John Willis was the longtime head football coach for the Brunswick High Pirates. Willis coached the Pirates for 22 seasons from 1980 through 2001, compiling a 138-103 record with the team.
He led the Pirates to four region titles including three in a row from 1997-1999. Brunswick won its first region championship under Willis in the 1989 season, toppling Glynn Academy and Bradwell Institute in the Region 3-AAAA playoffs before falling to eventual state champion Valdosta in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs.
In those three region title runs in the late 1990s, the Pirates posted a 36-4 won-loss record, going 10-2 and reaching the second round of the state playoffs in 1997 before finishing 12-1and falling at Brookwood in the 1998 state quarterfinals before playing for the state championship in 1999, finishing 14-1 and losing only to Lowndes in the state title game inValdosta.
Willis’ 1999 team still ranks as the best in BHS history. It started the season ranked secondinthe state, the highest-ever preseason ranking by a Brunswick High football teamand was ranked 10th in the country by the USA Today going into the state championship game. That was the first time the Pirates had ever been ranked in the prestigious national poll.
That state runner-up team featured several major-college prospects including senior quarterback Reshard Lee who played at Middle Tennessee State and went on to play in theNFL and is a member of the Glynn County Sports Hall of Fame, senior defensive back Bill Alford, who went on to play at Vanderbilt, senior linebacker Darel Slay, who played at SouthCarolina and senior tailback Earnest Palmer, who played at Holmes (Miss.) College, remains Brunswick’s all-time leading rusher, and joins Coach Willis as a 2023 Glynn County Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
Willis was named the Region 3-AAAA Coach of the Year after the 1999 campaign and alsothe Class AAAA Coach of the Year by the Atlanta Touchdown Club. In all, Willis had 13 winning seasons with the Pirates and coached 16 all-state players including Glynn County Sports Hall of Fame inductee Ray Lloyd who was the first all-state selection as a standout offensive lineman in Coach Willis’ second season with the BHS program.
Best known for his motivational speeches and being a father-figure to many of his players, Willis was forced to retire prematurely with the Pirates following a near-death bout withmeningitis that hospitalized him prior to the final game of the 2001 season. He returned tocoaching for one season in 2003 at McIntosh County Academy and the Buccaneers finished5-5 that season. Willis was among three finalists for the head coaching position at Fort ValleyState prior to accepting the McIntosh job.
Willis played football at Fort Valley, where he was a three-time team MVP. He was the headcoach at A.H. Parker High in Birmingham, Ala., for three seasons prior to coming to Brunswick and compiled an 18-9-2 record there. His career record as a head coach is 161- 117-2.
Willis was also a physical education teacher at BHS. He continues to reside locally with wifeBarbara, also a retired local educator who taught physical education at Jane Macon MiddleSchool. Their sons Michael and Wesley played football for their dad with the Pirates and also
coached under him at BHS. Their daughter Maria was a BHS and Fort Valley basketball standout and is currently the head coach of the Lady Pirates basketball team.