Win or lose, Garner High football coach Nelson Smith will coach his last game in Trojans Stadium on Friday night.
Smith announced last spring when he accepted the school’s athletic director job that he would relinquish his coaching position after his 31st season at the school.
He will run for the last time onto the field where his teams have won 80 of 96 home games. Seven of the 16 losses have come in the playoffs.
Smith will walk the sidelines, wearing his headset, patting backs, motivating, correcting, teaching.
But don’t expect him to spend a lot of time dwelling on his exit. That’s not his nature.
His coaching legacy wasn’t a consideration this week as he prepared his team for an N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA semifinal game against Fayetteville Jack Britt.
A berth in next week’s state championships goes to the winner and Smith and his team would love to have another shot at a state title in Chapel Hill on Dec. 1 after losing to Greensboro Page in the finals in 2011.
Smith approaches high school football coaching with the pragmatism of a farmer. He was reared on farms, first in Cumberland County and later in Wayne County, and he grew up believing success must be cultivated and that there is no shortcut that will provide a consistent yield.
His family raised chickens, among other things, and he can recite a litany of chicken dishes his mother would cook for the family and tell tales of wading through thousands of hens looking for the roosters.
He found pleasure in hard work and satisfaction in a job done well.
That work ethic was reinforced at East Carolina, where he played for Pat Dye, a coach Smith said was the toughest man he has ever known.
Dye and former Garner coach Hal Stewart were big influences on Smith’s coaching style. Smith joined up with Stewart at St. Pauls High and came with him to Garner in 1982. There, they began building one of the best programs in the state.
Smith was Stewart’s offensive line coach and the blocking schemes Garner will use Friday night are similar to the ones Stewart used almost 40 years ago. That doesn’t mean they are simple. What looks like a toss sweep from the stands may be blocked a half dozen or more ways.
The same is true of the defense, too.
“We make some changes and tweak some things,” Garner defensive coordinator Thurman Leach said. “But it is the same old thing we’ve always done. We don’t surprise people.”
But every week they do.
Smith is adept at adopting and adapting new offensive sets – the Trojans have spread formations and a Wildcat package, for example, plus their standard pro set – but Garner still relies on the sweep and the trap and blocking at the point of attack.
One game, a few years ago, Garner went the entire game without repeating the same play.
The team is a reflection of Smith’s offensive lineman’s mentality – sacrifice, do for others, do the tough jobs yourself, don’t complain, work together, prepare, no excuses, repetition builds confidence and capability and character counts.
There are few frills. The couches in the coaches’ office might be rejected by a charity and there are almost no reminders of past achievements hanging on the wall. The defensive players scout opponents from an image cast on the wall. Even the uniforms are a workmanlike basic blue and gold with unadorned helmets.
There is very little fancy about Smith, either. His assistants speak in awe of him, his work ethic, his devotion, his knowledge, his concern for his players and his determination to make every player a better person for having been in the program.
He’d never mention his 143-28 overall head coaching record, or that his teams have averaged about 11.5 wins per season, or that almost half of his teams had undefeated regular seasons.
His greatest hope is that each of his players grows a little straighter, a little stronger. He believes his most important crop is better people.