Winning still the bottom line for coaches

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The job of a coach at any level in any sport is to win. 

Certainly there are other obligations depending on the nature of the circumstances and, it can be easily argued, that winning is less important than some of those other obligations. Things such as teaching skills and the understanding of the game as well as the development of character. Some would argue that the last is the most important for coaches of players who are still developing and maturing into young men and women.

But the bottom line is always going to figure prominently into any decision. By all accounts (including this one), Keith Byrum, is a stand-up guy with impeccable character and dedication to his dual professions as a coach and a teacher at Hunt High. However, Byrum found himself struggling to maintain the successful brand of the Hunt varsity football program after being named the sixth head coach in Warriors history in the summer of 2016. He tendered his resignation Tuesday after a meeting with Hunt principal Eddie Doll and athletic director Jon Smith.

“Coach Byrum’s an incredible man and I consider him a friend. He’s been such an asset to Hunt as a teacher and a leader,” Doll said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I met with him the other day and we talked about the future of the football program and how we needed to make some changes and he resigned.”

Doll couldn’t reveal any more about the situation since Wilson County Schools has a policy against discussing personnel matters beyond the basics. However, Byrum stated in an interview Wednesday that he was given little choice and, while surprised and disappointed with the decision, he didn’t want to harbor ill feelings.

The bottom line, Byrum said was explained to him, was the bottom line. Byrum’s three Hunt teams went a combined 10-24 and that had affected attendance for home games. And football gate is the main source of revenue for the athletic budget each year. That, unfortunately, is a harsh reality of modern high school athletics.

Three seasons in and Byrum’s best one was a 4-7 record this past fall after going 3-8 each of his first two seasons. That was a precipitous drop for a program that in the six seasons before that had gone a combined 64-19 with five 3-A Big East Conference championships (shared or outright) and four trips to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A or 3-AA Eastern final. Randy Raper, who coached the Warriors from 1991 to 2012, won more than 200 games. His longtime assistant and successor, Stevie Hinnant, piloted the Warriors to an Eastern final and Big East title while going 26-14 in three seasons.

Thus, there are some mitigating factors for why Byrum’s Hunt teams underperformed. The first season in 2016, he scrambled to find enough coaches to fill a staff. Hinnant announced his retirement somewhat unexpectedly in June and then defensive coordinator Andrew Farriss, who was a candidate for head coach, moved over to Fike a little later in the summer.

“As much transition as we did have from Randy Raper leaving to Stevie Hinnant leaving and then Andrew Farriss leaving, that’s three of the core coaches that I coached with for a long time,” said Byrum, who was a Warriors assistant coach for 17 years. “So all those transitions, they kind of add up.”

Hunt also found itself with different nonconference scheduling partners from the glorious run at the start of the decade and playing teams like Lumberton, Greenville Rose and Havelock were a bit different from facing Eastern Wayne, C.B. Aycock and Currituck County.

When the Warriors finally seemed to have turned the corner this season, winning their first two games as part of a 3-1 start, disaster struck in the form of injuries to many veteran starters, including two-time all-conference and Times All-Area senior defensive tackle Christian Phaby.

“We’re playing good football and we get serious injuries to really, really good football players and key contributors and all the guys that got knocked out, unfortunately, were starters and big-time players,” Byrum said. “And it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to lose one or two and keep playing well, but you lose about 10 of them and it becomes nearly impossible to play at the same level that you played at, at the beginning of the year.”

Byrum pointed out that he made some changes at Hunt that he believes will be beneficial to future varsity football editions. The first was consolidating the varsity and junior varsity coaching staff so that JV players would be learning the same offense and defense they would be playing as varsity players — and from the same coaches.

That seems to be the blueprint for success at many programs, although it’s worth noting that during Raper’s successful tenure, the JV team was largely left to its own devices. And the same players who were part of two- or three-win JV teams at Hunt were helping the Warriors win a conference championship at the varsity level the next season or two.

Byrum said that consolidating coaching staffs would hinder the varsity until the fruits of that labor, the erstwhile JV players, moved up to varsity and he’s sorry he won’t be there when that happens.

Byrum also noted that allowances were made this year for freshmen to take weight training classes during the school day.

“For the first time ever, we’ve got freshmen in the weight room,” he said. “We finally figured out a way to get them in and this spring we’ll have freshmen getting bigger, stronger and faster. Typically, they didn’t get in there until their 10th-grade year and they were a little bit behind. So, hopefully, we’re going to see that pay off some, too.”

There’s no doubt that, at some point, Hunt football will start winning again under Byrum’s successor, whoever that may be. Doll said that assistant coach Richie Pridgen is leading the team’s offseason workouts until a new head coach is hired. Given the high profile brand that Hunt football is, regardless of the last three seasons, I expect there will be a lot of resumes to sort through to find the seventh Warriors head coach.

It may be next season or it could take a year or two, but the work that Byrum did, not only as head coach but during his long run as an assistant coach, will be part of the success of future Hunt teams.

As far as his immediate future, Byrum, who teaches science, is unsure of what he will do, be it stay at Hunt and teach science or seek a coaching position elsewhere.

“For now, I suppose I’m going to keep teaching science and do the best I can do with the job that I’ve got and decide over the next few months what it is I want to do next,” he said. “I’ll have to look at all the options and see which one I could see myself being the most excited about.

“You know, if you don’t love the job that you’ve got in this business, you’re going to do a poor job. You can’t get up and do what we’re asked to do every day as educators and as coaches and do it well unless you’re excited about it. So whatever it is that I do next, whether it be go teach some science or go coach some football, it’s got to be something that I’m excited about.”

That’s the thing. Coaches like Keith Byrum are dedicated, almost to a fault. He’s spent a fair amount of his adult life working with kids at Hunt and trying to make them better athletes and even better people. How many hours has he spent with other people’s kids instead of his own? I know that’s part of the deal of being a coach and, as Byrum said, you’ve got to love it.

At some point, that dedication should count as much as the wins and losses. It’s too bad that those tough decisions are made tougher by the current economic demands on athletic budgets. It’s too bad that a coach like Byrum couldn’t transcend that.