North Wilkes football coaches 1980.jpg

THE 1980 FOOTBALL SEASON was the last as head coach for Earl Eller, who founded the varsity program at North Wilkes, and for his offensive coordinator, Charles Wooten. Kneeling from left are Eller, Wooten and Ric Vandett. Standing are Mike McLelland, Tommy Johnson, Mike Greene and Roger Caudle. Greene would succeed Eller as the football coach and Caudle would succeed Wooten as the baseball coach. Johnson, who was the quarterback of the 1972 conference championship team, would later have two stints as the varsity boys basketball coach. Eller remained at the school as athletic director until 2001.

(Second of two parts.)

Charles Wooten coached baseball at North Wilkes from 1971-78. He was a District 7 coach of the year and led the Vikings to their only conference championship in baseball in 1974.

But Wooten was hired at North Wilkes to be an assistant football coach and was involved in that sport from 1970-80. He was the offensive coordinator for the 1972 team that won the District 7 championship for a program in only its third year of existence.

In addition to baseball during an expansive two-hour conversation, Wooten also talked about getting his start as a teacher and the formative years of the Vikings’ varsity football program.

“I don’t hire coaches”

After graduating from West Wilkes, Wooten attended college at Appalachian State. During his senior year, he was at a basketball game with his future wife, Jo Ann, and was approached by his former West Wilkes football teammate and new North Wilkes head football coach, Earl Eller. Eller wanted Wooten to come to North Wilkes and be an assistant football coach for the soon-to-start varsity program.

Part of the process involved meeting with school system representatives. Charles Bentley, a former Wilkes assistant superintendent for personnel, was doing interviews at ASU when Wooten went for a meeting.

“We talked for a good while, and he said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, Mr. Bentley, I want to coach. He didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘I don’t hire coaches.’ And that resonated with me forever. He said, ‘We hire teachers.’

“I saw him a few years ago (Bentley died in 2018) and told him that always stuck with me, that a good coach is a good teacher.”

Wooten was scheduled to interview on a Friday for a position at Wilkes Central. A few days before the interview, he got a phone call from Eller, who told him that Paul Gregory, North Wilkes’ principal, wanted to interview him.

“I spent two hours at Paul Gregory’s house,” Wooten said. “I really liked him and felt like he liked me…. I said, Mr. Gregory, I’ve got an interview with Wilkes Central on Friday. He said, ‘I want to hire you. I’ll call and cancel that interview.’

“That tickled me, because I wanted to work with Earl and I wanted to work with football.”

“We’re going home”

After Eller fielded JV teams in 1968 and 1969, Wooten arrived at North Wilkes as the offensive coordinator for the first season of varsity competition in 1970.

The Vikings were 0-9 that season and were outscored 293-74. “We were probably Homecoming everywhere we went,” Wooten said.

One of those Homecomings was in Week 4 at Ashe Central. The Vikings were down to 19 healthy players, with their quarterback on crutches from an ankle injury and several more at home with the flu.

In a phone call with Ashe Central’s coach, Eller pleaded to postpone the game until early the next week. Wooten said, “I didn’t hear the other end of the conversation, but it went something like this, according to Earl, ‘It’s our Homecoming. We’ve got everything planned. We’ve got to have it. Please come—we’ll take it easy.”

North Wilkes went to Jefferson, as scheduled, with two freshmen quarterbacks up from the JV team. The first, Randy Walker, broke his wrist on the first play of the game.

“The last play of the first half, they scored their 48th point,” Wooten said. “Earl walked by on the sideline and said, ‘We’re going home.’”

Eller told Ashe Central’s coach that they were leaving. You can’t leave, the coach said. And Eller responded, you can’t stop us.

“I’m sure we got fined,” Wooten said. “But that’s probably the smartest, the wisest thing he ever did. Because they would have scored 100 points on us.”

“That will beat them”

The Vikings’ first win came at Northwest Ashe in 1971. The Mountaineers scored early in the second half, kicking an extra point instead of trying for a 2-point conversion to lead 27-12.

Standing on the sideline, Wooten heard a voice say, “That will beat them.” He turned around and saw his quarterback, Tommy Huskey. The Vikings rallied with two Howard Hamilton touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and Huskey threw a pair of 2-point conversion passes, one to Phillip Gentry and one to Hamilton. North Wilkes won 28-27.

The Vikings were 3-7 in 1971, losing five games by eight or fewer points. The next season, behind Hamilton and sophomore quarterback Tommy Johnson, North Wilkes was 8-3 and won the District 7 championship, clinching the title with a 31-6 win at West Wilkes.

Hamilton, a senior, scored 16 touchdowns for the Vikings, who outscored opponents 273-119 while posting three shutouts.

“In football, we took our lumps,” Wooten said. “After getting whipped for two years in a row, that third year we did some whipping, and we weren’t Homecoming in many places.”

The Vikings finished in the top half of the conference standings in first District 7 and then the Blue Ridge Conference six times in their first decade.

Eller and Wooten both stepped away from football after the 1980 season. Mike Greene, another West Wilkes alumnus, would succeed Eller and coach the Vikings for the next 13 seasons.

Eller’s 46 wins are second only to Greene at North Wilkes. Eller died in 2018.

Eller, Wooten, Greene and Gregory are members of the North Wilkes Hall of Fame along with Roger Caudle, Dr. Frances Tharpe, Joe Linney and Danny Joe Pendry.

North Wilkes wouldn’t win another conference championship in football until 2013—a 41-year drought that is the longest of any Wilkes school.

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