Sexton retiring from SHS soccer

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 2, 2011

By Mike London
SALISBURY — Tom Sexton retired from his Salisbury High classroom in January and recently informed the Post he won’t be at the helm of Salisbury’s boys soccer program for the first time since 1990.
Sexton is synonymous both with Salisbury High, where he’s worn a half-dozen different hats, and with soccer, where he’s been the most successful coach in county history. He coached the East-West All-Star Game in 1999.
“Hopefully, my legacy will be that I always cared tremendously about my players and my school and that I always had respect for our student-athletes,” Sexton said. “I knew what I was doing — at least most of the time. I tried to be a student of the game in whatever sport I was coaching.”
Sexton, never at a loss for words, didn’t announce his departure from SHS with a simple fax or e-mail but rather with an hour-long conversation that came from his heart.
It was Sexton being Sexton.
He set three notable records at Catawba — most field goals in a game (5), longest field goal (53 yards) and longest acceptance speech for a Hall of Fame induction. His field-goal records still stand, although David Bennett shattered Sexton’s mark for most monologue minutes.
Sexton hung around long enough to coach the sons and daughters of guys he coached.
“When you get a letter or a phone call from a doctor that played for you 25 years ago and they tell you that you made a difference — that’s when you get the goose bumps,” Sexton said.
Sexton influenced thousands of kids positively as a captain of the classroom. He earned accolades such as Rowan County Teacher of the Year for 1992 and North Carolina Teacher of the Year for social studies for 1987-88.
On the field — and in the pool — Sexton leaves astounding records behind. His boys soccer coaching mark at Salisbury (351-107-28) will give young coaches something to shoot at for a long, long time.
He also ranks fourth in county history in prep baseball wins — his teams were 212-206 — trailing only Bill Kesler, Jeff Safrit and Phil Harbinson.
“I actually got to coach my daughters (Taylor and Holly) in, of all things — swimming,” Sexton said. “That was a unique time and a quality time. At the pool, they referred to me as ‘Coach Sexton.’ ”
Most everyone calls him “Coach,” including sons-in-law Daniel Guertin and Ryan Starrett, who were stellar athletes in soccer and swimming, respectively. Sexton wouldn’t have it any other way.
Presumably, Sexton’s wife, Cathy, calls him Tom. She’s been a big part of the journey through all the overtimes and is the person for whom he has the most praise.
“She’s had to deal with every contest I’ve been part of,” Sexton said. “The cell phone has made things a lot easier, but there were a lot of late nights when she was worried that my bus was broken down on the road somewhere.”
The list of people Sexton wanted to thank would fill several filing cabinets, but SHS principal Windsor Eagle, who hired him, must be mentioned, along with coaching and life mentors such as Bob Patton, Bob Pharr, Aaron Neely, Sam Gealy and Charles Hellard.
So does Vince Zappone, a Florida coaching legend. Sexton was Zappone’s first soccer-style kicker in the 1970s. Kicking footballs though goal posts started him on a path that led to Rowan County.
Bill Faircloth was the Catawba coach who discovered Sexton — purely by accident. On his way to the airport after a Florida recruiting trip, he saw stadium lights, had some time to kill and watched Sexton boot a game-winner.
Sexton got a modest scholarship from the Indians — $800 — $500 to kick footballs, the other $300 to play soccer.
His coaching life began with baseball and football at China Grove. Baseball was his love. Following Zappone as a football coach was his dream.
He was hired at Salisbury two years later as a football assistant, but he became head baseball coach in 1982 and held the reins through 2000.
Sexton’s best years were his early ones. Salisbury was 54-10 from 1982-84 and twice made the 3A semifinals.
“I came into a great situation with Jim DeHart on the bench with me as my assistant, but really as a co-coach,” Sexton said. “We had pitching in those years, but then there was a long stretch after that when we never had more than one pitcher. If you’re going to do something, you need three.”
Sexton loved baseball, learned something new every time he stepped on a field, but he stepped away to spend more time with his family
His greatest accomplishments came in soccer. He coached Salisbury to 13 conference titles and made the Western final four times.
“I’d love to change some outcomes,” Sexton said. “But there aren’t many decisions I’d go back and change.”
Salisbury sailed the flagship as soccer rose in county interest from nowhere to fourth behind baseball, football and basketball.
It’s still growing. Soccer is the county’s most diverse sport and includes great athletes. Sexton, 19-2-1 in his final season, has guided Asians, Africans, Latinos and Europeans in the melting pot that is Salisbury soccer.
“Soccer is the real deal, and I’ve watched it grow to where the World Cup is on ESPN now — not ESPN 12,” Sexton said. “There’s an extraordinary level of quickness and fitness required, and at times, it’s guys knocking the heck out of each other without pads. The big thing is soccer has become a cool sport now, and that’s been gratifying.”
One more aspect of Sexton’s career must be mentioned. It’s the area of which he’s proudest and for which he’s received minimal credit.
He was athletics director early in the 2000s when Salisbury turned a corner and made strides toward having top-notch facilities and becoming a 2A power on the state level in a wide range of sports.
The pivotal hire, of course, was Joe Pinyan as football coach. Pinyan eventually succeeded Sexton as AD in 2005.
“I asked everyone involved to make their expectations higher,” Sexton said. “We improved the esprit de corps.”
That’s a fancy French term for spirit and morale. Salisbury has it now, no question. Sexton was a part of that.
Sexton expects long-time colleague and friend Matt Parrish to keep Salisbury soccer rolling. He’ll miss the games, but he won’t miss cleaning out activity buses at midnight.
He’s working at Warrior Golf Club, and he’ll be sharing his years of soccer knowledge with the kids at Salisbury Academy, starting with an upcoming camp on July 11-15.
One last thing about Sexton. He took his responsibility as a role model seriously and was never ejected. He understood umpires and officials had a job to do. He disagreed with rulings frequently, but dissent never turned into disrespect.
No ejections? That’s the sort of stat that gives a sportswriter goose bumps.