Spend a few minutes with Tarboro head football coach Jeff Craddock and it’s easy to see why the Vikings have been one of the most successful teams in the state.
Passion oozes from Craddock as he talks about his program as the Vikings prepare to play in their ninth NCHSAA title game. He gives off the vibe that makes it easy to believe his players would run through a wall for him.
The Vikings (14-0) are playing in their second consecutive 1AA title game, this time against East Surry (11-3) Saturday (6 p.m.) at N.C. State. Tarboro has been almost a regular when it comes to state championship games, winning three in a row from 2009-2011 and playing in five consecutive 2A championship games from 2008-2012. They won it all last year, their first 1AA title.
The town of Tarboro, located off highway 64, about 74 miles east of Raleigh, isn’t like some of the other football powerhouse towns in the state. It’s not as big as Wake Forest, winners of two in a row and 44 straight games, or the successful teams in Charlotte, with several schools taking turns winning multiple titles out of the west.
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Tarboro is a town of 11,415, with 604 students at the high school. Of those, 57 play football. About the average roster size for Craddock, who somehow manages to get every ounce of success out of those players, every year.
During the NCHSAA state championship press conference on Wednesday, Craddock talked for exactly 1 minute and 25 five seconds when asked about the secret to success at Tarboro. Forty five seconds into his explanation, he mentioned the culture of football in the town.
It starts with the youth leagues, who run the legendary Tarboro-T, the same system that current NFL running backs Shaun Draughn and Todd Gurley ran in high school. At an early age they run the 4-4 Cover 3 defense, with the exact same checks and reads as the varsity team.
That system follows them through middle school, to jayvee, right until Craddock gets them. Most of the coaches, even at the youth leagues, are former Tarboro High School football players. The coaches already know the drills, they know Craddock’s system, they stress the same principles. By the time those young players get to varsity, they’ve been taught what it takes to be a Vikings’ football player.
“They’ve already had it,” Craddock said. “So we just kind of polish it.”
And Craddock, 48, doesn’t wait until the players get to Tarboro High to get to know them. His sons came up in the system, so it wasn’t uncommon to catch the most successful coach in school history standing on the sidelines at a youth game, or high-fiving every middle school player as they took the field.
“I try to get to know them and see them,” Craddock said, “and I want them to see me around and know what we do.”
Craddock said Tarboro football can’t save them all. He’s had to cut some players and others have taken “different paths.” But as the coach put it, “you focus on the ones you can help and do the best you can.”
Craddock took over as the head coach in 2004 after serving as an assistant from 1995-2003, but the Tarboro didn’t succeed over night. Craddock didn’t win his first playoff game until 2008. They made it to the state title game that year, but were defeated by Newton-Conover 51-28.
These days Craddock hears a lot of people saying that Tarboro has always been good and always has great athletes, but Craddock has a response to that kind of talk.
“Let’s look back at ‘99, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007,” Craddock said, counting each season on his fingers for emphasis. “Those nine years there was hardly any playoff wins, I think there might have been one or two conference championships. We weren’t even close to any state titles. I don’t think it’s always been there. It takes a lot of work, not only from me, but the staff we’ve been able to assemble, it takes time.”
Time is something Craddock might not have gotten if the locals had had their way early on.
“Letters were being sent to the editor, people wanted me fired,” Craddock said. “It got really, really ugly, believe me. But I knew the Lord didn’t put me in position to fail, I had to keep grinding. But when it popped, it popped.”
Keep it rolling
It all popped for Craddock in 2009 when he won his first title, 28-3 over Mountain Heritage. The next year, led by future All-Pro Gurley, the Vikings defeated Winston-Salem Carver, 21-13. The following season, in Raleigh, Gurley capped off his high school career, leading Tarboro to a 39-36 win over Lincolnton on a bum ankle.
Led by current Indianapolis Colts rookie Tyquan Lewis the following year, the streak ended with a four-point loss to East Lincoln. The kids, and the town, had bought into what Craddock was selling.
“It’s day-to-day in what you preach to these kids, and they have to buy into what you preach them,” Craddock said. “Once that happens, then you have to model it because the culture is not just for the players, but for the coaches. We’re upheld to the same standard as the players are.
Players have to trust me and I have to trust the players and players have to trust each other. It’s a pyramid of trust that you got to have.”
The best team?
For the first time, Tarboro has a chance to finish undefeated in consecutive seasons. Naturally, the championship teams debate which Vikings’ team is the best of all time.
The current team, Craddock said, isn’t as athletic as his previous squads, but they somehow “fit a little better.”
A lot was made of last year’s team because a bulk of the seniors were moved up to varsity as sophomores and suffered through two disappointing (by Tarboro standards) seasons, failing to win a 1AA title after many figured they would dominate after dropping a class.
That group finally won it all last year, but Craddock has 23 seniors on the roster this year who want to leave a legacy.
“Every class wants to be known as a state champion,” Craddock said. “This year’s senior group isn’t riding the coattails of last year’s state title because last year’s (team) graduated. Some of them helped, but they want to be known for their senior year, so they take a lot of pride in that each and every day.”
At the beginning of the season, this group came to Craddock and asked how many points the team averaged last season, or how many yards the defense gave up per play. Whatever the number is, they wanted to top it.
“I think a lot of it is, they have a lot of friends from last year’s team and they are just grinding to try and beat them statistically because there was so much made about that senior class,” Craddock said. “This year’s team was like, we can be just as dominate.”
Craddock never preaches being average to his teams, dating back to his first team meeting as head coach, when he told the group he planned on winning state championships, with an S, meaning multiple titles. The way Craddock sees it, he would rather aim high and miss than aim low and hit. In other words, don’t settle for low goals.
“I don’t know how many more years I got, but I never want to lose another football game,” Craddock said with so much confidence you can’t help but believe him. “If I coach 10 more years I want to finish 150-0. We can start this year, we have to be 15-0 before we can be 150-0. It may sound crazy, but why not.”