Lincoln County head coach Larry Campbell, whose state-record of 477 football victories rank third all-time nationally, announced his retirement Friday morning at a school board meeting just minutes after telling his players.
Campbell, 65, won 11 state championships and 33 region titles at a rural school on the South Carolina border that dominated Georgia’s smallest classification for decades.
‘’I think age had more to do with the decision than anything,’’ Campbell, 65, told the AJC ahead of the 10 a.m. announcement. “I still enjoy the game and enjoy coaching and feel that I could continue, but after 44 years in one school system, it’s time. It’s been a good run.’’
Campbell also cited family reasons. His parents, who live in Campbell’s hometown of Abbeville, S.C., are not in good health, he said.
‘’I feel if I ever lost my mom or dad while I’m still standing out on a football field, would I have fulfilled my duties as a son?” Campbell said. ‘’I’ve got three grandchildren. That’s another part of it. I hardly knew my two children when they were growing up because all I knew was seven days watching film and getting ready for the next game.’’
Campbell came to Lincoln County out of the University of Georgia in 1970 as an assistant to Thomas Bunch. Campbell had no coaching experience.
“The guy before me (Bunch) was short and bald and had some success, so maybe they wanted another short and bald coach,’’ Campbell joked.
Lincolnton High had won three state championships in the 1960s, two under Bunch, but the new Lincoln County High, which opened in 1970 with the merger of historically black and white high schools, was coming off a 2-7 season.
The Red Devils were 3-7 in Campbell’s debut, but that was the only losing team that Campbell would field. Lincoln County was a state champion in 1976 and 1977 with a pair of 13-0 teams. He won four state titles in the 1980s, three in the 1990s and his final two in 2005 and 2006.
‘’I’d say adapting to the talent we had was the best thing we did,’’ Campbell said. “We started out in a wishbone. Then you get a guy come through your school like Garrison Hearst and you’d better get out of the wishbone and toss it to him. Then we go to 2005 and 2006 and we have five running backs, so we went to a double-wing set where all of them could touch the football. Then the last few years, we had only one true running back, we had to go to a spread formation.’’
Five of Campbell’s former players, including Hearst, played in the NFL, a large number for a school of only about 400 students. Some of Campbell’s better memories are those of big-name college coaches such as Johnny Majors and Vince Dooley coming to Lincolnton.
‘’I remember Coach Dooley coming down on a recruiting trip and taking him to the house for dinner,’’ Campbell said. “My wife made pinto beans and corn bread. She didn’t know he was coming. There are so many stories like that.’’
Campbell admitted that a few of his rare losses – he was 477-85-3 – stayed with him. Lincoln County lost to Savannah Christian three straight times (2009-11) in the quarterfinals. In 2011, the final score was 22-14 after Lincoln County failed to score from the 1-yard line. Campbell believes that was his last great shot at championship No. 12 as Savannah Christian wasn’t challenged the rest of the way.
Lincoln County was put out of the playoffs by Savannah Christian and other private schools more often in the latter years. Campbell was outspoken in his belief that private schools had an unfair advantage, but he did not support the public-private split of Class A, which the GHSA passed under pressure from the public schools in 2012.
Campbell preferred a return to the enrollment multiplier that would’ve moved some larger private schools into higher classifications. Campbell also stepped down this week as a member of the Georgia High School Association’s executive committee, on which he served for some 30 years.
Campbell spoke as proudly of his work as athletics director as he did his accomplishments as a football coach. He was AD of both the middle and high schools. He noted that the high school, which had only a football field, a gym and two tennis courts in 1972, now has a practice field, an eight-lane track, fields for baseball, soccer and softball, an indoor facility with turf ‘’a weight room that’s second to none and a gym that is just a thing of beauty.’’
Campbell said that he considered stepping down only as athletics director but didn’t feel that was the best thing for the school.
‘’I thought about asking for that, but then decided that wasn’t fair to our school system when we don’t have any teaching openings,’’ Campbell said. ‘’That would require so much change at a small school.’’
Campbell leaves trailing only John McKissick of South Carolina (612 wins) and John T. Curtis Jr. of Louisiana (530) in victories all-time.
GHSA state championships:
14 – Wright Bazemore, Valdosta
11 – Larry Campbell, Lincoln County
7 – Nick Hyder, Valdosta
6 – Jess Simpson, Buford
5 – Ed Pilcher, Thomas County Central
5 – Charlie Grisham, Carrollton
Most wins in GHSA:
477 – Larry Campbell
352 – Robert Davis
346 – Dan Pitts
337 – Dwight Hochstetler
323 – Luther Welsh
Most wins nationally:
612 – John McKissick (South Carolina)
530 – John T. Curtis Jr. (Louisiana)
477 – Larry Campbell (Georgia)
444 – Mike Smith (Virginia)
437 – George Curry (Pennsylvania)