ASHEVILLE – Danny Wilkins called trick plays with such guile that it’s hard to believe his instincts ever failed him.
Still, it’s consistency that defined Wilkins’ run with Asheville High football as much as anything else.
The winningest coach in Cougars history informed his players Monday that he is retiring after 16 seasons.
Not just any 16 seasons though.
Wilkins won 162 games, 12 Mountain Athletic Conference championships (including a school-record 10 in a row from 2005 to 2014) and a state title (NCHSAA 3-A in 2005). Three of Wilkins’ former players (Crezdon Butler, Jeoffrey Pagan and Johnny White) have signed NFL contracts — Butler and Pagan are currently active in the pros.
“God has been good to me and I want to give him all the glory,” Wilkins said.
“What a blessing this has been for me and my family. I was eligible to retire more than a year ago, but I decided to stay and see how I felt mentally, physically and emotionally. I’m still in a good place. It’s just time to transition and do some other things with my life.”
Asheville was 9-3 this past season and the third-place team in the MAC’s 3-A division. There had been speculation since a loss in the first round of the NCHSAA 3-AA playoffs (30-17 at Weddington on Nov. 13) that this might be Wilkins’ final season.
Wilkins was the longest-tenured coach in the MAC. He previously coached at Erwin from 1988 to 1992, going 5-34-1 in that time.
“It’s sort of like I tell our kids, there are different seasons in life,” Wilkins said.
“I remember getting married and moving down to Georgia. My wife and I were there for six years before I got the chance to come home and coach at Erwin. And after that, I worked with a lot of great coaches, superintendents and principals here at Asheville. And some talented kids. I think there is this misconception that you have a ton of athletes when you coach at Asheville High. Some years you do, some years you don’t. But you’ve got to have coaches to direct that talent and we’ve had a good nucleus here for a long time.”
Kadeem Morgan was a Citizen-Times All-WNC linebacker for the 1995 team that went 15-0.
That season culminated with a 13-10 win over Western Alamance in the NCHSAA 3-A championship game at Duke University. And the moment that decided the game was arguably the finest of Wilkins’ career.
Morgan’s younger brother, Rahkeem, was split out wide as an eligible receiver just seconds after looking like he was going to check out. Instead, Morgan ran a sideline route and was on the end of a 70-yard touchdown pass from Butler to complete the “Sleeper” trick play.
That state championship is officially recognized as the first for the Cougars since 1922.
“Coach Wilkins has really set the standard,” Morgan said.
“Now whoever we bring in as the new coach is going to have to produce. But we’re still going to be missing a really good guy. I was able to go onto the next level (at Western Carolina University) and Coach Wilkins stayed with me. We’re still in contact to this day. When I think back on my senior year, I remember all the hard work and different aspects that went into it. He definitely made everyone feel like we were part of a team.”
Wilkins and former Asheville athletic director Rex Wells both played their high school football for Enka in the 1970s. Later, they attended Western Carolina University together.
Lou Fogle retired as the Cougars’ athletic director and football coach on the heels of a 3-A Western Regional championship season in 1999 which allowed Wilkins and Wells to work hand-in-hand up until Wells’ retirement last spring.
“Danny is a class act, a friend and one of the finest people I know,” Wells said.
“He’s won a lot of games. The reason for Danny’s success is that the kids know he cares about them.”
Reynolds coach Shane Laws beat Wilkins soundly in their final game (54-21 on Oct. 2 at Reynolds), but has been on the end of his share of heartache in the Rockets’ rivalry with Asheville.
The Cougars overcame a 29-0 halftime deficit to upend Reynolds in 2011 by a 35-29 score. A year later, David Howerton threw a short pass that Danquiries Green turned into an 80-yard touchdown on the final play of a 34-30 win over the Rockets.
“Danny is obviously an incredible football coach,” Laws said.
“You can look at what all he and his guys have accomplished to know that. Anytime you beat Asheville, you knew you beat a well-coached team that was ready to play. But the big thing to me and a lot of other people is that Danny did things the right way. I have a lot of respect for Danny as not only a football coach, but as a friend and a man. He’s someone who really knows what we coaches go through day-to-day. If I’m ever going through something and I need someone’s opinion, he’s one of the first people I call.”
Wilkins is hoping to stay involved with Western North Carolina sports as a representative for the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter.