Trent Dilfer is leaving Lipscomb Academy better than he found it.
A lot better.
The way he went about building one of the top high school football programs in the nation can and should be a blueprint for other independent schools to follow.
Unfortunately they won’t.
Because it’s hard. Really hard.
The Mustangs had struggled mightily after making the jump to the all private school, Division II-AA level in Tennessee in the fall of 2017. They were a combined 3-19 overall in two seasons and 1-7 in region play. They had been outscored 533 to 284. Arch-rival CPA had throttled them 48-21 and 38-14.
42-10 overall record in four years. 16-2 in region play. Three state finals appearances. One championship (hopefully two after tomorrow). The Mustangs have outscored their opponents 2109-644 and have a 3-game win streak against CPA, beating them by scores of 38-0, 27-0 and 43-21. They are currently ranked in the top 15 in the nation by MaxPreps, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
How did it happen?
It started with Trent’s “Be Set Apart” vision.
To use an old Stephen Covey phrase, Trent began with the end in mind. He saw what was going to happen over the last four years before he even accepted the job and met with the team for the first time. He even talked very specifically about the “Be Set Apart” banner he wanted to hang in the indoor facility on the very first day he came to campus in January of 2019 to learn more about our coaching opportunity.
Credit the Lipscomb administration for embracing Trent’s vision and investing heavily to make all of this a reality. They were tired of being a door mat. They knew that athletics, specifically football, was the front porch of the school. They paid Trent and his assistant coaches and staff well. They invested in the best weight room equipment on the market. They got serious about financial aid.
Parents, grandparents, alumni and other donors got behind the vision in a major way. Trent’s wife Cass bought brand new Vicis helmets for the entire team. Nike Jumpman uniforms came next. A brand new turf field was added three years ago. A new HD video board with replay capability, big enough to have its own zip code, was added this year.
I remember the very first parent meeting we had in Acuff Chapel in 2019. One of Trent’s first promises to us was that our coaching staff would look a lot different than what we were accustomed to having. It would be large. It would have a wealth of experience. It would be diverse.
Luke Richesson came to be the strength and conditioning coach. He had previously served as the head strength coach for the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans.
Trent’s next door neighbor in Texas, former Cleveland Browns all-Pro kicker Phil Dawson, came to be an associate head coach. Bruce Kittle (George’s dad and former Oklahoma line coach), Grant Williams (member of 2002 New England Patriots Super Bowl winning team) and Glenn Young, another Super Bowl winner with the Rams, joined the staff. Offensive play calling guru Trenton Kirklin came from Texas. Kevin Smith brought 11 years of experience coaching at the D-II Level as co-defensive coordinator.
Joey Roberts joined the LA family as Trent’s Chief of Staff. In my 26 year career I have never encountered a more servant-minded, others-focused, living, walking Christlike example as Joey Roberts! Wow! I was so incredibly thankful knowing he was sowing into my boys’ lives every single day.
All told there were 26 coaches and support staff. 26!
Six of them were female including a strength coach, yoga instructor and nutritionist.
There were no African-American coaches on staff the year before Trent came.
By the time he was done building his team there were 10.
One of his very first hires was Corry Stewart (now the head coach at Ezell-Harding). Corry was not only hired to be the co-defensive coordinator. He was also put in the critically important seat of director of admissions. He would be the primary contact for prospective families. Former Vanderbilt standout Jamie Graham started as a wide receivers coach and is now the offensive coordinator. Devin Arnold, now the head coach at Antioch, coached the JV squad.
In 2020, Sione Ta’ufo’ou left his head coaching job at a California high school to join the Lipscomb staff as defensive coordinator. Scott Malinoff was brought in as a recruiting coordinator.
The impact of changing the staff profile was immediate.
The year before Trent came there were 40 varsity football players. Only five were people of color.
Today there are 81 varsity football players. 31 of them are people of color.
Lipscomb Academy’s enrollment now sits at over 1,350 students. More than 20% of them are from diverse racial backgrounds. There is a waiting list to get in to most grades. Lipscomb Academy was recently selected as the no. 1 Christian high school in Nashville by Niche.
Another stellar hire Trent made when he came to Lipscomb was adding Patrick Carpenter as sports information director. I call Patrick “The Illustrious One.” He was doing things on social media for Lipscomb Academy Football that even big colleges weren’t doing. His graphics and video were next level. His weekly hype videos featuring voiceovers from Ray Lewis, Troy Aikman and Tom Brady were the stuff of legend. Patrick generated millions and millions of impressions for the program with his gifts. Oh and he plays a mean guitar too! Look him up!
Signing Day events with multiple tables are now the norm. Many of our student-athletes are getting full scholarship offers literally every day. They come from every school you can name including Georgia, Alabama, Michigan, Tennessee, UCLA, Ohio State and Clemson. They’ve got all the stars and the rankings.
As with any meteoric rise, Lipscomb Academy Football and Trent Dilfer have triggered their fair share of haters, social media trolls and liars. Most are on the outside. Some are on the inside.
No. We have not had 35 players move in from out of state.
No. We haven’t been illegally recruiting.
No. We aren’t giving any more financial aid than other schools give.
No. Trent wasn’t paid anywhere near $1.2 million a year.
When Super Bowl winning quarterback and former ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer took the head coaching job at a little Christian high school in Nashville it was newsworthy.
The day Trent took the job the news was scrolling across the bottom of ESPN. A high school freshman quarterback in Colorado named Luther Richesson saw it. He wondered what it would be like to play for a coach like Trent. Next thing you know his family packed up and moved from Colorado to Tennessee to find out. He would be LA’s starting quarterback for the next three years, leading the Mustangs to the 2021 state championship while Luke led the strength and conditioning efforts.
After watching a feature story on Trent and his family on The 700 Club, Koa Naotala’s father informed the family they would be moving from Virginia to Nashville for Koa’s senior year so Koa could play for a man like Trent.
Alex Broome transferred to Lipscomb Academy because he couldn’t get the advanced placement classes he wanted to take at his previous school. He went on to be Mr. Football last year and is in his freshman year at Boston College.
Three families moved to Lipscomb Academy during the pandemic from California and Chicago because of lockdowns and the threat to cancel their sons’ football seasons.
A handful of others came to Lipscomb because of their knowledge of Trent and Sione through their Elite 11 Quarterback Challenge.
The point is, when you have a massive online following, an unequaled network and the best hype machine on the planet it’s going to lead to opportunities. It doesn’t mean you’re cheating. Truth be known many of those families that came to Lipscomb Academy over the last four years toured just about every other private, independent football power program in the area.
“You’re a bunch of cheaters!”
“You’re fake Christians!”
“You’ve lost your way!”
“You look like an inner-city school!”
“All you’re about is self-service and glitz!”
Believe me. We’ve heard it all.
Most of it is rooted in jealousy, insecurity and downright, despicable racism. Others just don’t know how to lose.
Our guys have been called the n-word and “boy” on the field. They’ve been told to “Go back to Africa.”
It has just brought our “tribe” closer together. We love each other fiercely. We have each other’s backs.
You hate us?
In the words of Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, “We do not care!”
My oldest son Houston was a senior captain on Trent’s first team in 2019. The year before he was an unanimous selection for the all-region team as a tight end. He had several college football offers. He played almost every snap on both sides of the ball. His senior year he was targeted for passes four times the entire year.
Houston sat on the bench a lot of the first half of the year before asking to move to defensive end. There were no postseason individual accolades at the end of the year for Houston.
What he did have was a winning record, unforgettable memories shared with Hunter and Cole McDowell, his best friend and fellow tight end, who transferred back to Lipscomb Academy for his senior year after moving to Texas. He made key contributions in two legendary postseason road wins. He reaped the harvest after a year of testing and triumph that would rival Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys’ experience at Texas A&M.
Houston wouldn’t trade it for anything and only laments the fact that he was only able to be part of Trent’s program for one year.
My youngest son Hunter is a senior linebacker on this year’s team. He is part of a very small fraternity of guys who got to play all four years for Trent at Lipscomb Academy. Emily and I have seen his confidence soar over the last four years. He has moved from an insecure, unsure follower to a bold leader. We give Sione as much credit for that as anyone. Sione loves Hunter and Hunter loves Sione. I can absolutely see them coaching together down the road.
Hunter is regularly given opportunities to speak in team devotionals. He and his teammates discuss really tough issues in what are referred to as “Kitchen Table Conversations.” He has learned to study, analyze and prepare in a way that has spilled over into the classroom.
His time in the weight room and on the field with this team has as much to do with him having the opportunity to play SEC baseball at Tennessee as anything. They have taken a highly competitive kid and turned him into a chiseled, highly motivated, almost barbaric assassin.
Emily, Houston, Hunter and I would all take a bullet for Trent Dilfer. He is more than a coach. He is our friend. He is our brother. He and Cass are our family.
Yes he is flawed. Yes he has made mistakes. Yes there are things he wishes he could do over again.
Last time I looked, Romans 3:23 still has that “all” word in it.
We are all significantly better for having crossed paths with him and being active participants in his “human development program masked as a high school football team.”
We are thrilled for his opportunity at UAB and expect the best is still to come!
Thank you for leaving Lipscomb and all of us better!