DURHAM — In 2015, when Kevin Motsinger resigned as New Hanover head coach, the school planned to call on a familiar name to help lead the coaching search.
Earl Smith had coached the Wildcats in 2001 and 2002, leading the team to the playoffs in his second year and won more games in two years (11) than New Hanover had managed in the previous seven (six).
Smith returned to Raleigh, where he rebuilt the program at Wake Forest, but he was still on New Hanover’s radar when it was time to find someone to lead a coaching search.
Rather than finding a new head coach, however, Smith called his own number and applied for the job.
Smith’s roots in the area were apparent. Motsinger had played for Smith. “I think he was in elementary school when I started as head coach,” Smith joked. The man Motsigner had replaced at New Hanover, John Fitz, had been Smith’s defensive coordinator.
That’s just the way things work in that part of Wilmington.
“New Hanover is special,” Smith said after winning the school’s first state championship in 67 years. “We have people in our booster club that played on the ’58 team with Roman Gabriel. We honored the ’51 (state championship) team this week. We had two or three players who played with Sonny Jurgensen. The pride has just always been there. This is going to be special. This is huge for the city.”
New Hanover also claims a 1983 state title, although, officially, the NCHSAA recognizes it as an “other championship,” keeping the Wildcats out of the record book.
“We’ve got a couple players’ dads that played on that last team, in ’83,” Smith said. “It’s been awhile. Coach (Joe) Miller, I know, is looking down from heaven.”
The 3AA state title, earned with a 27-17 win over A.C. Reynolds that capped a 15-1 season, also snapped a drought in Smith’s career.
“For me, personally, this is my 35th year. I’ve been to the East Championships quite a few times, but I’ve never been here,” Smith said. “When I walked off the field over there, I saw some of my high school teammates. I saw huge number of players I had at Millbrook (where he coached 18 years) and Wake Forest. I even had some players off the 2001 and 2002 (New Hanover) teams. … This is just a great feeling for all of us. These guys are special.”
The connections to Smith spread out across the state on championship Saturday.
In Winston-Salem, the team Smith left New Hanover for the first time, Wake Forest, won its second straight 4AA title.
Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, Motsinger, now in his first year as Wallace-Rose Hill head coach, won the 2A state title. “I’m so proud of him,” Smith said. “Coach built a culture of toughness and had a heck of a record here. Like me, he made it to the Eastern Championship a couple times and had some tough losses. That’s where it all started here. I just came in and put my stamp on it.”
In Durham, however, the day belonged to Smith and the long New Hanover football tradition.
“I really didn’t even think about that until (Smith) said it,” said Wildcats safety Francis Meehan, who earned Most Outstanding Defensive Player honors with six solo tackles and a game-clinching interception in the end zone. “That’s a great feeling. All the tradition we have — all the past players that we had: Garrett (Walson, 2016 graduate and current UNC tight end), Roman Gabriel, Sonny Jurgensen, Burke (Estes, 2016 graduate and current Randolph Macon quarterback). We had all those great players come through. Just being in that realm is kind of amazing. I guess Wiz (Vaughn) and I and all the other seniors on the team kind of set the tone for next year.”
Vaughn was named overall MVP of the 3AA championship game after scoring two touchdowns.
“Just to get to come back to your high school, walk into the gym and know you put that banner up is very special,” he said.
Vaughn, Meehan and several other senior leaders of this year’s team were sophomores when Smith returned to New Hanover. That team advanced to the Eastern Championship.
“When we lost to Greenville Rose in the East Finals, we came together as a unit and said if we ever get this far again it’s not gonna end,” Meehan said.
When New Hanover beat Rose 54-0 in early September this season, Vaughn declared to his coach, “We’re going to the state championship!”
Three months later, Vaughn, Meehan and Smith all etched their names in the interconnected history of New Hanover football.