This marks the 25th year in which I’ve covered North Carolina high school sports in some capacity.
In a career that started when I was just 20 years old, I’ve been fortunate enough to be around some of the best high school football coaches in the business. It all started with Raymond Cobb, who won more than 200 games and two state championships during his career at North Edgecombe High School. I was fortunate enough to see him match wits with Murphy’s legendary David Gentry in the 1994 and 1996 state championship games. Each man beat the other as the underdog, with Cobb winning in ‘94. Then there was Bill Frazier of Warren County, who won his 200th game in 1996, his final season there, and retired with 201.
Two years further on, I was in Garner for Hal Stewart’s final two seasons; Hal won 4A state titles in 1978 and in 1987, and in my first year there, 1998, the Trojans went all the way to Chapel Hill before finally losing a game. I stayed there for nearly a decade, as Stewart and his successor Nelson Smith piled up victories, and encountered the likes of Daryl Barnes, a five-time championship coach with the Richmond Raiders, and Bob Paroli of Fayetteville Douglas Byrd and later of 71st, as they clashed with Garner.
Moving on in life, I was able to watch Hugh Martin, who has directed North Duplin, one of the smallest 1A schools in the state, to state finals in 2007 and 2017, for a number of seasons. And in Princeton, where I also worked as managing editor of a newspaper group for several years, I met former coach Harvey Brooks, who’s won as many games as Paroli, and still count Derrick Minor, one of the state’s top young coaches, as a friend. He was at Princeton then and now coaches at Fred T. Foard.
When I was hired at Mount Airy in September of 2015, I was excited to see how Kelly Holder and David Diamont, two well-known coaches I’d never seen in action before, ran their programs. I knew their records and a bit of their histories, but had never seen either school play. Heck, the first time I spoke to Coach Diamont, I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce his last name, and he had to correct me.
Both of these men are right up there with the best of them, no doubt about it. All of these great coaches stress the importance of good character and teamwork. I’ve seen coaches put “bad actors” on the field just to try to win a game, but never any of the coaches I’ve mentioned. They all had kids who would knock your head off on the field, but they were class acts off it.
I discovered just how good of a coach Diamont was in my second year of football here. I only saw the Cardinals play once in 2015, and while I could clearly tell they were an outstanding, well-coached team, you can only tell so much when a team has that much talent. After that season, East Surry came into 2016 basically starting over. In their first game of the season, a senior-laden Surry Central team kicked the Cardinals’ butts. However, I remember thinking that East’s scheme was sound, and that they would be a good team before the season was out.
When I saw them two weeks later, they were already there. East beat a good North Surry team as an underdog. Coach Diamont got his team to make more progress in two weeks that some teams make in two months.
But the most memorable thing I’ve seen him do came later that season, when the Cardinals hosted Winston-Salem Prep. East Surry’s star running back Joey Ray and some other key players were hurt, and Prep’s fans were boldly predicting a win on NCPreps and other sites. Truthfully, when you looked at the athletes the Phoenix had on the field and what the Cardinals had available, you couldn’t help but think the home team had its work cut out for it.
East Surry received the opening kickoff and lined up at its 36-yard line. Quarterback Trevor Hauser, who completed just five of 17 passes that night, dropped back and threw it deep. Freshman Quincy Smith got four yards behind the coverage, caught it, and raced into the end zone. East Surry led 7-0 after just 11 seconds in a game it would win 17-12.
What impressed me was what Coach Diamont told me after the game.
I had assumed that the Cardinals’ coaches had spotted something on film and scripted this play during the week of practice. But Diamont told me that he called it in that moment from the sideline, after deducing from the way the Phoenix was lined up that they were unprepared for such a play. He signaled the play to Hauser and East executed it for six.
East’s other 43 snaps that night went for just 125 total yards. But the Cardinals played virtually mistake-free football and capitalized on undisciplined play by Prep all night, and won a game they had no business winning. That, my friends, is good coaching.
Coach Diamont asked me on Friday night what team would want an over-70 football coach, I told him to send them a tape of that game.
When I spoke with all three of his county rivals on Friday night, Coaches Holder, Lyons and Southern, they all said that they would miss Coach Diamont.
No one will miss him more than East Surry will, though.
John Cate has been a journalist in North Carolina since 1993, and the Sports Editor of the Mount Airy News since September of 2015.