WILSON - Having completed his tour of Wilson County high school football coaching jobs, Tom Nelson might be home at last.
The Hunt High graduate (Class of 1989) and former Beddingfield High head coach officially became the 13th varsity football head coach at Fike High on Monday. Nelson, who has spent the past five seasons as North Johnston's head coach, returns to the school where he began high school as a freshman in the fall of 1985. His third head coaching job, he hopes, will be his last.
"If they will keep me, this is going to be my last move," Nelson declared in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. "This one is about our family. My wife works in Wilson, my kids play soccer in Wilson, we spend all of out time in Wilson. It's all about coming back to Wilson."
Nelson and his wife, Emily, are the parents of three daughters: Reily, age 11; Reece Ann, 9, and Reagan, 5.
He was an assistant coach at Hunt, where he starred as a player, for five years before becoming Beddingfield's head coach. But those past associations are just that for the new Golden Demons leader.
"Once you get into a place and get to know the kids and work hard together, that becomes your focus," Nelson stated. "It's not about where you were or any of that, it's about getting your team prepared to play well."
UNDERSTANDS FIKE TRADITION
He takes over at Fike for Kim Brown, who was not retained after two seasons. Nelson will continue to teach history at North Johnston, which he will also teach at Fike, for the rest of the school year but will come to Fike to teach the after-school weight-lifting class beginning in mid-February.
"We're just excited to have someone like Tom," said Fike Principal Steve Ellis. "Especially a coach who has a proven record of winning, someone who's good with kids and probably what we need about now.
"He's got Wilson roots, he knows the community and the tradition at Fike."
Ellis said he pointed out to Nelson the Fike program wasn't dead and there is a lot of support for Demons football. Fike won three consecutive state 4-A championships from 1967-69 and still carries name recognition throughout the state.
"We're a little different from the other schools," said Ellis, who played quarterback at Fike in the 1980s. "You see those banners and football's what we were known for."
"I am so excited," Nelson said. "Really when you look at places in the whole state, there's not many that have the history and tradition that Fike has."
Nelson went 32-21 in four years with the Bruins and 33-28 in five seasons at North Johnston for a career mark of 65-49. Only one of his teams failed to make the postseason. Nelson understands the pressure to succeed might be greater at Fike than at North Johnston, where he guided the Panthers to the second-best record (9-3) in school history last fall. Fike has gone 2-9 each of the last two seasons and has yet to win a game against 3-A Big East Conference opponents.
"I'm excited about it," said Nelson, who graduated from and played football at Lees-McRae College. "I have a good grasp on things that have gone on there in the past and am looking very much forward to getting that turned around. We're going to go in there and work hard everyday."
But leaving North Johnston wasn't easy, he said.
"It was a terribly hard decision," Nelson said. "I was telling my kids (at North Johnston) that ever since I've been a head coach, the group I've been closest to was the 2005 team at Beddingfield because we grew up together. But this group at North Johnston, we are very close."
It wasn't easy for North Johnston to get the news either.
"Obviously there's no doubt we're sad to lose him," said North Johnston Principal Tim Harrell. "Not only did he do an excellent job on the athletic field, but Wilson Fike is getting an outstanding history teacher because he works very, very hard in the classroom and he takes as much pride with his kids in the classroom as he does on the football field.
"But I understand, like anybody does, in this day and time you've got to do what's best for your family."
Harrell also praised Nelson's commitment to North Johnston.
"One thing he wanted to do was make sure North Johnston was left in the best possible position it could be, both with the football team and in the class room," Harrell said.
Nelson's Beddingfield teams were known for their high-powered spread offenses. His 2004 team, featuring all-state quarterback Bennett Johnson, accumulated nearly 4,000 passing yards. But Nelson cautions that he's not married to the passing game. Most of his Panthers teams were run-oriented.
"That has become the perception since I was at Beddingfield, but the reality is: I like to win," he said. "And we're going to do whatever it takes to win."
One thing Nelson said he plans to bring with him to Fike is the up-tempo, no-huddle offense that he ran successfully at North Johnston.
I think it's going to be exciting for the kids. We're going to try to build on that," he said.
With a statewide hiring freeze in place, Nelson might not be able to bring any of his North Johnston staff to Fike but he already is well-acquainted with most of the Demons assistant coaches.
"When you bring in someone like Tom, first you've got someone with credibility and then you've got someone who's familiar with all the coaches here. He knows he's going to have a quality staff here," Ellis said. "I don't think we could've done this with someone nobody knew."
Nelson's eager to meet with his new players, which he will do next week, and let them know what he has planned for Fike football.
"I'm going to try to meet with as many kids as possible to tell them what we're going to be about," he said. "I want every kid at Fike High School who dreams of playing football and being part of something special to come out and be a part of what we're going to be doing."
(My thanks to Wilson Times sports editor Paul Durham for allowing me to reprint this article.)