked in the building, I saw 'The Gold Standard.' When I sat down with Mr. Brooks, Dr. Albertus, (Athletic Director Paul) Fitz-Simons and coach Cleek, I found myself in a group of people that I felt like all thought very similar. Very high expectations, so that was a positive thing."
Of course, it still wasn't an easy decision to leave a place where he'd poured so much blood, sweat and tears into over the past three years.
White noted how grateful he was to the Haralson County administration for allowing him to, first and foremost, start the wrestling program there and build it to the level it is today.
But above all, the toughest part of leaving was saying good-bye to his wrestlers and the Rebel wrestling family.
"Coaching is 90 percent relationships, if not 100 percent relationships. I've got some very, very good relationships with those kids and those parents. I can tell you that it is a true wrestling family there," White said. "A lot of people use the term community or whatnot, but it truly is a family. They're brothers. They sit with each other, they eat with each other, they hang out with each other. That's probably what I'm most proud about in the three years. Finishing ninth (at state) was awesome, having a state finalist was awesome, putting four kids into college. Those are all awesome things. But the fact that they sit together, they eat together and they spend their weekends together, that's probably what I'm most proud about.
"So, yeah, it was very difficult. I can tell you I cried more in that week than most grown men do in a lifetime. It was very, very tough. It seemed like every day they would just kind of open the floodgates up. I know it's not very manly to talk about, but it was a very, very tough decision. Me and my wife knew that this was an opportunity for our family, too. We prayed about it, we thought about it and we thought this was the right decision to move on."
While he is excited to bring White on board, Cleek also paid homage to his former assistant and what he meant to Carrollton wrestling for so many years.
"Jeff Sharp is irreplaceable. He has been the glue that's held this program together for over 10 years. He's been through three head coaches and he's one of the best mat coaches I've ever seen in my experience as a wrestling coach," Cleek said. "Coach White and I are going to do our best to fill the shoes that he's vacating."
One of the first orders of business under the new-look regime is restarting the USA Wrestling program in Carrollton that originated under Cliff and John Harris, along with Eric Lujan.
White will spearhead that initiative and Cleek said reaching out to the area's youth will help Carrollton in the long run.
"Since I've been here I've really focused on trying to build our numbers up in our middle school and our junior high and we've done that. Now the next level to get that feeder program even more enhanced, we're going to restart the USA program and we're going to bring in younger kids and we're going to make it where these kids, as they do in the rec department that supports football and basketball and track, they have an outlet for the younger kids to get better and move up in our program," Cleek said.
The USA Wrestling program will get up and running this summer with a two-day camp in mid-July for ages 4-12 that White will operate, along with the rest of the CHS staff and varsity wrestlers.
"That's kind of a good way to kick off letting everyone know that Carrollton USA Wrestling is back. It's not going anywhere. We're going to keep growing," White said.
Another exciting event on tap is a Penn State Wrestling Camp that Carrollton will host at the University of West Georgia during the first week of June, where Nittany Lion head coach Cael Sanderson will be on hand to help lead the instruction. Sanderson has won seven of the last eight NCAA national championships at PSU.
It marks the start of a busy summer slate for Trojan wrestling, and Cleek believes White, who also led the second-largest FCA program in the state of Georgia during his time at Haralson County, will be the man to help carry Carrollton over the top.
"You need a good staff. You need a guy to run the team, you need a guy to run the matwork, you need a guy to run the conditioning," Cleek said. "In order to be a successful team, if you look at the Gilmers, you look at the Jeffersons, you look at the Alexanders, they have put in place a staff. Much like we have in football at Carrollton is what we're trying to accomplish and we're getting there. I'm so excited about what we're doing and the support the administration has given us in this process to build something.
"We're going to start climbing that ladder again. We've made strides. We've climbed it a little bit and we've climbed it a little bit more. Now to get on up that ladder, these are the steps that have to be taken."