Erich Epps honored with field-naming at West Rowan Middle
By Dennis Davidson
SALISBURY — During the 31 years that Erich Epps walked the sideline as coach of the West Rowan Middle School football team, the Bulldogs won 218 games and 23 championships.
The school honored the former coach on Thursday at its game against Southeast, naming that same gridiron the “Erich J. Epps Field.”
The scene took on the feel of a reunion, even after the halftime ceremony concluded, as former colleagues, friends and fans greeted Epps with well wishes.
“It’s a big honor,” said Epps. “I’m not sure how the ball got rolling on this, but I found out last fall that the school board had voted on it. I’m just very excited about it. I put a lot of years in here, so longevity, I think, had a lot to do with it. Not many people stay at a middle school for 31 years. They either go on to high school or change jobs.
“Deep down I’ll always be a Bulldog,” continued Epps. “I love this place and it was good to me. I had a lot of really good assistants over the years … they were a big part of it. And I had great principals in Rick Hampton, Rick Vanhoy and Stacy White.”
Epps retired from the school in March, so the mandatory six-month waiting period imposed by Rowan-Salisbury Schools is almost up. That means he’ll be back on the bench this winter, assisting Bryan Withers with the Salisbury High basketball team.
In the meantime, Epps, 58, has been teaching PE at Sacred Heart, Monday through Thursday and moonlighting at Food Lion on Fridays.
In addition to football, Epps coached basketball for 27 years, at West Middle and also at West Rowan High. He coached the Falcons’ varsity girls in 2007-11, going 64-42.
Epps’ overall record as a basketball coach, according to his resumé, was 453-124, including 389 wins at the middle school level. He had eight undefeated teams and squads that won 16 regular season championships. He also coached track and was athletic director for a while.
But back to football. Epps’ West Middle teams dominated for years, reportedly sporting a record of 159-14 against county opponents. He coached 13 undefeated teams, sending many great prospects to West High, where they enjoyed continued success (and state championships) under Hall of Fame coach Scott Young.
Epps is a native of Conover and played football and basketball at Newton-Conover. He went on to graduate from Lenoir-Rhyne, majoring in health and physical education and earning a spot on the basketball team as a reserve. He also achieved a minor in art, which turned out to be very important, before graduating in 1983.
He coached for four years at Grandview Middle School in Hickory before deciding to help out in his father’s commercial printing business.
But Hampton, then West Middle’s principal, changed all that when he contacted Lenoir-Rhyne, searching for the rare combination of art teacher and coach.
Someone at L-R recommended Epps, but did he want to leave the business life for teaching?
The answer was yes, and Epps took the job and moved to Salisbury in 1988. For the next 31 years, he was a fixture at West Middle School.
It wasn’t long before he met a first-year teacher at West High named Carla Blackwelder. She still teaches World History at West and they been married now for 27 years and have two sons, Aaron and Caleb. Carla was front and center at Thursday’s field dedication.
So why did Epps stay at West Middle for all of those years?
“I enjoyed coaching this level of football,” said Epps. “I had the opportunity to go coach in high school, but I wanted to stay with this age of kid. At the seventh- and eighth-grade level, you’re introducing the game to them and for most, ‘the light comes on.’ And the improvement from one year to the next was tremendous and it was just great to be a part of their lives at that age.”
And while his days on the sideline at West Middle may be in the books, Epps is not ready to hang up his whistle. “Next year, I hope to be coaching football somewhere, because I still have it in my blood,” he said.
Epps acknowledged that behind every successful coach are outstanding assistants. He raved about the help he received over the years from the likes of Willie Ellis, Danny Phillips, William Wallace, Mike Wheeler, Fred Miller, Rodney Goodine, Bill McLaughlin, James Collins, Fred Miller, Dave Jackson Jr., Kevin Parks Sr., Kevin Parks Jr., Kenny Karriker, Jeff Lindsay and Brent Bustle.
Epps also spoke about his coaching mentors, people who were influential in his career. Hampton, of course, made that list but others include fellow retirees Clement Fleming (Concord High), Grimes Parker (South Davie), Al Poyzck (West Middle) and Sam Moore (West and Knox).
Two other mentors, both from Hickory High — David Craft Sr. and Larry Wittenberg — are deceased.
Epps also had praise for rival coaches that he respected and battled against for so many years — Kent Rhyne (North Rowan Middle), Barry Whitlock (South Davie) and Jamie Phillips (Knox).
“I’ve been blessed,” added Epps. “We all have to leave eventually, but now, I feel like a part of me will always be here. That’s the neat thing.”