David Pierce worked on the Northwestern High School football coaching staff for 30 years before finally getting his shot to be the head man in April, 2016.
Pierce’s stint in charge of the five-time state champion Trojans lasted 16 games. Saturday morning he was relieved of his duties, along with offensive play-caller Robert Hellams, moves confirmed by a press release from the school district.
A joint statement from Northwestern principal James Blake and athletic director Lauren West said: “We are grateful to Coach Pierce for his hard work and integrity while serving the football program. We recognize the timing of this decision is not ideal and may come as a surprise to our community. However, all parties involved agreed it was best to move in a different direction at this time.”
Defensive coordinator James Martin was put in charge of the team on an interim basis. Players were officially informed at a Sunday afternoon team meeting.
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“There are friendships that have been built for a long time,” said Martin, who previously was head coach at Charlotte’s South Mecklenburg. “It’s hard. It’s like losing somebody. But the administration is doing their job and we as the coaches have to do our job. We have to be able to adjust when things happen.”
Regarding the timing of the firings, West later said during a brief phone call, “It’s not common but discussions with the parties, with all of us... it was just time.”
Pierce’s loyalty was rewarded after Kyle Richardson left following five successful years at Northwestern to take an assistant job at Clemson.
“Was it my dream to some day be a head coach? Yes,” Pierce told The Herald at the time. “Why did I stay here and not go anywhere else? Because I never wanted to leave.”
Very little changed about Northwestern’s coaching staff under Pierce, with Hellams assuming Richardson’s offensive play-calling title. The Trojans went 9-1 in Pierce’s first regular season, before losing to Gaffney in the first round of the 5A playoffs last November. Even with the in-game loss of Shrine Bowl QB Gage Moloney to injury, the playoff exit was a surprise given the Trojans’ 45-2 win over the Indians mid-season.
This season always had the makings of a tougher campaign for the Trojans and their coach. Northwestern graduated seven college-bound football players and three Shrine Bowlers from the 2016 team; that talent and leadership exodus, coupled with a difficult schedule, contributed to a 2-3 start.
Northwestern opened the season with a 39-7 loss to rival South Pointe. The Trojans scored just 35 points in their three losses with the last two defeats — to Byrnes and Spartanburg — by a combined 88-28 scoreline. The three teams that beat Northwestern are a combined 12-2 so far this season.
“I am sure the team will continue to get better each week, win the region championship again, and have a solid performance in the playoffs,” said Hellams. “I regret that I won’t be a part of it.”
Hellams said he had no reason to suspect he would lose his job Saturday having had no prior conversations with Blake or West about job performance. Hellams pointed to his record at the school since arriving in 2013, playing a big role in the Trojans’ 2015 state title team and its highly successful 2016 regular season, both offensive juggernauts led by 2016 Mr. Football winner Moloney.
“I am very proud of my performance during my time at Northwestern and don’t believe that the decision to remove me as the offensive coordinator is justified in any way,” Hellams said. “I will continue in my role as a business education teacher at Northwestern. I trust in God’s plan for my family and I, and will be open to pursuing other coaching opportunities as they are presented to me.”
Mitch Walters was promoted to offensive coordinator. Pierce and Hellams will both continue teaching at Northwestern.
Northwestern hosts Gaffney Sept. 22, before launching its Region 4-5A schedule the following week against at home against Fort Mill. Non-region games no longer have playoff implications since the SCHSL scrapped the points system, so all of the Trojans’ usual goals - a region championship, postseason, state championship - are still in front of them.
“This is not a typical scenario,” Martin said Sunday evening. “It’s like in life when we have tragedy or circumstances before us, we have to keep staying focused. That’s what we’re doing. We’re getting ready for Gaffney.”