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Lexington seeks long-term solution for football coach

The last thing Travis Taylor expected to be involved in now is the search for a new football coach.

After all, the Lexington Senior High School principal just went through that last year. But he’s having to do it all over again due to the sudden and unexpected resignation of Kwayu Graham after just one season in the head coaching position.

“It’s always tough when you lose personnel, particularly when it’s a head coach, absolutely,” Taylor said.

Lexington took applications through Friday. A committee led by Taylor and athletic director Ronnie Beverly, a star running back on Lexington’s state championship teams in 1985 and 1986, will sift through the applications, conduct interviews and make a recommendation to Lexington City Schools Superintendent Rick Kriesky, who will then make a final decision and present that to the school board for approval.

Whoever is hired will be Lexington’s fourth coach in the last five years, a trend Taylor wants to change. He would prefer a long-term solution.

“By all means,” Taylor said. “Someone who can build a program with quality athletes and quality students.”

Until several weeks ago, searching for a new coach wouldn’t have seemed necessary.

But then Graham resigned. Though his team struggled through a 3-8 season and did not qualify for the 2-A state playoffs, Graham wasn’t forced out.

“No, this was my decision,” Graham said. “When you look at it, where I was at in my career and how long it was going to take … just a lot of things came into it. As I said in the previous interview (when he resigned), I love it here. This is a great place. They have supported me since I’ve been here, the fans and the community.

“It’s just at this time of my career … You’ve established a career that you’re on the upswing, and you have that battle where you have to decide what is more feasible. I think Lexington and Lexington City Schools are heading in the right direction. It’s going to take a lot of time. I just didn’t know whether I could wait that time at this point in my career.”

Graham, 43, said he is looking into other opportunities.

“I think Lexington lost a very, very good football coach,” said former Lexington coach and Tennessee native Joe Gaddis, who brought Graham to Lexington as his defensive coordinator in 2010, “a coach who I think would do anything for any player. I have never been around a coach who worked as hard to help players academically and to get to the next level as Kwayu Graham.”

But not everything was sunny as Graham spoke at length about what he saw as a “split” when it came to Lexington’s fan base.

“Unknowingly to me, I came into a situation that was very cloudy,” Graham said. “It’s a Tennessee/North Carolina deal. Friends, coaches. Coaches were split. It was not hostile or disrespectful or anything like that. But you never could get on the same page.”

Not everyone sees it that way.

“I think the students of Lexington and the community of Lexington would expect that we would search and try to find the best possible candidate for any of our open positions, whether it be in the classroom or whether it be on the coaching field,” Kriesky said. “I don’t think of Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina or any other geographical considerations in people’s jobs before they got to Lexington. That doesn’t come into play when we interview. Coach Graham’s comments reflect his feelings, and everyone is entitled to their own perception of the environment they work in.”

Gaddis, who worked for Kriesky in Tennessee, said, “I heard that a split was there, but I never really felt it.”

Lexington City Councilman Frank Callicutt, a Lexington Senior graduate and prominent Lexington Booster Club member, alluded to the presence of a split but for different reasons.

“When you win three games with the talent we have, sure you’re going to have a split,” Callicutt said. “I thought it was really immature for him to say that. I’ve got friends who think Carolina should fire Roy Williams.

“You’re never going to get a hundred percent support. You’re going to get that as a head coach, and you work through it. He didn’t have a hundred percent where he came from.”

The whole chain of events took shape in the aftermath of former coach Chris Deal’s third season in 2009. Deal went 3-8 in 2007 then led the Jackets to an 8-5 mark and the second round of the state playoffs in 2008. Lexington also won its first home playoff game since 2002.

In 2009, Lexington had a so-so 5-6 regular season but caught fire in the playoffs. The Jackets rallied from 21-0 down in the third quarter to beat Starmount 22-21 in the second round and then beat Thomasville 28-26 in the third round to end a 16-game losing streak against their archrivals. Deal received several offers from other schools and departed for new school Patton, which was near his wife’s family.

Kriesky brought in Gaddis, who had impeccable credentials. Gaddis had 237 career wins and a state championship on his record. He also brought along Graham, who made the unusual move of resigning after five years as a successful head coach to be a coordinator.

“Joe Gaddis was my high school coach, and I always wanted to coach with him,” Graham said.

Graham was 42-21 as a head coach at Austin East High School in Knoxville, so together the coaches brought a combined 279 wins to Lexington. But the success didn’t translate as well here.

Lexington went 7-6 in Gaddis’ first year and lost in the second round of the playoffs. In 2011, Lexington was 4-7 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Gaddis then returned to Tennessee for another head coaching job, citing a desire to be around his daughter and grandchildren.

That left the position open for Graham, who was hesitant to apply at first but then eventually did.

“It is what it is,” Graham said. “Joe tried it for a couple of years, and Joe said, ‘I can’t get it to turn.’ I wasn’t going to apply. I had to decide if I was willing to spend the time, and I was wrong, and I made the wrong decision. Maybe if I’m gone, that will be the last of that (Tennessee) group. A lot of people were upset when coach Gaddis left. I’m connected to Joe Gaddis. There’s a connection and maybe if the connection is gone, the flowers will bloom and maybe they’ll grow.”

Gaddis denied saying he couldn’t get the program to turn.

“I don’t recall saying that,” Gaddis said. “The reasons I left were pretty well documented. I had an opportunity to get back where I can be around my daughter and my grandchildren. That’s why I left. I wasn’t going to leave after a year or two, which I ultimately did. There are certain frustrations with any job. There isn’t anywhere you coach where it’s perfect.”

Movement among coaches is hardly unique to Deal, Gaddis and Graham. Ironically, Deal and Gaddis both stayed at Lexington longer than their next jobs. Deal left Patton after one season to become the offensive coordinator at Emerald High School in Greenwood, S.C. Gaddis spent one season at Peabody High School in Trenton, Tenn., where he went 9-4 and won a district championship. But Gaddis left there in March to return to Oak Ridge, where he won 119 games from 1988-98 and a state championship.

None of that was lost upon Kriesky, himself a former football coach.

“Not everyone we hire whether it’s a coach, whether it’s a chemistry teacher, whether it’s a first-grade teacher or a teaching assistant, if they leave after a brief period of time, it’s very disappointing,” Kriesky said. “But we know we’re in a transient business, and we try very hard to recruit and hire people who will invest in Lexington as a place to work.”

Taylor has seen plenty of that himself.

“It does happen,” he said. “People get a chance for advancement, and they take it.”

Taylor and Beverly will now go over the applications as Lexington moves forward.

“We have received a lot of applications,” Taylor said.

A thread on the message board made reference to a rumor of Graham rejoining Gaddis in Oak Ridge. But neither Graham nor Gaddis would confirm that.

“We wish him all the best,” Kriesky said. “We thank him for his service to Lexington City Schools. Our athletic director and principal are conducting a search now, and I’m sure they will find an excellent replacement for coach Graham. We wish him the best. He had a lot of success before he got to Lexington, and I’m sure he will enjoy success the rest of his coaching career.”

Taylor said the school hoped to have a new coach in place by June 1.

Mike Duprez can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 218 or