LINCOLNTON, Ga. – Larry Campbell’s greatest success and biggest headache in 44 years at Lincoln County were in complete agreement at the announcement of his retirement Friday.
Their former football coach is irreplaceable.
“I don’t think there’s been a better coach in the United States for high school football, in my opinion,” said Garrison Hearst (Class of 1990).
“He’s a coach that Lincoln County will miss and never can replace,” said Vince Gartrell (Class of 1986). “He’s one of the best coaches and best people I ever met in my life. There’s only going to be one.”
Hearst and Gartrell represent the extremes in Campbell’s legendary coaching career that tops out at a Georgia record 477 wins and 11 state titles. Both starred as running backs on Red Devils’ state title teams in the 1980s. Both took very different paths to Friday’s bittersweet retirement ceremony. Both credit Campbell for instilling the best of what’s inside them.
Hearst left Lincolnton to become a standout at Georgia and in the NFL. He said it was Campbell who taught him to never quit – a trait that twice earned him the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year after major injuries.
“It was about not giving up,” Hearst said of the biggest lesson he learned from Campbell. “In a game I thought I was tired and looked over to the sidelines and said, ‘Coach, I’m tired. Can I come out?’ He looked over and said to me, ‘After you score this touchdown on this next play you can come out.’ And we scored a touchdown. When you think you’re done, he sees more in you. Stuff like that you’re able to take through life, not so much on the football field but as a dad, as a husband, as a citizen. He just made a difference.”
Gartrell can certainly attest. In many ways he was as gifted an athlete as Hearst, scoring the first four touchdowns in the 1985 state championship game after starting the season in the hospital with much of his skin peeled off from a motorcycle accident. But after school Gartrell earned four trips to jail before finally turning his life around.
Gartrell came Friday to personally thank Campbell and pay respects to the one man who never let him down.
“I’m here today because of that person he developed in me,” Gartrell said. “He’s been my backbone. He’s shown me nothing but love. He always tried to direct me to the right path. After all the foolish decisions I made, he never turned his back on me. He’s always been there.”
Hearst drove in from Atlanta to be there and talk to the team even though he didn’t really like the circumstances.
“You don’t want to think about a guy that you always thought about as the head coach retiring,” Hearst said. “Because in my opinion, he seems like he still should be doing it.”
Campbell was elated to have both men as surprise guests.
“I’ve had some tough kids to coach that I loved to death and coached some kids that didn’t cause a minute’s problems that I cherish,” Campbell said. “(Hearst) is the epitome of what high school football is about. ... It means so much to me to have him drive in from Atlanta for this situation for me this morning.
“Vince Gartrell about drove me crazy. Gartrell knows that I love him and he caused me so many headaches. In between Vince and Garrison, I’ll miss everything in between.”
Both men represent what Campbell has done with his life. While many will remember him for all the victories and championships, those numbers are not what mean the most to him.
If Campbell cared about numbers, he could have stayed two more seasons, won his career average 11.6 games in each and retired with 500 wins.
But that’s not why he coached.
“The students have had the most impact in my life the last 44 years and enriched my life in so many ways,” he said.
Connie Campbell, his wife who attended all but three of the 565 Red Devils games he’s coached, agrees.
“We’ve had people write us, call us and tell us thank you for what he’s done,” she said, giving a hug to Gartrell. “It’s been worth it all. It’s what he’s done for these kids that it’s been all about. Can’t say we regret anything.”
Campbell walked away of his own accord after a 7-4 season in 2013 that was hardly up to his high Red Devil standards. He trusts the administration to find the right replacement who can continue his legacy of winning in Lincolnton.
Almost 66, he still has his health and hopes to tend to his own ailing parents and become more involved in his church. But mostly he leaves for the same reason he stayed for two-thirds of his life – kids.
This time his three grandchildren – who flanked him at the podium – will get his full attention.
“I don’t want to make the mistake with my grandchildren that I made with my children,” he said. “I didn’t ever hardly see my children because I was working seven days a week working on game plans and thinking winning football games was the most important thing in the world. I’ve been taught a lesson that that is not the case.”
Sharing their father with Lincoln County football didn’t have a deleterious affect on the Campbell children. Brian Campbell, who was born in the middle of his father’s inaugural head coaching campaign in 1972, introduced his father at Friday’s ceremony in his role as superintendent of Lincoln County Schools.
Kelli Robertson, his daughter, is a teacher in Lincoln County.
Like the rest of his family, Campbell won’t be a stranger at Lincoln County games this fall. He won’t be on the sidelines with the team or in the bleachers with his wife. He’s kept a key to sneak in the back gate and find some place inconspicuous to keep an eye on the powerhouse program he created.
For more than four decades, Lincoln County and Larry Campbell have been synonymous.
It won’t be the same on Friday nights at Buddy Bufford Field without him presiding.
But as long as that “LC” remains in the Red Devils logo, Coach Campbell’s legacy will never be forgotten.