The coaches' kid: GWU's Tre Lamb putting football program on map using rich football background
BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – When it came to football, Gardner-Webb head coach Tre Lamb was always just a little bit different – both in his experiences and approach.
As a kid, he grew up on the field, but not your local flag football field. Instead, he was playing video games with the likes of future NFL players David Greene, DJ Shockley and David Pollack while they were with the great Georgia Bulldogs where his grandfather, Ray, was the program’s Director of High School Relations.
He spent time traveling up and down the Southeast region of the country, taking in noon football games throughout the Southern Conference where his uncle, Bobby, spent time as the head man at both Mercer and Furman.
Some evenings, he tailed along behind his father Hal to high school football practice at Calhoun High School in Georgia, where he coached up three state championship teams.
Inevitably, all of it shaped him. While lots of other kids his age wanted to be the most – insert athletic, talented or whatever else it took to be the best on the field – Lamb had the coach’s mind.
“I probably knew by the time I was 10 or 12 years old that I wanted to be a football coach.” Lamb said. “I was obsessed with the Xs and Os and motivational piece of it.”
“In college, I never really fell out of love with it.”
He went on to become Tennessee Tech’s starting quarterback for three years, where he also experimented with life beyond football. Somewhere along the line, football stops for everyone who plays, and a lot of the time, that’s after college. The percent of players to move on to the pros is miniscule, and the odds of coaching at a high level aren’t great, either.
But he’s a Lamb. He was destined for the coaching life, and it only took one summer of real work to reinforce what he already knew.
“I tried to intern at State Farm in college during the summer, sit at a desk, make calls and I absolutely hated it,” Lamb said. “But I needed to make some money during the summer so I did it and told myself there’s no way I could do anything but this (coaching). I feel like this what I was born to do. Impact people, strategize and motivate. “
In three years’ time, he’s shown his hunch was right. In each of his seasons at the helm, starting with a spring COVID season in 2020, his GWU teams have improved on their win total.
Last year, the Runnin’ Bulldogs, whose football program had long been an afterthought in the Big South, had their first winning season since 2013 and made the FCS playoffs for the first time ever – even picking up a first-round upset road victory, just one of two in 2022.
Now officially turning heads, Lamb has the Bulldogs hungry for an encore performance. As he’s told the team, “Hungry dogs run faster.”
Learning to be a Lamb
Despite sharing the same name, each Lamb has found coaching success through different means. Tre Lamb was fortunate enough to pick his favorite pieces from each one of his elders in molding his ideal approach to the position.
“My uncle was a great recruiter and offensive coach; my dad was more of a motivator and culture cultivator and my granddad was more hard-nosed, old-school,” Lamb said. “I take good things from all three.”
He’d be remiss not to mention his former college head coach Watson Brown, who gave him his first coaching gig as a 22-year-old straight out of college and whom he also took some tendencies from.
But the Lamb pieces of his background rear their heads most often, four years into his head coaching journey.
Not only did his familial connections expose him to high-level coaching with exclusive access to the minds behind it, but they also gave him a leg-up in the industry years later.
“I’ve got great connections in the recruiting industry because of my family,” Lamb said. “Seeing and meeting high school head coaches and being able to build relationships and they say, ‘Hey, I know my player is going to be taken care of cause he’s playing for a Lamb.’ That goes a long way, and my family paved the way for that.”
“There’s no doubt it’s (family legacy) still paying off. I get a call or text once a day from a high school or college coach saying, ‘Hey, you’re doing a good job’ or ‘Hey, I got this kid’ or ‘Hey, take a look at this.”
At that same token, though, there’s a lot on the line. Not just for himself, but for his family.
Personally, Lamb had an advantage his entire life. He was around elite football, top programs and stellar coaches, so to fail would be leaving a lot to be desired considering what everyone else in his family achieved.
As for the prestige of the family name, one bad apple could taint it all. The saying goes, trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair. The trust instilled in the Lamb name surrounding football has taken decades to get to where it is, and maintaining it is personal.
While those realities and pressures hold true, it’s just more fuel to Tre Lamb’s fire.
“There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that,” Lamb said “I don’t want to be the Lamb coach that doesn’t do it the right way, doesn’t do it with class, loses … but pressure is a privilege and it’s a good position to be in.”
Laying out the Lamb plan
So far, so good. There’s been no let down, not even signs of mediocrity.
Instead, everything he’s touched has turned to gold. Before commanding the Runnin’ Bulldogs back into the thick of the Big South-OVC race in a matter of a few short years, Lamb spent a year with Tennessee Tech as their offensive coordinator in 2019.
In that season, the Golden Eagles won six games, far surpassing their two combined wins between 2017 and 2018. His offense had much to do with that, scoring 348 points, a number greater than 58% of other OVC teams.
These turnarounds don’t happen by chance; not even one, but certainly not two, and they don’t happen just by putting up numbers either. Lamb just knows ball and wants guys who love ball. That coach-player dynamic goes hand-in-hand.
The rest takes care of itself.
“At our level, it’s more about evaluating. We’re not going to get the 4 and 5-star guys. We have to be able to decipher which 3 star and 2-star guys can develop,” Lamb said. “But you have to recruit guys first and foremost that like football and are interested in actually winning football games. That’s hard to do in this day and age. A lot of kids say they do and really don’t, so you have to find guys who love ball.”
“We’re in a very rural location here so we have to find guys who love football because they’re going to spend a lot of time with us as coaches and going to put a lot of time into it.”
Once you have the right guys, which Lamb says he does, then you focus on giving them validity in what you’re teaching. Something tangible that continues to have them feeding into his spiel.
That evidence came last season for GWU, in two different forms.
“Winning against North Carolina A&T in the championship game last year by 24 points was a big win,” Lamb said. “Then you go on the road, and our conference has a bad playoff reputation. The Big South-OVC hasn’t won a ton of playoff games so to knock off Eastern Kentucky and do it in a fashion where it was a two or three-score game most of the game, never tight, it gave validity to our players and coaches.”
Seeing they could win on a major stage was one thing, giving them the will to continue forging ahead. But seeing the increased media attention that came with it, in the backwoods of North Carolina, nonetheless, made it even more real.
Just don’t ever let it be too much. Being hidden gives GWU a chip on its shoulder that Lamb wants to ride out as long as he can.
“I don’t want our guys to forget where we came from,” Lamb said. “We’re still a blue-collar, ‘get it out of the mud’ type of program. I don’t want our guys to feel privileged. We gave our guys a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and some workout shoes this summer and that’s all they get, and they go to work.”
“We are not one of the “haves” in college football. I don’t want our guys to forget that. I want us to be under the radar a little bit.”
But you can only keep a story like Lamb and GWU quiet for so long, especially if year 4 sees them take the annual leap they’ve become accustomed to.