FOUR QUESTIONS…A CONVERSATION WITH EDDIE GRAY
Eddie Gray is a veteran teacher and coach that guided the Garner Magnet High School Trojans men’s basketball team to the 2015 NCHSAA state 4-A basketball championship and was chosen the Associated Press North Carolina Coach of the Year.
Gray is a graduate of Garner who earned his undergraduate degrees in political science and history from North Carolina State and then a masters in education from the University of North Carolina. Eddie has been on the Garner faculty as a social studies teacher since 1977 and has been head men’s basketball coach since 1990, seeing his teams win well over 450 games during that span. He was the Garner Teacher of the Year in 2007-08 and has presented at a number of workshops and conferences.
He has also been an excellent baseball umpire at both the high school and collegiate levels for close to 30 years.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in high school athletics during your career?
When I started my teaching and coaching career at Garner in 1977, most student-athletes in our school played more than one sport. Today, it seems that many of our athletes are specializing in one sport, and they are playing that sport almost year round. With more kids playing in the summer in order to be seen by college recruiters, it makes it more difficult to build team loyalty to the school teams.
In basketball, college coaches would attend high school games to scout prospective student-athletes. High school coaches played a pivotal role in the recruiting process and helped to guide these young people to make well thought out decisions. Now, the colleges go to three or four summer events to select their talent. The reason that approximately 650 Division I student-athletes in basketball transferred from one university to another last year stems from this change in the recruiting process.
Also, changes in social media have made it more difficult to keep the true purpose of high school athletics in perspective. High school athletics should always be looked upon as an extension of the classroom. Life lessons in team building, the development of moral character, and dealing with adversity can best be taught through athletic competition in public schools. I hope future generations of Americans will preserve the traditions of this precious institution.
What is your best memory of high school athletics personally, from your own involvement in them? Is your recent state basketball championship at the top of the list?
Our school, Garner Senior High, was created in 1968 when the white school, Garner High School, merged with the black school, Garner Consolidated High School. The “Blue and White Rams” and the “Gold and Burgundy Tigers” became the “Royal Blue and Gold Trojans”. As a junior, I had the opportunity to play on the first integrated football team in the history of the school. Everyone remembers the movie, “Remember the Titans”, but for me it will always be “Remember the Trojans”! You talk about life lessons, that experience gave me more than one lesson plan for my U.S. History classes over the past 38 years.
I was also fortunate enough to serve as Coach Hal Stewart’s defensive coordinator during his tenure as our head football coach. Our 1987 football team won the NCHSAA 4-A state championship. The entire community got behind that team, and to this day that championship season is still a source of pride in our town.
During our championship run in basketball, I tried to draw upon my experience with the football team in 1987. The championship in basketball simply validated what was already a quality program. Over the years we have been blessed with many fine student-athletes and dedicated assistant coaches. This championship was built over many years of blood, sweat, and tears that involved the entire community.
Garner Senior High School has been a major part of my life for the past 45 years. God has blessed me with a long list of memories associated with this special school. But, winning the 4-A state men’s basketball championship will forever be at the top of the list.
What do you think was the key to the success for the Garner basketball team this year in winning the state 4-A title?
When I started my head coaching career for our basketball program in 1989, God blessed me with a player named Donald Williams. In my opinion, Donald was the best three-point shooter in the history of the NCHSAA, but we could not get past an East Wake team that played for the 4A state title with a point guard, a wing shooter, and a post player. They were a complete team.
In 1997, David West walked into our school from Teaneck, New Jersey. We won the sectional championships in 1997 and 1998. He was an outstanding post player who wanted to play with his back to the basket, but our team had an average backcourt during that era.
Over the years, we came close in the sectional championship game, but we could not seem to make a key free throw, make the timely shot, or get the key steal. We won 14 conference championships over the past 26 years with some outstanding student-athletes. It seemed that getting back to the regional championship was never going to happen!
The 2014-2015 team was actually created after one of the worst defeats in the history of our program. Knightdale beat us by 31 points last year. We decided to change the starting lineup and start one senior, one junior, one sophomore and two freshmen. That team went on to win 12 straight games. The next time we played Knightdale we won the game by 21 points. Our team was the only team in the conference to defeat a Gary Clark-led Clayton squad. We knew that we could have a special team this year if they continued to improve.
Through the course of the season, we generally had four or more players in double figures. Our backcourt, Julius Barnes and Thomas Allen, were more concerned with how many assists they had rather than points. We lacked a true post player, but we made up for it with the athleticism of Jashaun Smith and the heart of Alex Reed in the paint. Nick Kuhns became our “blue collar” guy on the court by rebounding, scoring, or getting defensive stops. Our bench players accepted their roles, and we learned the meaning of teamwork!
This team did not have a true superstar, but they played as one team! They were fun to coach, and they were fun to watch. When we faced adversity, someone would step up, and we found a way to win. This championship was truly a team effort.
In your limited spare time, what are some of the activities you are involved in away from athletics?
For the past 29 years, I have spent my off seasons umpiring baseball. I have called games at both the high school and collegiate levels. I enjoy the extra income, but more importantly it gives me an opportunity to be outside and to be around another sport. My experience as a game official has actually made me a better coach because I have the chance to see athletic competition from a different perspective.
Like most coaches, I enjoy occasional golf outings when I can find the time. Most of them involve my fellow coaches at Garner, and they usually include some friendly competition. Once again, golf gives me an opportunity to get outdoors.
I am very active in my church, Aversboro Road Baptist Church. I teach an adult couples Sunday school class and get to spend my Sunday mornings with some of the finest people on God’s green earth. Over the years our class has been involved in many community projects and mission trips to other states.
My greatest joy is my family! I am married to Miss Garner of 1973, Susan Gray, and we have two lovely children that have given us two beautiful grandsons, Colin and John. One of the many joys of this journey was having both at the championship to watch “Granddad’s” team win.