Prep Football: Carson athletic changes
CHINA GROVE — Thursday morning brought sweeping change to Carson’s athletic program.
Mark Woody, the only head football coach the school has ever known, stepped down on Valentine’s Day. Probably just a coincidence, but an appropriate date for a coach who had genuine affection for his players, his staff and his program.
“Mark did an excellent job,” Carson principal Kelly Withers said. “We had a rough start in football, but it was a growing process and he stayed patient and helped us through it. He laid a solid foundation. We were very lucky to have him.”
Woody, 45, may be hanging up his cleats, but his responsibilities will actually expand beyond the goal posts. He’ll still bleed orange and blue and will still be a Cougar. He’s been named as the man who will succeed another Carson institution — athletics director Jim Grkman.
Ron Raper served as Carson’s first AD, but since Year 2, Grkman has been the man behind the scenes, orchestrating a successful overall program. Grkman is a familiar figure at Carson events — arms folded, jet-black hair now gray, old-school glasses and coaching shorts. He will continue in that same role, for a time, even though he has already poured 37 years into teaching, coaching and administrating.
“I’ve been thinking about retiring and doing something else, and we all thought Mark would be a great replacement,” Grkman said. “He’ll be shadowing me for a while, as he learns the logistics of the job and makes the transition to AD.”
The timetable for Grkman’s retirement isn’t set in stone and is a matter he’s still discussing with his family.
It’s possible that he’ll call it a career in June of this year, but he may postpone his departure date until June, 2014.
Grkman’s son, Zach, one of the original Cougars, is in his junior year as a football player at Averett. Grkman’s daughter, Sidney, is one of the standouts on Carson’s softball team. A senior outfielder, she’ll play at UNC Greensboro next spring, and her father wants to watch her play.
Whatever Grkman decides, Woody and Withers are grateful for each day they’ve still got the war horse in harness.
“Jim has been a great asset for Carson,” Withers said. “He brought with him a great wealth of knowledge from other schools, and we want to take advantage of that wealth of knowledge before it exits. Jim and Mark will make a great team.”
There was a time when Woody, who teaches three English clases, would’ve simply assumed the AD duties to go along with being head football coach, but the days of the teacher/football coach/AD are numbered. There are only 24 hours in a day.
“Maybe at a 1A school you can still be football coach and AD, but I don’t think it’s physically possible to do it now at a school the size of Carson,” Woody said. “You’re talking about football coach and AD as two full-time jobs if you’re going to be fair to all the sports.”
Woody had to make an agonizing decision. It was either/or, not both. He’s poured his soul into Carson football since the summer of 2006 when the original Cougars were practicing at China Grove Middle School, learning how to put on shoulder pads and preparing for a season in which they would be sacrificial lambs.
“I didn’t sleep well Wednesday night, talking things over with my family and replaying those early days in my head,” Woody said. “Not replaying the games, but replaying all those things that led up to that first game.”
Carson had a wacky football schedule that first year, picking up games with anyone who had a date available.
“Our first game we’re playing at Sun Valley,” Woody said. “Sun Valley was really good, and our kids were still learning how to stretch. I was just praying none of our guys would get hurt or killed.”
The final score was 41-0, but the Cougars survived, and it was a brick in the foundation. The next week against Fred T. Foard, the Cougars actually scored.
The final tally in 2006 was 0-11, and it was followed by another 0-11 bottom line in 2007.
“Our quarterback, Ryan Jones, breaks his collarbone the first game in 2007, and I’m throwing up,” Woody said. We didn’t have another quarterback.”
Even at 0-22, Woody kept showing up for to work. So did his Cougars.
“They were great kids and they just kept practicing as hard as they could and playing as well as they could,” Woody said. “I was fortunate to coach kids like that.”
The Cougars won for the first time in 2008. In 2009, they won their first playoff game. In 2010, they were 10-3.
“There are plenty of stories,” Woody said with a grin. “Like that official at Lake Norman that was chasing after Bush (Shaun Warren) on his 94-yard run. The ref hits that dip there at midfield and he goes down like he’s been shot.”
The Cougars took a step back in 2012, although even in a 4-8 season, it’s not like they didn’t have their moments.
“We didn’t lose to any bad football teams,” Woody said. “We’ve had some success. We’ve kept making strides every year. We should have a good football team next year. We’ll have a lot of starters back.”
Woody admits he’ll miss the collisions and the cameraderie. There’s nothing quite like football Fridays.
“I’ve been playing football or coaching football just about all of my life,” he said. “There’s going to be a void without football, no doubt about it, but it’s time to open another door.”
Woody’s final record will be 28-54, but the Cougars have done OK since that 0-22 hole.
“Give our principals (first Henry Kluttz and now Withers) a lot of credit,” Grkman said. “Henry got it all started, and Kelly has kept the ball rolling. We’re having success now on the fields as well as the classroom, and Carson is a school where kids want to go. I feel good about that.”
Woody’s last official acts as head coach came on Thursday morning. First, he met with his staff. Next, his players were called to the auditorium, where Woody informed them change was in the wind. Even with his own world turning upside down, Wood’s first concern was his players.
“Mark wanted to tell the players himself and that speaks to his character,” Withers said.
Carson knows who it’s next AD will be. Now the hunt begins for a new head football coach.
“That search started immediately after today’s announcement,” Withers said.
Thanks to Woody’s patience, it will be a great job for somebody.