Matthew Saunders has his Radford High School football team in this week’s regional playoff action, and his brother is trying to equal the feat in Mableton, Georgia.
Kevin Saunders has his Pebblebrook High School team in the state playoffs for the third consecutive year. He has been there for the past four years after a brief stint at Cross Keys (Ga.) High School. But for the most part, his coaching career has been based here in southwest Virginia.
Kevin graduated from Radford High School in 1982 after playing lineman on both sides of the ball. He then attended Radford University and Virginia Tech, where he was a graduate assistant under Frank Beamer.
He followed that up with a brief stint as an assistant at RHS, learning the game from his longtime coach, Norm Lineburg.
Early on, Saunders found success at William Campbell, Gretna and J.J. Kelly high schools in Virginia, and Shelby Valley in Kentucky.
In 1995, he led William Campbell High School to the Seminole District and region III title, and named the district coach of the year and Associated Press AA Virginia coach of the year.
He then continued his winning ways with J.J. Kelly, leading them to four consecutive playoff appearances from 2000-2003, the first time in school history.
Saunders would follow that up at Shelby Valley (Ky.) with three consecutive District 7 playoff appearances and the school’s first ever playoff win. A short time later, he returned to Virginia and took over at Gretna.
In 2010 and 2011, he was named the Dogwood District coach of the year and served as the head coach of the Virginia High School League all-star game after being named the Virginia State coach of the year.
“I learned a lot from coach Lineburg and coach Shull,” he said.
Saunders then worked for Shull at J.J. Kelly High School as the head coach that ended Powell Valley’s 36-game winning streak.
“I learned how to win with less talent, how to get the most out of players and playing them in the best position,” Saunders said.
He also feels fortunate to have learned from Beamer during his time as a grad assistant. Every place he’s been, Saunders has run something similar to the Virginia Tech defense he learned while there.
Saunders left Gretna in 2014 as one of the most successful in school history with a 49-15 mark that included a state title in 2011, and now has an overall coaching record of 186-101-2.
Pebblebrook has 2,400 students and is in Georgia’s top classification, 7A. Saunders calls it “big boy football at its best.”
Last year, he was named the Region 2 7A Coach of the Year, and in 2016, he was honored as a Cobb County District Teacher of the Week. Again, he has the school in the regional playoffs for the third time in four years.
He has fond memories of southwest Virginia, including one time he played his brother’s Radford team.
In 2009, the Saunders’ brothers faced off in a regular season game. Kevin got the best of that game in a 20-14 win. Chalk one up for older brother.
He is proud of his brother’s success at Radford and how he has continued the tradition of excellence.
“Matthew followed a legend (Norm Lineburg) and has been successful, which is hard to do. Matthew has taken the program over and now made it his. He is a tremendous coach, and Radford is lucky to have him. Matthew has stayed true to his beliefs and commitment to winning without cutting corners, which makes me very proud of him as a coach, a man and a brother,” Kevin said.
He talks to Matthew a couple times a week. While their early aspects of coaching were shaped by their upbringing, he admits they coach with a completely different philosophy but loves to hear his game plan.
“He is way more flashier and innovative as an offensive coach than I am,” Kevin said.
For now, Kevin’s plan is to continue coaching until it’s not fun any more.
“So who knows, at least 10 more years,” he said, grinning.