McDonald is ready to lead his hometown Lanett Panthers back to prominence

Published 12:43 pm Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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The future is now at Lanett High School. On Thursday, Lanett head coach Chip Seagle announced his retirement. Just a day later, the Panthers announced that RJ McDonald would be the leader of the new era for Lanett’s football team. 

McDonald is a first-time head coach, but he is far from inexperienced. McDonald played football at Springwood and graduated in 2015. After graduation, he became an assistant coach under Thomas Hill, who now coaches basketball at Beulah. 

After Springwood, McDonald became an assistant coach at Smiths Station. Finally, McDonald returned home to Lanett to serve as the offensive coordinator, where he has spent the past three years. 

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McDonald grew up watching Lanett games, and both of his parents went to Lanett High School. Becoming the head coach for the Panthers accomplished his goal of becoming head coach, but also put him in place to lead the program McDonald had idolized since his early childhood.

“It’s an honor,” McDonald said. “I’m from Lanett, grew up here. My parents went here, my dad went here and my grandfather was a principal here. I love this place with every fiber of my being. This is an absolute honor. I grew up coming to Lanett games. I didn’t go anywhere else on a Friday night. It’s like a kid living a dream.”

For several years, becoming a head coach has always been the light at the end of the tunnel for McDonald. It was not always that simple. When McDonald was nearing graduation at Springwood, he had very little direction or plan for his future. It took another Lanett legend to push him in the right direction. 

Ronnie Sikes is a Hall of Famer and legendary coach for Lanett. Sikes saw something in McDonald early on as McDonald played under him. Sikes along with Hill urged McDonald to consider a career in coaching. McDonald served five years under Hill as an assistant football coach, and his plan for the future was never uncertain again. 

“He kind of saw something in me when I was in high school,” McDonald said. “He kind of kept telling me to look at him and coach Thomas Hill. Those two guys were really the driving force for that. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but they pushed me to it.” 

Sikes and Hill served as an early mentor, but they were far from the only coaching influences for McDonald. Clifford Story is considered to be the best coach to ever serve as the head coach for Lanett. 

McDonald learned a lot about discipline and running a program during his two years serving as an assistant coach for the Panthers, but he began learning from Story far before Story became his boss. McDonald grew up spending every Friday night at Morgan-Washburn Stadium, and he idolized and watched Story lead Lanett’s program into greatness from afar. 

“I’ve looked up to coach Story even from afar,” McDonald said. “That’s the guy, that’s the G.O.A.T. He’s my mentor…. I remember it like it was yesterday, I was sitting at Smiths Station and he texted my phone saying call me when you get a chance. He basically said, ‘Do you want to come to Lanett?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to come home.’ I learned a lot from him. He kind of realized that was the direction I wanted to go, being a head coach. He has pushed me ever since that day.” 

Seagle is a legend in Lanett in his own right, serving as an assistant coach under Story for more than a decade. While McDonald only served under Seagle for a year as Seagle stepped down after just a year as the head coach, McDonald still learned a lot from Seagle. 

Both Seagle and McDonald are considered to be offensive masterminds in high school football. The pair constantly workshopped and put together ideas. More than anything, McDonald learned how to relate to people better during his time under Seagle. 

“Coach Seagle, he’s taught me a lot about football and just being a great people-person,” McDonald said. “He’s a great people-person. When I first met him, he told me to teach him what I knew.” 

The past two seasons for the Panthers have not been up to standard for Lanett’s program. The Panthers have finished under .500 for the past two seasons. In 2023, the Panthers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2015. 

McDonald knows that he has to get the program back to the top of 2A. The Panthers were young last season, but they return a lot of production in 2024. McDonald insists that championships are still the standard for Lanett’s program, but he also wants the program to continue building players into better men for the community. 

“The goal here is to win a championship every year. That’ll never change,” McDonald said. “It’s time for these guys to roll. I’m blessed to be able to lead these young men. Coaching is not only about coaching football, it’s about being a figure for these guys to become great husbands, fathers and men in our community… To get back to the mountain top, it’s going to take a lot of hard work.” 

Growing up in Lanett gives McDonald an advantage in coaching the Panthers. McDonald grew up with most of his players’ parents, and he also knows the heart of the community.
McDonald knows that the identity of the city of Lanett is hard work, and he wants his program to embody that. 

“What’s funny is I know all of these guys’ family members,” McDonald said. “I just love being around these guys. One thing I have a lot of is energy. I think they feed off of that. Just being from this area, I know Lanett is hard-working. I want them to adopt that mentality.” 

Schematically, there will not be a ton of changes for Lanett. McDonald has been in charge of the offense for several years, and he and quarterbacks coach Qua Boyd will still have a hand on the offense. 

Defensively, the Panthers have been led by Charlie Williams since 2009. Williams along with Ernest Webb and Daniel Pankey are the longest-tenured coaches for the Panthers. McDonald expects to lean on those guys along with Story as the athletic director. 

“I lean on these guys, not just in football but even in life,” McDonald said. “Leaning on those guys like coach Pankey… Those guys, I really lean on. Still having coach Story as an athletic director, that’s just icing on the cake.” 

McDonald wants to see Lanett get back to dominating 2A football, but he also wants to see the support and energy grow in the community. McDonald knows how hard his guys work, and he wants the atmosphere on Friday night to reflect that. 

“The big thing for me is energy,” McDonald said. “Having Morgan-Washburn jumping on Friday night, that’s the goal. It starts with the community. We want everybody in the stands on Friday night. Come support these guys. I wish people could see what they do every day. These guys are absolutely working.” 

At just 28 years old, McDonald is relatively young for a head coach. However, that energy has served him well as he has been able to build relationships with his players. 

On Friday, McDonald addressed his team for the first time as head coach and he emphasized the need for hard work. 

“I just told them, we’re going to work,” McDonald said. “There’s no excuses anymore. We’re going to outwork every single person that we play. We’re trying to chase greatness. The big thing that I told the guys is they’re going to be expected to make every workout. We’ve got to have full buy-in.” 

McDonald will be the third head coach for Lanett in three seasons, but he hopes to bring stability to the Panthers. While he has had several stops along the way, Lanett has always been McDonald’s home and he wants to make a career out of being Lanett’s head coach. 

“It’s home,” McDonald said. “It’s just every part of me. I grew up on Highway 50. It’s just who I am.” 

“I want to be a lifer here,” McDonald added. “I want to build a legacy here just like coach Story and coach Seagle.”