High School Sports

January 21, 2009

State coaching icon Varner dead at 82

SPARTANBURG — W.L. "Willie" Varner, the legendary high school coaching giant who won 10 football state titles and 16 total state titles in more than 40 years at Woodruff, died Tuesday morning after a brief illness. He was 82.

SPARTANBURG — For 43 years, it was normal to go to Woodruff High School football games and see W.L. "Willie" Varner roaming the sidelines as coach of the Wolverines.

In the past few years, Varner has been on the sideline as the Wolverines have enjoyed a rejuvenation.

Varner, though, won't get to see if the current Wolverines can make a return to the glory days of winning state titles.

Varner, the legendary coaching giant who won 10 football state titles and 16 total state titles in more than 40 years at Woodruff, died Tuesday morning after a brief illness. He was 82.

"His commitment to Woodruff High School will never be matched again," said Keith Richardson, a former assistant coach who went on to have a Hall of Fame career at Clinton. "There won't ever be anyone as committed to that school, or any school, as he was. It was just amazing his love for Woodruff High School."

"He coached there for so long that he really became a legend and not just in Woodruff, but throughout the state and nationally," former Spartanburg and Chapman coach Doc Davis said. "You have heroes as you're growing up as a kid and then once you get into coaching you have heroes as well and he certainly was a hero of mine and for many other coaches in South Carolina."

As the football coach at Woodruff, Varner compiled a 383-132-10 record. His 383 victories rank second in the state and among the top coaches nationally.

His Wolverines won four straight state titles from 1975-1978, a feat that only two other schools can boast.

"I never thought about it being difficult," Varner said in 2006 about winning. "I just thought that's what you were supposed to do."

"I'd have to put him up there among the finest coaches ever in South Carolina," said Summerville coach John McKissick, who's tied with Varner for most football state titles won. "He would work hard, he was dedicated. I can't say enough good about him, to tell you the truth.

"I would have to put him up there as tops among the coaches in South Carolina."

Varner was inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame in 1994, the S.C. Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame. He was named national coach of the year in 1983 by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

He coached in the Shrine Bowl and in the North-South all-star game, which he won twice.

"When we recruited (quarterback) Tony Rice, what became obvious about Coach Varner was, not only were his teams well coached and there was a loyalty that the players had, but equally important was that Coach Varner cared about his players," said former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach Lou Holtz. "The relationship he had with his players and the respect that he demanded from them toward the authority of coaches, all those things weigh heavily into the success that an individual will have on the college level. We will miss people like Coach Varner."

His playing ability earned him a spot in Wofford College's Athletic Hall of Fame. He played football and track for the Terrriers in the 1950s after a stint in the Army.

He went to work at Woodruff High School in 1953 and took over as the football coach a year later. After back-to-back losing seasons, Varner led the Wolverines to a state championship in his third season.

Former Laurens and Northwestern coach Bobby Ivey was on those first two championship teams for Varner and it was because of his high school coach that he joined the profession.

"He was such an inspiration to me as a player that I wanted to coach," Ivey said. "He had a lot of players who followed in his path because of his inspiration, how he handled himself and because he was tough."

The titles kept coming for Varner, as he won football crowns in four decades.

His football teams won 28 conference titles and 16 upper state titles during his tenure.

"He was a great coach and, more importantly, he cared about you as an individual. He was always there for you," said former quarterback Tony Rice, who led the Wolverines to multiple state titles and then won a national championship at Notre Dame, in 2003. "They ought to name the town after him after all he's done for the community."

Varner had chances to leave the small school for a bigger challenge, but he never left, even after the school district board voted to take away his coaching and athletic director positions in 1996 and opted for Varner to become an assistant principal.

"He's as big an icon as anyone in this state," said Freddie Brown, former Woodruff and current Spartanburg High School football coach. "What he did during his time is unheard of. When he could no longer coach, though, he continued to contribute to that community and he never left. That's the mark of a great person."

Northwestern assistant football coach Bobby Page played for Varner from 1973-1975. Page, who has been in Rock Hill since 1984, said he's at Northwestern because of Varner. Page said Ivey called Varner and asked if he knew of any young coaches looking for a job. Varner suggested he call Page.

"The thing about Coach Varner is he was the best motivator I've ever been around," Page said. "He could get all the talent out of every player. Didn't matter if he was the best or worst. We never went into a game thinking losing was a possibility. It was never an option."

Spartanburg School District 4 superintendent Rallie Liston said that Varner was a great administrator in the school system.

Varner just wanted to give back to the community and school that had given him so much.

"I want to have an impact," Varner said in 2003. "If that means devoting time to teaching Sunday School, or if it means coaching little league, I'd just like to be involved."

He was honored at a football game, in the stadium that bears his name, for his 50 years of service to the district in 2003.

He didn't just coach football, as he used his coaching skills in many other sports like girls basketball and baseball. And he coached winners in every sport. His girls won four state titles in his 12-year tenure as the basketball coach (1964, '66, '68 and '69) and he won baseball state titles in 1958 and '59.

"I've said it repeatedly, but I always enjoyed coaching girls basketball better than football," Varner said in 2005 when his girls teams held a reunion at the school. "It was because the girls always tried harder."

Varner, whose wife, Frances, passed away in 2002, is survived by his son, Dennis, and daughter, Toni Sloan. The family will receive friends from 1:30 p.m. until 4 p.m. Friday at Woodruff First Baptist Church and a funeral will be held at 4:30 p.m. at Emma Gray Methodist Church. The funeral will be for family and close friends.

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