JEFF RUTLEDGE has stories to tell. At any moment the football coach can hypnotize his players at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville with tales of what it was like to play for three of football's greatest coaches: Paul (Bear) Bryant at Alabama (1975--79), Bill Parcells with the New York Giants ('83--89) and Joe Gibbs with the Washington Redskins ('90--92). But Rutledge's most enduring football memories trace back to before he went under the bright lights of the NCAA and the NFL. "The coach who had the most influence in my life was my high school coach, Shorty White," says Rutledge, 49, who starred at Banks High in Birmingham. "That's the big reason I'm at this level." For Rutledge's first week with the varsity, Coach White had the team run wind sprints, helping instill a lasting discipline and work ethic in the young signal-caller.
Rutledge took over as coach and athletic director at Montgomery Bell (enrollment, 800) in 2002, after seven years as the quarterbacks coach at Vanderbilt. He runs the same ball-control offense that Gibbs made famous in the early 1990s and is one of several ex-NFL players coaching in the Nashville area (box, below), including Rutledge's offensive line coach Jason Mathews, a former Titans tackle. "It's a huge advantage to have Coach Rutledge and Coach Mathews," says Preston Bailey, a junior left tackle at Montgomery Bell, which improved to 4--3 with a win over Father Ryan last Friday. "They know what it takes to make it at the highest level."
On a recent afternoon Rutledge peppered sophomore quarterback Spencer Wise with advice: "Use your lower body.... Follow through.... Keep your eyes downfield.... " The passes fluttered, but Rutledge kept shouting encouragement. "This obviously isn't the big time," he said to an onlooker, "but to me there's nothing better than working with kids who play simply because they love the game."