From the day Wayne Flowers first watched Strait Herron play basketball at Northwestern High, he knew he was looking at a coach. Which is a good thing, because even Herron admits his athleticism was only going to take him so far.
These days, Herron has led South Pointe's football team to a 12-1 record, the No. 1 ranking in Class AAA and to the doorstep of a third state championship game in the school's six-year varsity history.
Friday's rematch against York is all that is between him and a shot at the Class AAA title.
Herron was the defensive coordinator on the last two, but his first season in charge has been far from smooth. He's seen years worth of headaches amid the mounting wins.
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For all the drama, Herron remains as committed to making sure his players win the right way, preaching character as much or more than Xs and Os.
While discussing his team's progress on Monday, Herron went back to his days playing basketball at Northwestern when asked what he's trying to teach his Stallions now.
"I was raised with a lot of yes sir and no sir, a lot of please and thank you - those are simple things but they matter a lot," Herron said. "Wayne Flowers kept me around on the varsity basketball team because I was a responsible person and a hard worker, because there were a lot of people he could have put on the floor that were a lot better than me at basketball."
Flowers was willing to give Herron some leeway on the court, and also willing to put his name on the line later.
The former coach helped Herron get his break into his hometown's coaching scene, helping him land a job overseeing in-school suspension at Rock Hill High. When Flowers got the principal's job at Clover, Herron was the first teacher he called, and the reason was simple.
"Because he's the type of person I'd want to coach my kid," Flowers said Monday. "He's probably one of my all-time favorite players, but it wasn't for his talent. He played harder, and with as much heart, as anyone I ever coached. I knew I could put him on the opponent's top scorer, because I knew he could control the game on the floor the way I wanted to on the sidelines.
"Every game he played, you knew what you were going to get - everything he had."
Herron has worked just as hard in his first year as a head coach, even if that same kind of control has been elusive at times.
He walked into a pressure-filled job, with the Stallions coming off a title game appearance, but losing one of the country's top recruits in Jadeveon Clowney. But he was also willing to bench his starting quarterback for the beginning of the first game with York, with the region title on the line.
The only blemish
His biggest hurdle was one of the first, in his fourth game as head coach. The postgame fight between players from his team and Rock Hill led to suspensions of more than 10 players for the following game, a 30-21 loss to Spartanburg for the only blemish on his record.
Through it all, Herron has been resolute in response to the situation, while admitting he's still learning how to handle the inevitable hiccups in the course of a season.
"I went back and looked at that tape over and over again," Herron said. "I looked at the way we reacted and they way they reacted, and I could tell that Joe Montgomery was a veteran coach and I was the rookie.
"I took that one personally, and put a lot of it back on myself."
His wife, Brigitte, said her husband of 19 years had just learned how to sleep the night before a game - he was too full of nerves to get rest even in his days as an assistant.
"But he didn't get much sleep that week," she said. "That bothered him as much as anything I've ever seen on the field."
Asked what he'd do differently in that situation, Herron laughed. "First thing is, I wouldn't talk to the media at all," he replied. There was plenty of blowback in the days after, in part because in the emotional moments immediately after the incident, he said he was: "tired of South Pointe being seen as the thugs and dregs of Rock Hill."
Those words haunted him, in part, because many in the community were embarrassed by the implication. But Herron won't flinch at straight talk, insisting that he didn't believe that reputation was fair, and that it was going to change, regardless.
"These are good kids, and they've gotten a bad rap," he said Monday. "I want people to know that they're doing very well. I've got teachers coming up to me in the halls, telling me things are different now."
The stuff that really matters
It doesn't take a long talk with Herron to get past the football and to the stuff that really matters to him. Every Thursday, the final day of preparation for each week's game, he puts his players through a "character education class." Borrowing a syllabus from a former co-worker, he's teaching the "Real Man Program." The acronym flows from Herron easily, having been repeated hundreds of times. The R is for "respect everybody," the E "especially women," the A "always do what's right," and the L "live a life that matters."
Get him talking about the program, and Herron rises up on the balls of his feet, even when he's sitting down. The emphasis he puts on it proves how much it means to him. He knows there are times the message looks incongruent - South Pointe still plays with a swagger you can't preach out of a team that knows it's full of talent - but he never wavers. He talked about reaching the seniors who have been a part of so much success, and grinned.
"These aren't the kind of kids who are going to say 'Coach Herron, thank you for taking a concern for me,'" Herron said. "They're not always going to act like little princes out there on the field. But I know these kids believe and accept and use it, and then the rest of them see it.
"They're going to do their thing on the field, but I'm telling you, I know they're good people when they leave it."
Anyone who knows anything about Herron knows he doesn't do much without studying things thoroughly and planning carefully. He's struggling to find someone to take over the Dalton Help Foundation, which he started five years ago to raise awareness for autism. It's named after his 9-year-old son, a fixture at Stallions games. When they wrote the initial bylaws, he insisted that the president would only serve five years, his term is up, and he hasn't found anyone willing to take it on.
As an offshoot of the foundation, he's done plenty of work with the All-American Athletic League, which provides team sports opportunities for children with special needs throughout York County. When he's there, he can relax and enjoy sports as a dad, instead of an obsessive coach.
This time of year, those moments are rare. On a recent date night with his wife, they ended up at the Wild Wing, talking football (Brigitte insists she didn't mind) because when you're this close to a state championship, that's what occupies most of your brain.
He'd really like to ease up, he would. He looked out a window and said, "I could be kicked back listening to Jimmy Buffett songs right now. ... I don't know what else to do. I don't hunt or play golf. I tried, but I don't."
Herron has more work to do. The week of planning for the rematch with York will fly by, but listen to him talk about his job, and you know he's got a lifetime's worth of work, teaching the lessons of a life.