A phone call interrupts a midday film session, forcing Brad Bowles to multitask.
Bowles has been head coach of Porter-Gaud for little more two months. Taking over one of the state’s top programs in the S.C. Independent School League midway through the summer has forced the 37-year-old former St. John’s head coach to operate more efficiently than usual. Culture had to be defined, while new schemes were implemented, and all within a shortened offseason. Multitasking became a requisite of Bowles’ new job this summer.
Challenges arrived without warning. A last-minute scheduling change aligned Porter-Gaud against defending state champion Florence Christian in the opening game of the season. There will be no opportunity for gradual acclimation, no warm-up game and, in line with most of the offseason, a limited amount of time to prepare.
So as a newspaper reporter yammers on the other line of the phone, Bowles shuffles his attention back and forth from game film to the conversation, analyzing his opponent as he offers a glimpse into his first 10 weeks on the job.
“We had to immediately establish the way we were going to do things and how we were going to do it,” Bowles explained. “At the same time, we needed to install our offense and defense along with that. So the kids had to pick everything up somewhat quickly.”
Having some experience at primary positions has helped. Although last season’s starting quarterback, Gunnar Nistad, transferred back to James Island this offseason, junior Matt Kelly is more than familiar with the duties behind center. Kelly has played in 23 games the past two years, leading the Cyclones to wins when called upon as both a freshman and sophomore. His playing time has been somewhat inconsistent but he’s completed nearly 60 percent of the pass attempts in his career and last season rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns on just 17 carries.
“He’s a Porter-Gaud kid that’s been here for a long time and that’s exciting to have leading our offense,” Bowles said. “He’s extremely competitive. You can see it in every practice and every drill. He’s picked up the offense really quickly and we’re going to allow him to run around and be an athlete some.”
Kelly will operate behind all-state senior center Holston Slack, a three-year varsity starter and the school’s all-time record holder in the bench press. Slack is a key component of Bowles’ mission to operate a more physical run-based attack out of the spread. Sophomore running back Charlie Thomas fits that mold as well. Thomas is an old-school, down-hill type of back and younger brother of 2018 graduate Andrew Thomas, who led the Cyclones in receiving last season.
“We want to run the football and establish a physical offensive approach,” Bowles says before a lengthy pause.
“Sorry,” he continues again. “I’m watching this film. Florence is a good team. We’re going to have play tough against them.
“We have to be balanced too though,” he begins again on his previous thought. “We need to efficient throwing the football. We don’t want to back ourselves into a corner.”
Bowles is leaving the defense up to his father, John, a former Division I coach who will serve as the Cyclones’ defensive coordinator. Brothers Tobias, a senior, and Kyle, a junior, will anchor the corners of the secondary. Both are track and field state champions. Senior inside linebacker J.D. Key captains the unit. Key posted 105 tackles, 11 for a loss, last fall and won a state championship in lacrosse in the spring.
“He’s kind of the quarterback of our defense. The type of guy we need in this defense,” Bowles said. “We want to be a physical, attacking defense. We don’t want to sit on our heels and wait.”
And if the defense isn’t up to par, Bowles jokes, dad is the one to blame. The father-son dynamic fits well within the family structure of Porter-Gaud, a school that’s long been built on generational legacies.
Bowles begins to discuss toward the end of the phone conversation the lofty expectations at a school like Porter-Gaud and the right way to embrace and fulfill them. The Cyclones will open the season ranked third in SCISA Class AAA, which is probably appropriate being that the only two teams they lost to last season were No. 1 Hammond and No. 2 First Baptist.
"You want to be somewhere there's pressure to win," Bowles said. "We want our players to expect to win."
And with that, the conversation winds down. Bowles transitions his attention back to the game film — not that it ever strayed too far. All part of the process when you're tasked with building a winner in 10 weeks.
Days later, Bowles and Porter-Gaud opened the season with a 35-28 win over defending SCISA AA state champion Florence Christian.
Porter-Gaud surrendered all 28 points in the first half before pitching a shutout in the second.
"We brought some different pressure in the second half. We moved our front some," Bowles said. "But a lot of it was just about settling down. We played better fundamental football. We came out of halftime with the right attitude and said, 'Hey, we're going to win this game.'"
Cyclones junior quarterback Kelly ran for 82 yards and three touchdowns, including the eventual game-winning 11-yard score with just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Kelly also threw for 58 yards and another touchdown, a 28-yard pass to Tobias Lafayette that pulled Porter-Gaud within a score, 28-21, in the third quarter.
"It's been a long time coming for Matt," Bowles said. "Tonight was something I think everybody wanted to see from him. To watch him have that kind of success and the way the kids rallied around him tells you what type of kid he is."
J.D. Key blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone to even the game 28-all less than two minutes into the fourth.
Porter-Gaud (1-0) travels to Cardinal Newman (1-0) on Friday.
Bowles' day began before the sun was up. There were festivities and spirit rallies throughout the day, then of course the actual game. It was well past midnight when he finally took a moment to reflect.
"I'm worn out," he admitted to his wife, both mentally and physically.
He slept lightly that night, not for very long either. And when he awoke, the first thing on his mind was Cardinal Newman.