Adkins brought bold to Barton nearly 50 years ago

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Much of what is the athletic department at Barton College today is due to the work of David Adkins, who passed away Thursday at age 79.

The small NCAA Division II college today pushes for bold leadership and bold initiatives in its approach, but Adkins embraced that philosophy nearly 50 years ago.

Adkins, a Kinston native and graduate of Atlantic Christian (now Barton) College, served as athletic director and its first men’s soccer coach from 1972 to 1980. During his tenure as AD, Adkins helped the college establish its first intercollegiate teams for women in basketball, volleyball and tennis — opening the door for all of Barton’s current 10 women’s intercollegiate sports teams.

The land upon which Barton’s outdoor athletic complex on Kincaid Avenue was purchased when Adkins was the athletic director. 

Adkins returned to Wilson in 1972 to accept the job of athletic director and physical education professor at his alma mater. He had been a P.E. professor and intramurals director at North Carolina State University, where he also served as an assistant coach to Wolfpack men’s soccer head coach Max Roach.

That experience, along with playing intramural soccer at UNC while in graduate school, was enough to make his new employer believe Adkins was the right man to start a men’s soccer team at Atlantic Christian, which was an NAIA school then.

Adkins moved to Wilson with his wife, Susan, and three of their four children — Kim, Amy and Greg; Callie would come later — and built the Bulldogs soccer program from the ground up. He not only had to scrounge for players at a time when soccer was still considered a foreign sport, if not in the United States, then certainly in North Carolina. Adkins also had to find a place for the Bulldogs to play and practice. The first home was the land where J.C. Harris Cadillac was situated on the edge of what would become Gold Park Shopping Center. 

The second season, the Bulldogs moved to Cavalier Terrace and the third season, Adkins persuaded then Wilson Parks and Recreation Director Burt Gillette to allow the Bulldogs to play night games at Fleming Stadium, which proved to be an immensely popular innovation as it allowed spectators to watch the games not only in prime time, but from an elevated perspective.

Success came slowly at first for Adkins, whose Bulldogs won one game their first season, then two the next and three in the third.

“I can remember well at the end of the season after we had the awards banquet on the way home, my wife looked at me and said, “David, are you going to have to be here 10 years for you to win 10 games?’” Adkins said in an interview with the Times in 2008.

But the wins started coming with the Carolinas Intercollegiate Athletics Conference championship in 1978. The following season, which would be Adkins’ last at Atlantic Christian, the Bulldogs won the first of five straight NAIA District 26 titles.

Adkins, assisted by Mike Smith, recruited far and wide, bringing such international players as Tony Barriteau, Willie Diamond, Elfaith El Tom and Gerrardo Cobo to Wilson.

One of his players on those teams, Gary Hall, only had to travel from Winston-Salem but he would follow in Adkins’ footsteps one day as Bulldogs soccer coach and AD for longer than anyone else in school history.

“David was a great personal mentor for me,” Hall said in a statement Friday. “He and Mike Smith synergized their efforts brilliantly to produce our 1978 and 1979 championship teams. Our roster had representation from 9 countries. David was self-assured enough to give Mike Smith more authority than the typical assistant coach and their synergism paid big dividends in molding us into champions.”

Adkins was also the AD when Atlantic Christian won its first national championship with Tom Parham directing the men’s tennis team to the NAIA crown in 1979. Parham’s Bulldogs would win another national championship in 1984.

Adkins’ vision for the outdoor athletic complex was rewarded when it became a reality in the early 1980s. The 29-acre tract, with lots of trees, was the college’s first true home field for soccer, baseball and softball, which was added in 1981.

“My first reaction was that no fields could be developed there because there were so many trees,” Hall recalled upon hearing about the plans for the complex while a student in 1979. “It was amazing then and now what earth-clearing equipment can do.”

Adkins’ bold leadership for Barton’s biggest athletic facility is still evident today as construction for a new, on-campus stadium with a turf field is under way. If it could be done then, it can be done now.

He left Atlantic Christian in 1980 to enter the insurance business, which he did up until the time of his death. But Adkins never stopped being a Bulldog. In fact, his family asks that, in lieu of flowers, to please consider a memorial in his memory to the Barton athletic department, which owes him a debt of gratitude.