It had been 18 years since Bubba Hooker was in charge on the sideline. That was at Lafayette, back when the Rams were struggling to stay afloat in the Peninsula District.
Today, he has the title of acting head coach at Bethel, which is off to a surprising 4-0 start entering Saturday's 4 p.m. game against Phoebus. He's quick to point out that Jeff Nelson, still recovering from multiple knee surgeries, remains in charge.
But for now, as Nelson helps out from a golf cart with a headset, Hooker runs the practices and gameday operation.
"It's not a situation where I'm saying, 'I'm the head coach, this is the way it's going to be, yada, yada, yada," Hooker said. "Egos don't get involved. Nobody cares who gets the credit as long as we're successful. We have veteran players and also veteran staff, and that makes all the difference."
Bethel has 28 seniors on the roster, including quarterback Frank Brown and his two leading receivers, Rashawn Proctor and Willie Davis. As for the staff, Hooker is in his 43rd year in the profession, including the 1990-93 seasons as head coach at Lafayette.
Offensive coordinator Fabian Davis, a former Wake Forest receiver, came to Bethel with Nelson in 2007. Lawrence Burton, the defensive coordinator, is in his fourth season. Dorsey Hooker, Bubba's son, also has been with Nelson since '07.
Mike Clark and Bernie West are in their fourth years. David Porter is in his second.
"Every head coach will tell you he's only as good as his assistants," Nelson said. "The togetherness on this staff is like no other. I can't talk enough about that."
Davis and Dorsey Hooker both work at the school, which gives the coaching staff a presence in the building during the day. Bubba Hooker teaches at Hornsby Middle School in Williamsburg and makes it to Bethel for practices.
"It's all about handling people," Bubba Hooker said. "We go with an open-door policy as far as the players are concerned. And we let the players play and the coaches coach."
When Nelson was hospitalized last Oct. 23, his knee crushed underneath a pile of players, the transition was unexpected. In the playoff hunt at the time, the Bruins lost their last two games to end their season.
Bethel's coaches and players had the entire off-season to prepare for this. Nelson believed he'd be able to resume his head coaching duties in August, but that hit a snag. So each game, he sits in a golf cart on the track with headphones.
For the most part, he lets his veteran assistants run the show.
"All the experience we have has been very important," Davis said. "A new staff, if this happened, there might have been turmoil within team. But we're running smoothly."
"Coach Nelson is still here," Burton added. "He's not going anywhere, and the kids know that."
Bethel's undefeated start includes upset wins over Lake Taylor and Hampton, the latter a 20-0 blanking on Sept. 16. Behind a sophisticated passing game and an improved defense, the Bruins are outscoring the opposition on the average 33-10.
For the players, the key has been continuity.
"The team has been the same ever since Coach Nelson fell," Brown said. "We see him time to time and we know he's still our head coach. We support him and we love him."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun