From the tiny town of Lincolnton, Georgia (population 1,476) comes the really big story of one of the nation’s all-time greatest high school football coaches – Larry Campbell.
The county seat of Lincoln County – with an equally modest population of 7,442 and nestled against the Savannah River that forms the border between Georgia and South Carolina – is home to Lincoln County High School, where Campbell capably roamed the sidelines for 44 years.
As the leader of the Red Devils program, Campbell crafted a superlative career from which he retired in 2013 as the nation’s third-winningest high school football coach (according to the NFHS’ National High School Sports Record Book) with a 477-85-3 win-loss record. In addition, he led the program to 11 Georgia High School Association (GHSA) state championships in 20 title-game appearances. The NFHS formally recognized Campbell’s coaching excellence in 2000 when it inducted him into its National High School Hall of Fame.
A native of Abbeville, South Carolina, Campbell graduated from Calhoun Falls (South Carolina) High School in 1966, where as a 5-foot-9, 160-pounder he lettered in football, basketball, baseball and track. After playing baseball for two years at Anderson (South Carolina) Junior College, Campbell went on to the University of Georgia, from which he graduated in 1970 as its top physical education major.
“I grew up in athletics, but I was not a great athlete,” Campbell acknowledged. “I was primarily a baseball player who played shortstop and second base in high school and I played a little college baseball. After Anderson Junior College, I ‘attempted’ to play baseball at Georgia.”
Taking good advantage of Campbell’s baseball knowledge and experience, the then-recently opened Lincoln County High School hired him in 1970 as its baseball coach. It turned out to be an outstanding hire for the school, as he remained there his entire career. However, the legend of Larry Campbell really began to unfold in earnest in 1972 when as a 24-year-old he was named LCHS head football coach.
“Coach Thomas Bunch preceded me as Lincoln County’s football coach,” Campbell explained. “We went 3-7 during my first season. I was very fortunate that would end up being the only team with a losing season I had at Lincoln County.
“That was during a time in which schools were consolidating, so our team numbers weren’t low. Our first team was made up of a bunch of young men who did everything we asked of them. They often played much-larger schools and they put up some good fights. We definitely made some changes and some of the players on that 1972 team helped turn things around in 1973.”
That could be considered to be a bit of an understatement as Campbell ’s coaching wizardry shone the following autumn when he led the Red Devils to a sparkling 8-1-1 record. The program added a game to that victory total each of the following two years when it enjoyed seasons with nearly identical records of 9-4 and 9-3. However, it was in the falls of 1976 and 1977 in which Campbell led Lincoln County to back-to-back perfect 13-0 records and to GHSA state football championships.
“In 1974, we played for the state title for the first time and fell to Tryon, 6-0,” Campbell began. “The 1976 team was made up of a great group of juniors who went undefeated and won it two years in row. That was a unique group with a lot of athletes who led us to the 1976 state title – a 6-0 road victory over Buford in a rainstorm.
The Lincoln County High School football team hoists coach Larry Campbell on their shoulders in celebration of the 1976 GHSA Class A state title
“The following year, we came back with most of that same group and defeated Jefferson at home, 22-7, to win our second consecutive state title. We always adapted our offense to the talent we had. After running the wishbone in 1974, in 1976 and 1977, we went to the I-formation and it proved to be successful for us.”
During the following 20 years, none of Campbell’s teams lost more than three games in any given season, while six of them finished 15-0. Included in that stretch was a 44-game winning streak that spanned 1989 and 1991, with state titles in 1989 and 1990. Leading those teams was standout tailback Garrison Hearst.
“That three-year run would rank with the [state championship] 2005 and 2006 seasons as being the best we enjoyed,” Campbell opined. “Hearst was quite a talent. He was 5-11 and 190 pounds and had great speed. We featured him in the I-formation, and he was surrounded by a lot of talented players. After a stellar career at the University of Georgia, he played in the NFL for four different teams - mostly with the 49ers.”
From 1997 to Campbell’s final season in 2013, the Lincoln County football program enjoyed 14 seasons with double-figure victories, while had only three in the single digits. During his entire coaching career, Campbell led the program to an impressive 84.8 winning percentage.
Despite being from a smaller enrollment school, 96 Lincoln County football players earned college football scholarships. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that seven LCHS alums made it to the top level and played professional football.
In addition to Hearst, Barney Bussey played for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Charles Glaze was with the Seattle Seahawks; Dwaine Simons played for two teams in the Canadian Football League; Troy Albea played for the Indianapolis Colts; Jarius Wynn was with the Green Bay Packers and the Tennessee Titans and currently is with the Dallas Cowboys; and Brandon Barden played for the Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans, and is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Shown above are Jarius Wynn, coach Campbell, Garrison Hearst and Brandon Barden. All three players played in the National Football League
While that post-high school legacy of college and professional football is indeed impressive, Campbell takes greater pleasure and pride in seeing many of his former players succeed in other walks of life.
“When you hear from former players – they give you a call or whatever – and they have gone on to become attorneys, surgeons, ministers and so on, that’s the most rewarding part of being a coach,” Campbell said.”Not all of them do that, but many of them do. That’s way more important than winning the state championship – you touched their lives and helped them become happy and productive adults.
“We always emphasized Faith, No. 1; Family, No. 2; and Football, No. 3. For that reason, we were able to keep things in focus. In addition, we always had a 10-minute devotion before each game – we always did it at 7:00 p.m. for an 8:00 p.m. kickoff. One of my players who is in the ministry just called me to congratulate me on a hall of fame situation – those are the things that you have to enjoy.”
Very deservedly so, athletic facilities at Lincoln County High School are named after Campbell and his two coaching predecessors – all three of whom led the program to at least one undefeated season and to a state championship.
The August 1, 2014 unveiling of the renaming of the stadium to “Larry Campbell Stadium” are Lincoln County High School Principal Dr. Howie F. Gunby, Brian Campbell, Allen Robertson, Campbell Robertson, Allie Drake Robertson, Kelli Campbell Robertson, Connie Campbell and Larry Campbell
“The football field at Lincoln County is named after Coach Buddy Bufford, who started in 1957,” Campbell noted. “Then, the field house is named after Thomas Bunch, who followed Buddy and preceded me.”
On the evening of Friday, August 1, 2014 – with the stadium lights shining brightly as they had done for countless other Friday nights – Lincoln County honored the recently retired Campbell by holding an appreciation event in which it forever honored him by renaming the stadium “Larry Campbell Stadium.” In attendance for that momentous occasion were Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, former University of Georgia football coach Ray Goff, GHSA Executive Director Gary Phillips, and Campbell’s gridiron protégé Garrison Hearst.
“That was a great way to go out,” Campbell recalled. “Doing something I love for 44 years is a blessing that I will always cherish.”
John Gillis is the associate director of development of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at firstname.lastname@example.org