Prep Football: Livingstone graduate Charlie Gray hired at NWC
Published 12:00 am Friday, January 15, 2016
By Mike London
KANNAPOLIS — Coach Charlie Gray has a sense of humor.
How did he know that he’d won over the girl he was courting to be his wife?
“Well, I knew I had her for sure when she started coming to the Salisbury High jayvee games,” Gray said with a laugh. “No one was coming to the jayvee games.”
Gray, a 1999 Livingstone graduate, is going to need that sense of humor. He’s taken on a difficult challenge, not much different from the one Daniel Yow is tackling now at South Rowan.
Gray was named the new head football coach at Northwest Cabarrus High School last week and formally met his players for the first time on Wednesday.
Northwest was 2-9 last fall, squeaking out a 7-6 win against Cox Mill and a 35-34 victory against South Rowan. The Trojans were outscored 434-94 and weren’t competitive with the best on their schedule. They lost to Concord, 51-0, and were steamrolled, 56-7, by A.L. Brown.
Like South Rowan, Northwest will be part of the 10-team SPC for one more football season. After that, the Trojans hope to see light at the end of the tunnel. Starting in the fall of 2017, Northwest is projected to be in an all-Cabarrus 3A league. Concord and A.L. Brown will be in that league. That’s the bad news. The good news is it will be only a six-team league. That means five conference games late and six non-conference games early.
“The plan is to schedule non-conference games we have a chance to win,” Gray said. “You win some early games and then you build confidence for those conference games.”
Gray, 41, is a football lifer. He’s been around the game 35 years. The youngest of four children growing up in Chatham County, he was a ball boy/manager at age 6 for the Jordan-Matthews Jets, a storied program in Siler City.
“I’ve always loved the game, loved being at practice, and I’ve always been a student of the game,” Gray said. “I knew I wanted to coach football early in life.”
He grew up big and strong and played for Phil Senter, the legendary coach for whom the Jordan-Matthews Stadium is now named. When he was a senior at J-M in the 1994 football season, Gray stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 245 pounds.
His primary position was center, but it was a small school that had dropped down from 2A to 1A for his senior year. So he also helped out on defense. He was used as a tackle, end and linebacker.
“I had some battles with East Montgomery’s Brian Hinson,” said Gray, referencing a youngster who became a star at Catawba and is now Catawba’s offensive line coach.
Gray was recruited hard by Wake Forest, but that fell through at the last minute.
“I was a few credits short of qualifying to go to Wake, so I went to Fork Union Military Academy to get those credits,” Gray said. “But I didn’t like Fork Union.”
Gray wasn’t a fan of rising hours before his first class in order to march and salute. It didn’t take him long to get his fill of the regimented lifestyle.
That might have been where his football journey ended, but Greg Richardson, who was the defensive coordinator at Livingstone, knew about Gray.
“He called me up and asked me if I still wanted to play college football,” Gray said. “I told him that I did.”
Livingstone’s head coach in the late 1990s was Rudy Abrams. He coached fine teams, including conference champs. Gray became part of it.
“That first night I spent at Livingstone, I cried myself to sleep,” Gray said. “There was some culture shock, and I was feeling sorry for myself. I kept asking myself why I was there when I should’ve been playing Division I football.”
Winning cures almost everything, and Livingstone’s Blue Bears and powerful running back Wilmont Perry, who would go on to the NFL, were winning frequently. Gray had come to Livingstone expecting to play defense, but he made a transition to tight end.
“As the tight end for Livingstone then, you were basically just another lineman, a blocker,” Gray said. “But I enjoyed it. We didn’t have any losing seasons while I was at Livingstone.”
His last football season for the Blue Bears was 1998. He graduated with a degree in sociology in December, 1999.
Gray’s first assistant-coaching stop was Salisbury.
“I remember us going 1-10 (in 2001),” Gray said. “And that one win came when Matt Russ kicked a field goal as time expired at West Iredell.”
Salisbury moved up to four wins in 2002 and qualified to take a mauling from Hibriten in the first round of the state playoffs.
Prior to the 2003 season, Joe Pinyan arrived as Salisbury’s new head coach.
“When I came to Salisbury, I was told that I’d want to keep Charlie Gray on my staff,” Pinyan said. “Everyone said he got the most out of his kids. He was that coach they would run through a wall for.”
In his season working for Pinyan, Gray would learn a great deal.
“Joe brought organization, he brought structure and he had a plan,” Gray said. “He was out to build a program, not just a team, and I guess the rest is history. I learned a lot from him about dealing with parents and dealing with kids. Joe always said you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and he was right.”
The next year, 2004, was a big one for Gray. He got married in June of that year to Salisbury High graduate Donitta Michelle Gillespie.
“She ran track and played volleyball at Salisbury,” Gray said.
That fall Gray moved from Salisbury to coaching the defensive lineman at Livingstone.
When Livingstone offensive coordinator Mose Rison made a move to Charlotte’s Vance High for the 2005 season, he asked Gray to go along to coach the offensive line.
“Then Mose left for Davidson College (to coach the quarterbacks), but I stayed at Vance,” Gray said.
He stayed four seasons. Then Gray got his big break when he was hired as an assistant at Mallard Creek. He was there for six seasons as the Mavericks built a powerhouse. He was the offensive line coach for two 4AA state champions.
“We built a great program and there was incredible talent,” Gray said. “One of our offensive lineman (D.J. Humphries) is in the NFL now, and guys are starting for Carolina, Tennessee, Duke, N.C. State — you name it.”
Gray got his first head-coaching opportunity in 2015.
“I was ready to be a head coach and run a program,” Gray said.
But it was a tough assignment at 4A Hopewell High in Huntersville. Hopewell is generally one of the have-nots in the MecKa, which includes Mallard Creek, Hough, Vance and A.L. Brown. Gray’s team went 1-10, although he felt progress was made as far as changing the culture.
Now he makes the move to Northwest Cabarrus to replace Rich Williams, who guided the Trojans’ fortunes for eight seasons.
He’s facing another major rebuilding project, but Gray is convinced tangible progress can be made relatively quickly. There’s significant community support for the Tojans’ athletic programs. Gray, who has lived in Kannapolis for years, is familiar with the school and the community it serves.
“We’ve got the athletes here to be successful,” Gray said. “I had a chance to watch the basketball team practice. I was very impressed.”
Gray is a believer in 3-4 defense and one-back offense, but mostly he’s a believer in hard work. He’s aware that the head football coach can be the second-most important person on the high school campus, behind only the principal. The football coach is often the last chance to instill discipline, accountability and teamwork before a teenager stumbles out the door and into the real world.
Gray has a son, C.J., 8, a future athlete who is pretty good at everything, especially baseball.
Gray is still working at Hopewell as a behavior modification specialist, but he’ll make a move to Northwest Cabarrus as soon as it’s possible to do so. It’s important to him to be able to interact daily with the guys he’ll be coaching.
“It’s kind of a crazy time for me, but it’s going to exciting,” Gray said. “We’re going to build something good. Northwest Cabarrus has great possibilities.”
Pinyan now coaches at Carson, so he’ll be coaching against Gray this fall.
“Charlie will do a great job if he’s able to put together a staff he’s comfortable with,” Pinyan said. “As for me, it means I’ve got another friend to coach against. That’s never fun.”