High school football: Hardin returns to Kannapolis

Published 12:17 am Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Justin Hardin, playing days. File photo.

By Mike London

KANNAPOLIS — Seeking a return to a brighter football future, A.L. Brown reached back to its past.

Justin Hardin was approved by the  Kannapolis City School Board as the Wonders’ new head coach on Monday night.

Hardin’s new job may have been one of the worst-kept secrets of the century, but it is an immensely popular hire in Kannapolis.

The Hardin name is magic in Kannapolis. Always was, and still is. When you say “Hardin,” there are nothing but positive memories from winning streak and titles in the 1990s.

Bruce Hardin, Justin’s father, head-coached the Wonders  to state championships in 1989 and 1997, as part of a fabulous 11-year run. He was an excellent motivator and strategist,  built a powerhouse staff of assistants and enjoyed the role of being a top-notch ambassador for the program with the community and with the media.

Justin Hardin was in a supporting role for A.L. Brown’s 1997 champs before starting and starring for two years at quarterback.

In 1998, Hardin handed off to and threw passes to nationally acclaimed senior back Nick Maddox. He also threw passes to his twin brother, Blair, as he steered a terrific team that went 12-1, losing in the third round of the playoffs to a Ron Massey-coached Kings Mountain squad. Hardin threw 23 touchdown passes that season, with only five interceptions. He ran for five touchdowns, including a 70-yard dash in the playoffs.

Even with Maddox having moved on to Florida State, the Wonders remained very stout in 1999. “Tradition never graduates” T-shirts were a popular item with the coaching staff.

The Wonders put together another undefeated regular season in 1999 and took another South Piedmont Conference title. They finished at 12-1 with a bitter 20-7 playoff loss to a Concord team they had edged just a few weeks earlier to put a ribbon on an epic regular season.  Hardin threw 17 touchdown passes, with three interceptions. He tossed two interceptions on opening night against Statesville, learned some lessons and didn’t have another pick until the playoffs.

In a 63-13 win against Sun Valley, Hardin had five touchdown passes — with only 12 passing attempts.

Hardin was a good enough player that he was selected for the East-West All-Star Game in an era when that summer showcase in Greensboro was only a bit less prestigious than the Shrine Bowl.

Hardin’s football playing career extended to The Citadel, where he served mostly in a backup role, but he hung in there and had his most impactful season for the Bulldogs as a fifth-year senior captain.

Coaching and teaching flowed through Hardin’s bloodstream, and he has been a part of that profession for 18 years.

He was an assistant coach at the United States Military Academy at West Point before moving into the high school ranks.

He served as an assistant coach/coordinator at Charlotte Latin and South Pointe (S.C.).

He was a head coach for two seasons at Weddington (14-11), for two seasons at Providence (14-11) and for a season at Independence (8-5).

He returned to Charlotte Latin in 2016 as defensive coordinator. He’s been head coach of the Charlotte Latin Hawks since 2018. His teams were 27-21 in five seasons, including 5-5 in 2022.

The Wonders have enjoyed success for decades under a handful of long-term head coaches — Bob Boswell, Bruce Hardin, Ron Massey and Mike Newsome.

While there haven’t been any state titles since 1997, winning seasons and playoff appearances almost have been taken for granted, even as the city has undergone a massive transformation since the football glory days when most of the town’s population still worked in the textile mills.

Justin Hardin is the choice as the 17th head coach in program history to keep that winning tradition alive and to restore the Wonders to competing on a state level.

Newsome piloted 97 wins and had four seasons with at least 10 wins, but the Wonders have had their struggles the last two seasons to stay afloat with programs such as Hickory Ridge and Mooresville  in the Greater Metro Conference.

NCHSAA member schools recently approved a measure that should help schools of A.L. Brown’s size.  With a move to seven classifications looming for the 2025-26 scho0l year. A.L. Brown would presumably fall into the 6A ranks, but would no longer have to be competing in the playoffs with extra-large metro schools that have 1,000 more students.

Wonder fans can look forward to seeing a Hardin back on the sidelines, and his father and family will no doubt be in the bleachers lending their support.

Justin Hardin is married (Lindsey) and has two young daughters.

A.L. Brown plans a “Meet the Coach” event at Memorial Stadium on Friday, May 12, from 5-7 p.m.

Hardin’s first game at the helm will be at a venue where some historic games have transpired. The Wonders will go to Mount Ulla to play West Rowan on Aug. 18.