CLAYTON — The silver-haired coach who has been part of Friday nights in Clayton for more than three decades has decided it’s time to do something else in the fall. Clayton High School head football coach Gary Fowler will retire from coaching at the end of this season, ending his 28-year run as head of the Comet program.
“After 36 years, it’s time,” said Fowler, who was an assistant coach for eight seasons before succeeding Glenn Nixon as head coach in 1985.
“I’m at a point where I’m ready to have my own life now, for me and Sue (his wife) – the greatest girl in the world,” Fowler added. “I want to enjoy the family that’s given up so much for me and this program for the past 30-plus years.”
He informed his players and coaching staff at Monday’s practice.
The Comets are 7-3 overall and 5-1 in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference. They close the regular season at home Friday night against Knightdale. A win there would likely give the Comets and Fowler another game at home in the 4A playoffs next week.
“I wanted to get this out of the way so we could keep the focus on these kids, our seniors on Friday night,” Fowler said of his announcement. “This is a group I have a special feeling for. Most of them have been on varsity since they were sophomores. And they’ve lived up to everything I want a Clayton team to be.”
Fowler, 57, a Smithfield-Selma High graduate, joined Nixon’s staff in 1982 and later succeeded Nixon who was head coach at Clayton for 26 years. Four years later, the Comets went 15-0 and won the 2A state championship.
“I inherited a good program, and I feel like I’m leaving the program as a good program,” Fowler said. “That was the thing I worried about the most when I became head coach, living up to the standard that Glenn Nixon set for Clayton, on and off the field. I tried to always make sure that ‘C’ on our helmets stood for class.”
Clayton principal Clint Eaves, a player on that 1989 championship team, said the Comet football program is losing a humble servant.
“He never wants to take credit, only gives it to others,” Eaves said. “In our 1989 state championship video, during the celebration, a coach stated ‘We did it, we did it!’ Gary replied, ‘No, these kids did it.’ ... Gary has never wanted this to be about him. He does not want to take the spotlight from his players.”
Fowler’s Comets have won consistently with an unwavering commitment to running the ball while many of their opponents have embraced spread, passing-based attacks.
He’ll carry a 213-122-1 career coaching record into Friday’s game against Knightdale. His Clayton teams have won 13 conference championships, have made 22 playoff appearances (including this year) and built a 23-19 record in the playoffs.
“I’ve been lucky to always have good kids and great assistant coaches to work with; those two groups are the reason we’ve accomplished the things we have here. I’m just a small part of it,” Fowler said. “When you find good programs, you look at the assistant coaches.”
Current Clayton players, who were born when Fowler had already been coach for more than a decade, say it’s the family bond that makes playing on a Fowler-coached team so special.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had. He gets on me and pushes me, and he never quits on me,” said senior runner Ced Harris. “He cares about us and loves us. He loves football and Clayton and the players. It’s more than just a football team; it’s like family. He’s like our father and the assistant coaches are our uncles.”
Teammate Sam May agreed: “He’s taken care of me better than any other coach ever has. He taught me how to be a leader, a better athlete, a better person. And he’s taught me lessons about life. He’s a great coach.”
Fowler led the program during a period of explosive growth in Johnston County, a population boom that saw the opening of three new high schools – West Johnston, Corinth Holders and Cleveland – all of which cut into the Clayton school district. Clayton used to draw students from Cleveland to northern Johnston County. Most of its students now come from within Clayton.
Clayton moved from 2A to 3A in 1997 and then to 4A in 2005. Fowler’s clubs have advanced to at least the third round of the playoffs at some point in each classification.
“I’ve been blessed to get the opportunity to do a lot of things, coach in East-West Games, coach in the Shrine Bowl twice, serve as president of the (N.C.) Football Coaches Association, things like that,” said Fowler, who will continue as the Comets’ athletic director. “Clayton has been very good to my family and the football family I’ve been a part of here. Our community support and involvement is second to none.”
Fowler said he’s looking forward to the little perks of life outside of coaching.
“I’m ready to go to the beach in August,” he said. “I’m ready to be able to do what Gary wants to do.”