By Evan Mohl

Killeen Daily Herald

COPPERAS COVE – Both say tonight's game between Belton and No. 7 Copperas Cove is not about them, that it's about their kids competing on the field.

And they're right, at least concerning the outcome.

But make no mistake. When the Bulldawgs battle the Tigers at 7:30 p.m. in Belton, pitting Cove coach Jack Welch against his former assistant Rodney Southern for the first time, emotions will run high and deep. The two consider each other family.

"It would be cliché for me to say that it's just another game," said Southern, who took over the Belton program in 2007. "Jack is like a brother to me. It will be interesting when he and I shake hands when the final whistle blows."

Southern worked under Welch for seven years in Cove. He arrived in 1994 – the same year Welch took over the fledgling Bulldawg football program.

While at Cove, Southern served as the Bulldawgs linebackers and strength and conditioning coach in 1994. Welch then promoted Southern to assistant athletics director, defensive coordinator and powerlifting coach, positions he held from 1995 to 2001.

During that time, Southern helped resurrect Cove football as the Dawgs compiled 58-26 record.

"He's a commander, a true leader with confidence," Welch said of his former assistant. "He's real focused, intense and self-motivated."

After 2001, Southern took a head coaching job with a struggling Marshall team. He produced strikingly similar results to Cove.

In just two years, the ex-Dawg assistant led the Mavericks to consecutive 4A state title games in 2004 and 2005. This was a team that hadn't seen the playoffs in nearly a decade.

Coincidentally, after Southern guided his team to consecutive championship games, Welch did the same thing for Cove. In 2006, the Dawgs reached the Division I-4A state title game for the first time, and then did it again in 2007.

"At Cove, through Jack, I really learned how to build a program," Southern said. "You have to have a plan and stick to it, no matter what. And that takes patience."

Southern left Marshall after the 2006 season for the chance to be the athletic director at a 5A school. However, he faces similar challenges, albeit one he's familiar with. Belton went 0-10 the year before Southern arrived and hasn't reached the playoffs since 2003.

"Rodney is a great coach, capable of turning a program around," Welch said. "Give him time and patience, and there's no doubt he'll have success."

Belton went 3-7 in Southern's first year.

Still, despite the success and a similar track record, the two are quite different. Southern says Welch is a "go-go-go" kind of guy whereas Welch describes his former assistant as someone who "likes to turn over every stone."

But the two have nothing but respect and admiration fir one another. All of that was forged through the sweat of rebuilding a program together.

Tonight, two coaches who call themselves brothers will have to put all of that aside. At least for three hours.

"I'm going to try to win that game just like any other," Southern said. "But afterward, we're friends, family. We've been through a lot together and Friday will be no different."

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