Charlie Adams did the unthinkable in 1967 when he resigned as the boys basketball coach at Cary High School to become the dean of students at Garner High.
It was as if current Garner boys basketball coach Eddie Gray, a 1970 graduate of the school in his 39th year teaching and coaching the school, departed his alma mater to become an administrator at Cary.
Adams was as green-blooded Cary as you could get. He was born and reared in Cary. An elementary school is named for his family. He led the Imps basketball team to an N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A basketball title. The favored son returned home to build an exceptional basketball program.
And he was going to Garner.
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“The Garner-Cary rivalry was as intense a rivalry as there was in this area,” Adams recalled. “One of the best rivalries anywhere in the state. There wasn’t a lot of bitterness, but there was a great desire to beat the other one. It was just a whole lot of fun.”
Adams said a 1964 game between his Cary team and Garner was the most important game of his life.
“I told Sue that we could get married during the Christmas break if we won, but if we lost the team was going to have to practice every day during the break,” Adams recalled.
With the score tied in the closing seconds Adams set up a play to use leading scorer Wayne Dillard as a decoy. The clock was clicking down when suddenly all of the players on the Cary bench stood up, the signal to pass the ball to Johnny Johnson. His jumper swished at the buzzer and Adams heard wedding bells.
A few years later, Adams was ready to get into administration and the opportunity at Garner was too great to turn down, even if it did require that he change his wardrobe.
“When I got to Garner I found out that it wanted to win that game just as badly as Cary did,” he said. “I got to see both sides of it.”
A lot has changed since those days when each of the schools was emerging from rural and railroad roots.
Twin towns in the 1960s
The communities were more alike than different in those days.
Cary’s population of 3,356 in 1960 was slightly less than Garner’s 3,451. But by the 1980 census, Imp land had exploded to more than 20,000 while Garner was barely 10,000. Today, the gap is huge – Cary with an estimated 151,088 (the second largest town in the United States) to Garner’s estimated 27,814.
But into the 1970s each town was a one-school town. Tryon Road, about the only way to get from one town to the other in those days, was packed with cars following the annual rivalry football game.
Seasons would be deemed successful or not depending on the outcome of the games.
The schools were, in a sense, like brothers for decades. The coaches might talk rivalry, but for the most part they were close. When Garner started its wrestling program in the late 1960s, for example, its coaches turned to Cary for help.
The two schools moved together from the Capital Area 2A Conference, which included schools like Smithfield, Benson, Millbrook and Fuquay-Varina; to the District III 3A, which united the two Wake County schools with the likes of Jordan, Person and Northern Durham.
The two schools moved to the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s 4A classification, the division for the largest schools, at the same time.
But then another unimaginable thing happened.
Realignment splits up the foes
A NCHSAA realignment of schools into conferences put the two schools in different leagues. Wake County’s growth resulted in an abundance of high schools. Cary was aligned with the western part of the county and Garner with the eastern side.
Adams, by then the head of the NCHSAA, predicted the rivalry would remain fevered and it did for a while. The schools continued to play each other in all sports in non-conference games.
But it was never the same as the days when you drove past dairy farms and timberland to play a road game that might determine the conference championship. The games just were not as special as they once were.
A few years ago, with the rivalry all but gone, the two schools even stopped their football series, one of the oldest in the state. They resumed it a few years later.
Ask a 16-year-old at either school who is their school’s biggest rival and it is doubtful that any will pick the old school rival.
But to an older generation, the rivalry is still there, flickering always, and occasionally, like Saturday, burning with a passion that only long-time acquaintances can know.
But there are still people like Gray – and Cary coach Allan Gustafson, who is also an alumnus of the school where he teaches – who remember when the rivalry was the thing, not a sideshow to the Cary/Apex or Garner/Middle Creek clashes of today.
It is a sure bet that before the Eastern Regional 4A boys basketball championship game in Fayetteville, Gray will provide a brief history lesson on the rivalry.
He remembers it. He has lived it.
A selection of notable Cary-Garner clashes
Football, 1953: Cary 58, Garner 0: The 1953 victory helped the Imps to a 9-0 season and helped push Simon Terrell’s two-year career football coaching mark to 20-0. The Imps played too many regular season games to be eligible for the state playoffs either year. Cary went 14-0, including a 28-0 win over Garner, in 1955 and won the state championship.
Basketball, 1964 —Cary 55, Garner 53: Johnny Johnson hit a jump shot from the corner as time expired in the 1964 game. Cary coach Charlie Adams had his team stand with five seconds left as a signal to reverse the ball away from standout Wayne Dillard to Johnson on the opposite side.
Football, 1987 — Garner 25, Cary 0: Cary held Garner to its lowest scoring total of the regular season and its second lowest total of the year. The Trojans, led by Anthony Barbour, finished 15-0 and won the state 4A football championship.
Baseball, 1996 — Cary 1, Garner 0: Garner’s Paul Stewart threw a perfect baseball game through a regulation seven-innings and into the ninth before Paul Wilder, the first draft pick in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays, drove in the only run of the game in 1996.
Football, 1998 —Garner 34, Cary 13: Garner, en route to the 4A state championship game, handled the Imps easily.
Football, 2004 — Cary 12, Garner 7: Josh Adams broke a 45-yard run in the fourth quarter to set up his 1-yard scoring jaunt to give the Imps a first-round football victory in a monsoon at Trojan Stadium. “I don’t want it to end,” said Cary quarterback Hunter Stewart of the contest. Adams had led the Imps to a 27-23 win over Garner during the regular season.