Gary Merrill was a part of the Northern Durham football program when it annually produced elite teams. The Knights averaged 10 wins a season from 1976 through 2003 and are 483-128 since the school opened in rural northern Durham County in 1955.
First as an assistant for Ken Browning, who built a 178-36 record in his 18 years as head coach, and later as the Knights head coach (102-21 from 1994 through 2003), Merrill was on staffs that prided themselves in the quest for constant improvement.
The Knights’ mantra was to get just a little bit better every day. Browning said the goal was to play the best game of the year in the final game, whenever that was.
The tradition has been lost. Northern won its last conference title in 2004 and that team’s 8-5 finish was the program’s last winning record. Merrill’s first team during his second term has head coach was 4-6-1. Northern (0-2) is pursuing its first win of the season tonight at Millbrook (1-2).
Merrill’s biggest task is reestablishing the quest for constant improvement.
“Getting better,” he said, “is paying attention to the details. You get better when you do the right things the right way.”
Those details are things like where a lineman puts his hands. How a lineman moves. How a back picks up a blocking assignment. How a ball carrier secures the ball. Improvement comes not from just moving your feet faster, but from moving your feet to the right places.
Browning once said that the fastest linebacker becomes a slow linebacker if he runs in the wrong direction.
Improvement, Merrill said, is work. Improvement comes from drills and repetition.
“Playing football is the fun part,” Merrill said. “Working in practice is hard.”
Merrill noted that NFL players drill during every practice. “They are the best football players in the world, but they know they have to use the right techniques because the players they are matched against are just as big and strong,” he said.
The Knights opened the season with a 21-7 loss to Middle Creek and had too many turnovers to seriously threaten Wake Forest-Rolesville for more than a half in a 42-10 loss.
“We were doing some good things defensively against Wake Forest,” he said. “The score was 7-3 with about six minutes left in the half. Then we had some turnovers and Wake Forest took advantage. They went up 28-3 by halftime.”
Current Northern players were in grade school the last time the Knights were among the state’s best teams. Merrill’s staff is sprinkled with former players who know the tradition and the attention to detail that marked the program.
“We just have to get a little bit better every day,” he said.