More to the game than winning

Parents circulate petition to keep Payne
A group of football parents in Willow Springs are circulating a petition in support of former head football coach Travis Payne. Organizers say they have nearly 125 signatures in support of their goal – to overturn the decision to remove Payne as head football coach. 
“The kids wanted to fight to keep him, so this is what we knew to do,” said Meagan Jones in an interview Saturday. “If I expect my children to stand up for what’s right, I have to set the example…The administration only gave him two seasons...We can’t expect wins overnight. It could take time. It could take a few seasons… [Payne] is involved in Mighty Mites and middle school and every level of football in Willow. That’s incredibly important to build a successful program.”
After a grueling 0 and 10 season, R-IV administration confirmed they will not be reassigning Payne to the head coaching position. Though Superintendent Dr. Marty Spence did not specifically mention last season’s record, he did confirm it was an administrative, not a school board, decision to seek another head coach.
“We want a successful program from Mighty Mites through varsity – a program that turns out quality young men that will represent Willow Springs and our values. And we want somebody that will bring some excitement,” Spence told Howell County News on Jan. 11. 
"In compliance with privacy law and in respect of all our employees, we do not discuss personnel matters,” Dr. Spence commented Monday. “We understand some community members disagree with our decision regarding the football program. However, we are doing what we believe is the right decision for our football program moving forward."
Jones told the News that she has met with the superintendent and plans to address the school board with a group of parents and players on Feb. 12. Jones is running for school board in April, but she said this petition is motivated separately from her desire to serve on the school board. The parents who support Payne paint a picture of a coach who puts character above winning – a coach who created a sense of community and fraternity in the football program. 
“It’s been Coach Payne himself who has been life changing for our little family,” said Heather Harrelson. “He’s more to our son than the coach – he’s a mentor, a leader. He has the good of the kids in mind first. He’s never been degrading, always wants to help, and if there’s an issue, he helps and coaches and mentors.” 
Heather and Mike Harrelson’s son Talon was folded into the football community despite being ineligible to participate, per MSHSAA’s academic regulations, they said. Despite being unable to suit up, he still benefitted from Payne’s coaching, they said. 
“He was always part of the team in coach’s eyes,” Harrelson said. 
WSHS Junior John Jones was in the news office Saturday, and he said he has been in the football program his entire high school career. 
“My freshman year, we weren’t much of a team,” J. Jones said. “My sophomore year was Coach Paynes’ first year…We care about each other a lot more now. Coach Payne never put us down for a loss. We forgot about the loss and went on the best we could. Even though we weren’t wining, we were a team that was being built.”
In Payne’s first season, the Bears’ record for the football season was 3-7. Then eleven seniors graduated. M. Jones said that has been one of the Bears’ top seasons in the last decade.
“In 2019-2020 season we were 6-6; 2016-2017 season was 5-5; 2021-2022 was 2-8. The other seasons from 2015-2016 to present were one-win seasons,” she said.
Ashley Bailey is another football mom in support of Coach Payne. Her son Caiden has played two years of Bears football. She will be the main speaker when the group approaches the school board on Feb. 12. 
Bailey said she was spurred to action by the players’ reaction to the news. 
“It’s not just my kid,” she said Sunday. “It’s quite a few. They were immediately upset and did not like this at all. I’m doing this for my son and his friends.”
According to Bailey, the main message to the school board is that Coach Payne deserves more of a shot.
“It was a rebuilding year. There were not many upperclassmen with experience…We need somebody to stick around for someone to build the program the school the wants.”
“Thank you to everyone that has reached out and shown support,” Coach Payne commented. “This has been a tough time for my family, and I appreciate all of the people who are standing up for us. It has been amazing just how much support people have shown. Thank you to everyone who has stood behind us.”
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