A second Triangle high school has hired one of its former football coaches to lead the program in 2016.
Hillside High announced on its school website that it has hired Ray Harrison, who was the Hornets’ head coach in 2004-08. He succeeds his former assistant coach Antonio King, who left this year for East Carolina University after compiling a seven-year record of 72-20 (40-1 in conference games).
“I’m really happy to be back as part of this football community,” said Harrison, an assistant principal at Hillside who helps monitor athletes’ academic progress. “I’ve been getting texts and messages from everyone, old players and recent players, and it’s been nice to get all that support.”
Hillside’s athletic director, Ovester Grays, said the school received 18 applications from highly qualified people for the head coaching job, but Harrison’s previous experience stood out for everyone on the search committee, including principal William Logan.
“He’s a real plus for our program,” Grays said. “One of the most important thing for any athletics program, and for our entire school is synergy – shared values about what’s important for our students: character, leadership, academics. We’ve gotten to see him share those values inside this building; we know about his experience because we’ve seen it ourselves.
Harrison was 39-24-1 as the Hornets’ head coach 2004-08, and he is considered the modern-day architect of their return to state prominence. His overall record in five years at Hillside was 39-24-1 overall, 19-13 in conference games. His last three teams finished 33-8-1 and reached the state playoffs each year.
Before first becoming Hillside’s head coach in 2004, Harrison spent one year as a defensive backs coach under Vince Armstrong on a 2003 team that went 1-10 overall and 1-6 in the 3A Five-County Conference.
“When I first took over as head coach, I visited the weight room and found about four or five guys in there. It was a storage closet,” Harrison said. “The first thing we had to do was build up the program and the commitment to succeed.”
Harrison said being an administrator has advantages over his previous position as a biology teacher.
“Now I’ve got more flexible time to work with the kids,” Harrison said. “In the past, if a player had a problem, I might have to finish a class before I could talk with him. Now I’m freer to help them anytime during the day.”
Hillside hadn’t produced a winning football season since 2000 when Harrison arrived in 2004, but then got at least 10 wins in each of his last three years. His 2006 team finished 10-3; the Hornets went 11-3 in 2007 and 12-2-1 in 2008.
After Harrison left Hillside to take care of family business out of state, King took over before the 2009 season and guided the Hornets to six PAC-6 4A titles in seven years and won the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A title in 2010 with a 16-0-0 team. King was hired last month as the running backs coach at East Carolina.
Now Hillside has come full circle, following a similar decision made by Southeast Raleigh to hire Daniel Finn as its football coach just four years after Finn had stepped down.
Before Harrison’s first stint, Hillside had just five winning seasons in 24 years. Since the start of Harrison’s third year at Hillside, the Hornets have nine conference titles in 10 years, haven’t won fewer than eight games in a season and are 106-27-1.
Perhaps the biggest legacy of Harrison’s first tenure as coach, continued by King, was the immense surge in student support. Hillside drew about 30 players to his first practice as a football coach. More than 120 showed up for opening day in his last season. King drew more than 150 in recent years.
“It took us two years to get going, but everyone started buying into the program,” Harrison said. “I’m still close with those kids. Some of them are 30 years old have their own children, but I still call them ‘my kids.’”