Heritage head basketball coach Vernon Denmark has spent the past six seasons leading the program after spending several years as an assistant at Rockdale County High School, as well as stints at two middle schools in the county. Married to LaDonna Denmark, the veteran coach has five children, Zavier, 21, Rejetta, 17, Vernon III, 16, Alayla, 15, and Jayden, 10. In this week’s Getting to Know, Sports Editor Colin Hubbard caught up with Denmark to ask him about his time growing up in Burke County as well as what the highlights of his coaching career have been up until this point.
CH: After finding out that your son plays football at Burke County, you’re from there originally, right? Is that where you grew up?
VD: Yeah, that was an uncanny situation that they ended up matched up with Eastside in the playoffs, but yes, I’m from Burke County and attended Burke County High School. Three of my children still live there and they all attend Burke County High School. I have a daughter who’s a senior, my son is a junior and my youngest daughter is a freshman.
CH: What sports did you play in high school? Were you always a basketball guy, or did you play other sports, too?
VD: Honestly, I was more of a football guy. I played football, basketball, and did track — not running, thank goodness, long and triple jump. I was a part of Burke County’s 1997 state runner-up football team.
CH: Did you have a chance to go play sports in college?
VD: I thought I’d play football in college, but I actually ended up playing basketball. I wasn’t a great basketball player in high school, but I was fortunate enough to get signed to LaGrange College.
CH: What are some of your fondest memories there?
VD: Playing at LaGrange was a great experience for me. It taught me a lot about basketball and understanding the game. My junior year, I tore my ACL, so I had to sit and watch. That helped me to get a better feel for the mental aspect of the game. Also, my college coach was a point guard, so learning things from his perspective was much different and it helped me a lot.
CH: What was your next step after that? Did you go into coaching right away, or were you doing something else at first?
VD: After college, I went back and coached in Burke County for two years. I coached middle school football and was an assistant varsity coach and head junior varsity coach for basketball.
CH: Where did you get your start coaching inside Rockdale County? When were you able to transition over to the high school and get your coaching career started there?
VD: Since being in Rockdale County, I’ve actually coached at Conyers Middle School and Edwards Middle School before going to Rockdale County High School. I was there for five years as the assistant head varsity coach and we had some great teams and players while I was there. Guys like Kevin Ware, who was a national champion, to Bernard Thompson, CJ Wilson, Darion Clark, Neville Hewitt, Darryl Tucker and so many more who went on to play in college and have great careers.
CH: What were the best teams that you were a part of at Rockdale?
VD: Many people remember the 2011 year when we went to the championship game, but the year before that, we really should have won the championship. We went 28-2 and lost the second round to Hillgrove. We missed, like, 20 free throws in that game, and it still haunts me. The biggest things about those times is that I’m still in contact with many of those guys who played for us, and I’m proud to see the young men they’ve become.
CH: To piggyback off of that, how’d you make your way away from Burke County and over to your first job coaching at Conyers Middle?
VD: I wanted to get closer to the Atlanta area and there was an opening at Conyers Middle. I interviewed and they hired me the same day.
CH: When did you make your way on over to Heritage? That was around 2013 or so, right?
VD: I came to Heritage the 2013-2014 season. When I realized the position was open, I sent my resume to Coach Chuck Landy and had some great recommendations from the AD at Rockdale at the time and former head coach Al Williams. The transition was easy since I was already in the county, but it was hard leaving the guys at Rockdale that I had bonded with. But I always kept up with many players at Heritage since I coached some of them during my time at Edwards Middle.
CH: Since taking over at Heritage, what has the entire experience been like? Is this the type of spot you had always hoped to land in when you wanted to be a coach?
VD: Heritage has been a great experience for me. I always knew I wanted to be a head coach, and I was blessed to step into an opportunity where this team was on the cusp of being really good. It only took me giving them a little nudge and we quickly became one of the better teams in the state.
CH: Where did that passion and drive come from to want to be a coach?
VD: I think I wanted to be a coach because of the influences coaches had in my life. My father died before I was born, so coaches were the primary male influences I had in my life and I wanted to give that same guidance to future players.
CH: Was coaching something anyone in your family had done previously, or was it just something you thought you’d like to do?
VD: No one in my family was in coaching but my mother, aunt and grandmother gave me some strong values and I do my best to pass those along and be a positive role model to my players.
CH: What is your favorite part about coaching? Is this something you want to do all the way up until you retire?
VD: I’d say my favorite part about coaching is definitely the relationships I’m able to build with my players and how it continues after they graduate. Just the other day, Byron Abrams, Jordan Thomas, Samaje Jones and myself sat in my office and just talked and reminisced. When I get those opportunities and know that I’ve built lasting relationships with these guys, it keeps me motivated to do what I do. I can definitely see myself coaching for a long time to come.