Sports obituary: Steele one of most impactful coaches in county history

Published 12:01 am Sunday, February 19, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Robert Steele, one of Rowan County’s coaching legends, died Friday and prompted an outpouring of emotions on social media.

“Lost a great man,” wrote Brian Ellis, one of the stellar jumpers who got things rolling for Steele at North Rowan in the early 1990s. “I’m sure he’s in heaven still blessing other souls! Thank you Coach for seeing in me things that others failed to see.”

Steele looked for the best in young athletes, held them accountable and raised their expectations. He changed lives. Track and field would be the vehicle that transported a lot of Cavaliers to a college education.

Ten years ago, Steele was credited with attracting $6 million in college scholarship dollars from 24 schools.

Steele had the opportunity to coach talented athletes, but they would have been under-developed without Steele’s guidance and they would have been under-recruited had Steele not penned handwritten letters to his contacts in the college coaching ranks.

Steele was one of the first Black athletes at East Rowan High. He and friends who had attended Shuford Memorial School — Jerry Sifford, June Sifford, Willie Lowe, Clarence Shuford Jr., Frankie Morrow, Kenneth Sifford and Gene Davis — helped elevate East’s program.

The 1969 Mustangs are still the most famous football team in school history. They were 13-0 and beat Concord and Shelby on their way to the Western North Carolina High School Activities Association championship. The WNCHSAA was an affiliation of only four conferences, but they were conferences that were loaded with athletes after integration.

Steele graduated from East in 1971 and from Livingstone College in 1975.

His first teaching/coaching job was at Webb High in Oxford, about 25 miles from Durham.

Steele took some inspiration from the Durham Striders Track Club, which was just getting off the ground.

He knew football and was an outstanding assistant coach, but track became his thing during his time at Webb (1977-86). He coached six teams to conference championships.

North Rowan was next. Steele showed the way as the Cavaliers built a track steamroller.

Steele’s specialty was the triple jump — he knew every nuance of that event — and with Ellis and the Barnes twins, Reggie and Emmanuel, North had three of the nation’s elite high school jumpers at the same time. All three could explode past 50 feet.

North’s 1990 and 1991 boys indoor state championships were won before indoor track was divided into classifications, so North was beating even the 4As.

Another jumping phenom, Greg Yeldell, arrived during the second half of the 1990s and the Cavaliers strung together an incredible five-peat. They won the 2A outdoors boys state title every year from 1994-98.

Another group of jumping phenoms triggered another run. From 2003-07, North won four more 2A outdoor state titles in a five-year period.

The North girls also won their share of crowns. With Latasha Pharr, who would be recruited by Alabama, leading the way, the Cavaliers won three straight 2A outdoor state titles from 1999-2001.

The NCHSAA record book shows North has piled up 21 team state championships in track and field (five boys indoor, one girls indoor, four girls outdoor and 11 boys outdoor). Steele is credited by the NCHSAA with 15 state titles, but he helped to inspire another six.

Steele was a perfectionist who insisted that his jumpers finish every attempt. They were not allowed to abort their flight, even if they knew their timing was off.

If they surrendered an attempt and ran through the board, there was punishment, a deterrent — one lap around the track.

Steele believed there was a lesson to be learned  in every jump, good or bad.  If you conceded and ran through the board, you cheated yourself out of that lesson.

 There was a time when  North track athletes traveled far and wide in competition, but even 1,000 miles from home, knowledgeable track people had heard of Steele. They knew about North Rowan, in North Carolina. They knew about the jumpers.

Among others, Steele coached Pharr, Gatorade female track and field athlete of the year for North Carolina in 2000 and 2001; Yeldell, the N.C. Gatorade winner for 1997 and and 1998 Track & Field News National High School Athlete of the Year; Ellis, Gatorade winner for 1991, and Andre Tillman, Gatorade honoree for 2004.

Steele was recognized by the National Scholastic Sports Foundation as the nation’s top high school track coach.

He’s been inducted into the-Salisbury-Rowan Sports Hall of Fame, the Livingstone College Hall of Fame and the NCHSAA Hall of Fame. He was honored during the NCHSAA’s centennial celebration as one of North Carolina’s top 100 coaches of all-time.

When a new Hall of Fame devoted to North Carolina track and field and cross country was organized in 2019, the inaugural class of 10 inductees at Winston-Salem’s JDL Fast Track included Steele and Yeldell, who still holds national records 25 years after his high school glory days.

“Coach Steele wasn’t just a Hall of Fame coach, he was a Hall of Fame teacher, a father figure, mentor and all-around community advocate,” Reggie Barnes wrote on Facebook, “He was never afraid to tell the truth, to be an advocate for the voiceless.”

Steele was an outstanding defensive coordinator during some good times for North Rowan football in the Roger Secreast years. Steele taught the same life lessons on the football field he did in the jumping pits, and he had a chance to reach a large number of people.

There are a lot of North Rowan success stories out there. A lot of them will tell you that they stand on Steele’s shoulders and that they still try to walk in his footsteps.

There’s no question Steele was the greatest track and field coach in Rowan County history.

There are many who competed for him who are certain he is the best Rowan coach ever — regardless of sport.

He put North Rowan on the national map.