Building a Dynasty of Good Men

Posted on May 10, 2018 by Jay Phillips

As a freshman in college, Robert Jay Walls thought he’d be programming computers by this time in his life, instead he is programming young men.

Walls thought he might be addressed as “Dr. Walls” or “Professor Walls” with the amount of school he had to go through to become a computer programmer, instead he goes by “Coach.”

Every profession is measured by success. How many cars car salesmen sell is as important to their job as winning championships was to Phil Jackson.

Over the last few years, Navarre High School has begun measuring some of that success on their own, thanks to their current head football coach, Jay Walls.

While Walls demands hard work and dedication in the same way legends like Phil Jackson did, Walls went about building his program’s foundation in another way.

“Every year it’s a challenge to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but we get in the gym and work hard and practice hard on the field, and we see improvements,” said Walls. “I’ve actually got an acronym, ‘N.O.W’ ‘Navarre Out Works’ because that’s what we have to do.

Using that method to build a program from the bottom up was exactly what Navarre needed, and exactly what Walls delivered.

Similar to how it took Walls going through a few semesters of computer programming before he found his true calling; finding his spot as Navarre’s head coach also took a few different stops along the way.

Walls also adds assistant jobs at Valdosta State and Crestview to his resume as well as another head coaching stint in Crestview, but the biggest impact that he leaves might be on his current job.

As Navarre’s head coach, Walls has already fielded two 12-win teams in his six years, a first for Navarre, but Walls’ arrival as Navarre’s head coach wasn’t as smooth and easy as his record might imply.

In his second-to-last season coaching Navarre’s football team, Walls’s predecessor, Chad Lashley, put together a team that will be forever remembered by fans of Navarre football, due to one of the team’s starters on offense battling brain cancer throughout the year. This player, Ian Lockwood, became a symbol for never giving up his battle, and the team became known as the “Livestrong” team due to their Nike-Livestrong attire and their on-and-off-field battling.

Lashley’s team finished 11-2 that year, with their last loss coming in the state playoffs against Lincoln High School in a heartbreaking, kicking battle. With that season under wraps, there was no denying the respect and admiration that Lashley had earned from the Navarre fan base, but after a lackluster follow up season and an early departure for a new job, Navarre fans had to look elsewhere for a coach.

Many players on the team were reluctant about a new coach after everything they had gone through with Lashley but only because they hadn’t met Walls yet. In the long run, the players at Navarre have learned to love Walls even more than the fans do.

“Everyone was a little standoffish when Coach Walls first took over,” said Kevin Cohan, a former starting linebacker for Walls, who is currently working in Explosive Ordnance Disposal for the USAF. “We saw Coach Lashley as a father, but Coach Walls came in and hit the ground running.”

“He changed the culture at Navarre and made it more business-like. He made sure we had everything we needed to succeed and that all we had to do was execute,” added Cohan.

As those players executed, the wins started pouring in. On top of that, Walls and his first few teams helped set a foundation at Navarre that is still influencing the teams and players there to this day.

“I’ll always remember him telling us to ‘Do right,’” said Cohan. “He didn’t only want us to become a great team, he wanted us to become great men. At the end of the day, he wouldn’t have wanted us to win if we looked childish while doing it.”

Walls has been able to add these life-lessons and his ability to teach to his coaching arsenal and those lessons have stuck with his players, both past and present.

“Coach Walls teaching me all of that really made the transition to my new job much easier,” said Cohan, who is now working for the department of the Air Force that prides itself in being able to detect, disarm and detonate explosive threats. “Just seeing the number of negative attitudes that I’ve come across in my short time in the military shows how much of a difference a coach can make.”

That same attitude was as evident as ever last year, as Navarre steamrolled through most of its schedule, only losing one game in the regular season.

That attitude that Walls tries to impart on his players, and the lessons he tries to teach them aren’t anything that Walls is pulling out of thin air. Walls noted how large the influence his coaches growing up had on his life and said that it was one of the biggest factors that got him into coaching.

“Every successful person is doing something extra. When everyone else goes home they’re still working, doing something extra. That was always one of my coach’s things growing up, and now that’s one of our things,” said Walls.

“I’m not naive. I know there are guys that are around bad influences, but I tell them to think about what’s important now. Don’t do something now that could hurt you down the line,” said Walls. “I like try to teach them life-lessons, and things that will help them on and off the field.”

This is no secret to the fans around Navarre, or the parents of the players that Walls have coached.

“Coach Walls and his staff prepare those boys for battle every single week,” said Bill Hammel, who broadcasts Navarre’s football games and is the father of Brady Hammel, who played for Walls at Navarre. “With their preparation, Coach Walls gives them a great opportunity for success on and off the field.”

Of course, there is no issue for Walls today when it comes to winning over his teams and fans. The results speak for themselves, and the players and fans that are with Walls know exactly what to expect.

However, that first season took a little more work, but the results were about as immediate as they come.

Despite Lashley finishing with an overall record of 5-5 in his last season, many Navarre fans and players were still excited about the future of their program under Lashley due to the success of his second-to-last season, until he left town for a better paying job merely weeks after the season’s end.

Walls took that team that went 5-5 record and turned them into 12-2 playoff team the next season.

Not only did they finish 12-2, but Walls’ first team at Navarre included a state ranking of 17 and a national ranking of 254, benchmarks rarely witnessed by Navarre fans before his arrival.

As with any other coach, at any other level, who experiences immediate success, Walls received his fair share of “flash-in-the-pan” criticism, but that wasn’t the case for Walls as he is still experiencing success to this day.

Just last season, Walls won his district, went undefeated in league play, beat Navarre’s rival on the road, and made the playoffs.

In addition to that, Navarre has transformed into one of the most consistent powerhouses in the area.

In the eight years prior to Walls’s arrival, Navarre averaged a total of 5.25 wins a year, with only one of those seasons producing a team that won double-digit games.

In the six years Walls has been at Navarre, he has averaged nearly double that amount of wins (9.8) and has three times the amount of double-digit win seasons as the three coaches that preceded him did, combined.

This consistency has not only helped Walls build a name for himself and the Navarre program but has also brought a lot more scouts into the area and has given the players, and future players, of Navarre a much greater chance to succeed and get to the next level.

Less than a year ago, one of Walls’ former Navarre wide receivers, Jordan Leggett, was selected as the 150th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Leggett had a memorable college career as he helped his Clemson Tiger teams earn three trips to New Year’s Six Bowl games, two national championship game appearances and one national championship ring. In what has been dubbed as one of the best national championship games ever, Leggett caught seven passes for 95 yards as Clemson defeated Alabama 35-31 in 2016.

A game that could have easily gone another way if Walls hadn’t done his part in helping Leggett improve at Navarre and get to the next level.

This isn’t the easiest area in the world to coach in; even Walls will tell you that. Coaches have to deal with an in-and-out military presence and a somewhat small overall population.

“The youth program at Navarre is very solid.  The kids learn the Navarre system at an early age, so by the time they get to high school the learning curve is not too taxing, and I think that Coach Walls has a lot to do with,” said Hammel.

Those youth programs have helped Walls create a foundation at Navarre that doesn’t allow for anything less than success.

By getting these young players into his system early, Walls is not only able to give them a taste of what’s to come but also gives them an understanding of the offense and defense before getting to Navarre. This has helped the Navarre program overcome some of the problems that come with with the military population and the small town.

This, in addition to the attitude that Walls imparts on his players, has built an amazing foundation of hardworking winners at Navarre.

Walls can’t recruit or draft players, so he has to make it work with what he’s got, but the fact that he doesn’t have to teach them to work hard and “Do right,” because the players coming before them have already taught them that has been a huge help.

That foundation has created the yearly-contender that is Navarre’s football team. That team has given a small, military town with nothing except a beach a sense of community and something to rally around. Now a community that doesn’t even have a movie theatre has a reason to go out and cheer every Friday night in the fall.

“I’ve grown so close to Coach Walls since I’ve been in the program,” said Sage Chambers, the starting quarterback for last year’s division champion Navarre team. “I’m sad I have to leave but he’s sending me off the right way and making sure I’m ready.”

“Coach Walls has been a great coach and mentor, everyone you talk to that knows him will tell you that,” finished Chambers.

There are a lot of computer users out there, and many people in Navarre would not be able to function without their computers, but there is only one person in the history of Navarre that has been able to build a powerhouse football program at the high school.

Navarre is happy they have found their coach, Walls is happy to be that man and most would agree that he chose the right path for his life.