Garner, Clayton coaches settle in to new roles

tstevens@newsobserver.comSeptember 30, 2013 

Randy Pinkowski spent a lot of time last summer thinking about the responsibilities that come with coaching the Clayton High football program.

He was leaving the C.B. Aycock program in Pikeville, near Goldsboro, to succeed Gary Fowler at a program that is known for excellence throughout the state.

The coaching basics – things like developing game plans, leading practices, teaching fundamentals – were not a concern. But he admits when he thought about Clayton’s reputation for character and sportsmanship, he was scared.

Thurman Leach was following Nelson Smith at Garner, the most consistent program in the area. Leach had been on the staff for more than 20 years, but he said the weight of leading the program hit him for the first time when he stood on the walkway outside the Trojans’ locker room with his team huddled behind him.

The stands were full and his players were bouncing and prancing, their legs twitching with excitement. The cheerleaders had stretched a large banner for the team to burst through as they ran into Trojan Stadium to begin its season against Middle Creek.

Leach felt the excitement, too, just like he has ever since he was a player down the road at Fuquay-Varina High, where he was one of the best players to play during the coach Graham Myrick era. Leach had felt the surge of nervous energy as a player at Gardner-Webb, too.

This time it was different. Amid all the jitters and excitement, Leach felt alone.

There was no Hal Stewart or Smith alongside him. Eddie Gray, who had worked with Leach as an assistant for more than 20 years, wasn’t there either.

“This was my team,” Leach said.

Pinkowski and Leach are settled into their first seasons. Clayton is 5-1 and beat Harnett Central 49-7 last week. Garner is among the area leaders in offensive production, but lost to Cleveland 45-44 early in the season and to East Wake last week 54-40.

A tradition of hospitality

Pinkowski had been an athletic trainer and assistant coach at Clayton so he knew the extra expectations of being the football coach at the school. The Comets are known throughout the state for being hospitable hosts.

Clayton was the host school again this fall for the Greater Neuse’s preseason gathering of every coach from every league school. Many aspects of the program still have a community feel, even though the school now has three or four times as many students as back in the day when it was a member of the Capital Area 2A Conference with teams such as Benson, Smithfield, Cary, Apex, Millbrook and Garner.

The old CAC coaches used to get together often, something Pinkowski wants to start in the Greater Neuse. He thinks it is important that coaches work at building relationships with other coaches.

“We’re all competitive and we want our teams to win and we don’t have much time,” he said. “But I’m very comfortable in extending a hand of friendship. I really hope that we can find more time for our conference coaches to get together. “

Coaching Clayton football has been everything he thought it would be.

“This is a wonderful place to coach. The support is amazing and you work with such good people,” he said “I remember when I was an assistant here and we won the league championship and the sportsmanship award the same year. That meant an awful lot to us because it showed that you can beat people and still treat people the right way.”

‘They are my players’

Leach said his biggest adjustment has been building relationships with all the players. He worked with the defense in the past and helped everyone in the weight room, but being head coach means he is the final authority.

Most of the problems eventually come to him and that’s not always fun and not always related to football.

Last week, for example, he received complaints about how one of his players was driving his car. “So I’ll call him in and talk to his parents,” Leach said. “That’s not something I would have done last year, but these are my players now.”

Those few seconds of reflection before the Middle Creek game were quickly replaced that night when Leach glanced around. The coaching staff is essentially intact from last year. Adam Hamrick, the new offensive coordinator, was an addition, but he certainly wasn’t new because he grew up in the Garner program and was one of its most successful quarterbacks.

Hamrick is one of seven former Trojans players who are on the coaching staff.

“That’s not the case everywhere,” Leach said. “This is a special program, a special school and a special community. Once you’re in it, you are always a part of it.”

Leach has learned he is not alone. The responsibility is his, but as he told his coaches this week, they are all in it together.

Stevens: 919-829-8910

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service