LINCOLNTON, Ga. – When presented with the information that he’d been selected as The Augusta Chronicle’s All-Area Georgia Coach of the Year for the first time since 2005, Larry Campbell instinctively rattled off all the places we should have looked instead.
Matt LeZotte at Aquinas. Milan Turner at Thomson. Eric Parker at Burke County. Chris Kelly at Glascock County.
“Super years,” Campbell said of his peers’ performances, as if by association his 11-2 season at Lincoln County was somehow ordinary.
Of course, Campbell has routinely made 11-win seasons in Lincoln County ordinary. Below average, actually, since the Red Devils average 11.46 wins in his 41 seasons at the helm. It takes something for the winningest coach in Georgia history (117 more wins than the coach in second place) with 11 state titles to rise to the top of the conversation.
So what made this team that lost 10-7 to Dooly County in the Class A public school semifinals stand out?
“I feel like this team improved from game one to game 13 as much as any,” Campbell said of his squad that won 10 in a row and claimed a 33rd region title after losing in the second week to Class AA rival Washington-Wilkes.
THIS WAS HARDLY Campbell’s most gifted team. And it was definitely not his most experienced.
“We were down to four sophomores starting on the lines who should have been playing JV in a normal year,” Campbell said. “We had to cancel our JV schedule and we’ve never done that.”
Campbell arguably got as much as he could out of this team, yet it’s the premature ending that still sticks in his craw.
“I think that’s one of the few times I can remember getting beat by a team I thought we were better than,” Campbell said. “It hurts. We had so many things go wrong. You don’t get over that
feeling until Christmas. Hurting right now.”
The Red Devils dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone. They dropped a potential pick-six interception. Worst of all, they suffered a rare blocked kick on a point-after length field goal attempt on the last play of the half that Dooly returned for its only touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
“Halftime was like talking to zombies,” Campbell said. “Seemed like they took all the air out of us.”
It’s that frustration and regret that keeps Campbell doing what he does at age 64. Every year he’s asked how much longer he’ll keep coaching, and every year he insists he won’t overstay his welcome.
“Probably until I lose that aching in your stomach that you kind of crave,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it. When it starts getting where it really don’t bother me to lose, it’s time for me to get out.”
GETTING OUT HAS never really been a thought ever since he went straight from graduating at the University of Georgia to being a Red Devils assistant under Thomas Bunch in 1970. Two years later he become head coach.
“I love high school football,” Campbell said. “I wouldn’t do nothing else if I had my time to go back over again and they told me I could be a medical doctor. I would still choose coaching. I don’t regret doing it one iota.”
Not everything in coaching is to be loved. You don’t win 470 games and stay in one place 41 years without creating competitive jealousies. Critics sling unfounded barbs and accusations constantly toward Lincolnton – that he gets all the players and all the calls. His daughter, Kelli Robertson, reads all about it on the message boards, including the guy who once wrote “the world will be better off when Campbell’s buried.”
“People say you’ve got to be hard-skinned and don’t listen to all this, but it is definitely the hardest part – especially coaching in one community for 43 years,” he admitted. “To say that it don’t bother you is not true.”
Campbell shrugs off the folks who blame him for the split between the Class A public and private schools even though he’s the one who lobbied against it and was set to join the largely private region around Athens if his peers split off from the GHSA.
MANY ALSO ACCUSE Lincoln County of recruiting, even though Campbell has never done it and never would. Some folks from Harlem stopped playing golf in Lincolnton because Mike McIntire’s family moved in 2011 despite Campbell doing everything he could to keep Harlem’s staff informed of what was happening.
“The part that really tears you up is the recruiting part. It’s crazy stuff,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a coach anywhere who’s coached 43 years and not had four kids move in. We’re not going to turn anybody away who comes here and does it legally.”
It makes you wonder how long it will be before Campbell decides to give it up and let someone else take over the Class A dynasty he’s built. He’s got two grandkids – Campbell, 6, and Allie Drake, 4 – with a third due in June. He’s also got a little cattle business on the side, with 60-65 brood cows scattered over three pieces of land he leases. He goes out every day on tractors putting hay out for feeding.
“My dad got me started in it and much to my surprise I have thoroughly enjoyed it,” Campbell said. “I didn’t care a flip about it when I was growing up on the farm. I could be satisfied, now that I’ve got the cattle business and something to do. If I could golf, I probably would have been retired already. I’m not a golfer. I still enjoy winning football games more than becoming a good golfer.”
CAMPBELL HAS ALREADY dialed back his responsibilities with the Red Devils through the years. He leaves all of the game-planning to his coordinators, Mike Doolittle (offense) and Kevin Banks (defense), while his fingerprints still remain on the program by handling the practices, personnel, boosters and film swaps.
“To do a game plan the way it should be done, that’s seven days a week,” he said. “That’s three more hours every night after practice. With two grandchildren I wasn’t willing to do that.
“If I had to do it seven days a week, I’d quit. I see the time that I missed with my own children – I hardly knew who my own children were. I’m not going to sit by and let that happen to my grandchildren. Sunday afternoons when some of my coaches are out there busting their rear, I’m here throwing the football with my grandson.”
Once again, Campbell offers suggestions for who really deserves to be coach of the year.
“This award should be definitely split 10 ways,” he said of his staff. “I have some of the finest assistants anywhere.”