They're separated by 25 miles of rural Georgia highways and 16 years, but Lincoln County's Larry Campbell and Thomson's Luther Welsh are linked by a common calling that has made them the most prolific head coaches in Georgia football history.
Mr. Campbell will coach his 500th football game tonight when the Red Devils play host to Eagles Landing Christian in the second round of the Class A playoffs. Across the state at LaGrange in the Class AAA bracket on Saturday night, Mr. Welsh will coach his 497th game -- a figure that doesn't include 82 he spent on the sidelines as an assistant at various schools.
Only 10 prep football head coaches have coached 500 games. Mr. Campbell and Mr. Welsh rank 11th and 13th on the overall list -- Nos. 1 and 2 in Georgia. Only a handful of college coaches have 500 career starts.
"It means that we're old as dirt," Mr. Campbell, 60, said.
"You've really got to love it, I guess," Mr. Welsh, 76, said. "If you didn't you'd be out of it."
The two South Carolina natives have never gotten out of the game since they accepted their first head coaching posts as 24-year-olds. Mr. Welsh has moved around to 11 schools as a head coach or assistant since 1955. Mr. Campbell has never left Lincoln County since arriving as an assistant in 1970.
Between them they've racked up 14 state championships, 41 region titles and 751 victories.
"I think teaching and coaching is a calling like anything else, and there's no doubt for them it is," said John Barnett, who has served as Mr. Welsh's defensive coordinator all 17 seasons he has coached at Thomson. "I think they have a genuine love for competition and what they do."
MR. CAMPBELL KNEW before he graduated from Calhoun Falls High School in South Carolina that coaching was what he wanted to do. Not necessarily football -- he played baseball in college and came to Lincoln County to resurrect the baseball program.
"It didn't take me long in Lincolnton to realize where the roots of the community lie," he said.
In 1972 he succeeded Thomas Bunch as the Red Devils head coach. In 37 seasons, he has become the winningest coach in Georgia history and third nationwide, with 424 victories.
"Having the success we've had, I never imagined that in my wildest dreams," he said. "But that's all I ever wanted to do and still feel the same way. If I had to do it over again, I'd do exactly the same thing."
Mr. Welsh began coaching in 1955 at Warren County and, aside from two years of military service, he's been doing it ever since. For about two weeks in the mid-1960s he took a job as a traveling sprinkler system salesman but went back to coaching.
Mr. Campbell, on the other hand, has been talking about retirement for a decade, and he says it tempts him every year. He has grandchildren to dote upon, and plenty of family nearby, and he raises some beef cattle and rides horses on the side.
"I certainly look forward to that time, and I hope I'm not crazy enough to not know when to get out," he said. "The ones who are retired tell me I'll know when it's time. It's just a year-to-year thing."
One thing he already knows well is how to make adjustments. Mr. Campbell has adjusted his coaching to win state titles in four decades.
"The thing he's been able to do is adjust his way of coaching to fit the talent we have," said Glen Matthews, a longtime assistant coach at Lincoln County who played on the 1976-77 state championship teams. "Some coaches will get their brains beat out trying to run a certain system all the time."
AS LONG AS they've been coaching at such a high level in such proximity to each other, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Welsh have crossed paths only twice. Neither immediately remembered those games.
"That shows you how good our memories are," Mr. Campbell said.
In 1994 when Mr. Welsh took the reins for the defending state champions at Greene-Taliaferro, his team tied Lincoln County 6-6. The next year, Mr. Campbell took his eventual Class A champion Red Devils to Greensboro and beat Mr. Welsh's Tigers 14-7. Lincoln County and Thomson scrimmage regularly but haven't played each other since 1951.
The two coaches share a mutual admiration.
"Larry's been winning and winning and winning a long time," said Mr. Welsh, who won three state titles in Thomson. "You don't find too many people who do that."
"I've always had a lot of respect for Luther and what he does," said Mr. Campbell, noting last week's victory over Jackson as the latest example. "I think (that) was an indicator of what a superb job he does -- when you fight through a 5-5 season and as a No. 4 seed go beat a No. 1 seed. He's still got the touch."
While Mr. Campbell will coach his 500th tonight, Mr. Welsh knows that to hit the milestone this season, his Bulldogs will have to reach the Class AAA title game in the Georgia Dome. But there is next year.
"If the Lord will let me keep on living, I'm gonna be here next year," Mr. Welsh said.
If Mr. Campbell's willing, so will he.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or email@example.com.
MOST CAREER GAMES COACHED -- HIGH SCHOOL
|COACH||SCHOOL OR STATE||YEARS||GAMES||WINS|
|1. John McKissick||Summerville, S.C.||1952-||711||565|
|2. Willie Varner||Woodruff, S.C.||1954-96||525||383|
|3. Dick Tighe||Iowa||1954-||521||371|
|4. John T. Curtis||John Curtis Christian (La.)||1969-||520||465|
|5. Bob Schneider||Newport Central Catholic (Ky.)||1966-||513||335|
|6. George Curry||Berwick, Pa.||1967-||509||413|
|7. G.A. Moore||Texas||1962-2004||504||412|
|7. Elbert Wright||Texas||1954-99||504||361|
|9. Herb Meyer||Oceanside, Calif.||1959-2003||502||338|
|9. Gordon Wood||Texas||1940-85||502||396|
|11. Larry Campbell||Lincoln County||1972-||499||424|
|11. Mojo Hollowell||Owensboro (Ky.) Catholic||1957-2000||499||305|
|13. Luther Welsh||Thomson||1955-||496||327|