By CHRIS HOBBS
HICKORY – David Elder still remembers a conversation from more than 20 years ago that predicted one of the magic seasons he was to coach in, but there was really no way to be fully prepared for it.
He was talking to veteran Shelby head football coach Jim Taylor after the Golden Lions had beaten Hickory in a two-overtime state playoff game in 1995, and Taylor told Elder he hoped he didn’t find himself on the opposite sideline again the next season.
“After the game, he said ‘I don’t want to be on the field with you next year,’” Elder recalled Thursday. “We had all that size… all that speed.”
In a season that was the perfect storm — with everything coming together — Hickory rolled to a state 3A football championship in 1996. The Red Tornadoes went 16-0, scoring at least 30 points every game, and won the title over Jamestown Ragsdale in Chapel Hill, 42-0.
In five postseason games that season, HHS outscored opponents 212-34, forever entering a debate about the best high school football team of all-time in North Carolina.
Elder — who turns 72 on Sept. 13 and also coached a Hickory girls’ basketball team to an unbeaten record and state title (32-0 in 1998-99) – lets his records speak for themselves.
“I don’t want to say it,” Elder said when asked about his 1996 HHS football team being the best to ever take the field in the Greater Hickory area.
Recently selected for his fourth Hall of Fame – he’s in the next class going into the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) HOF – Elder is one of the state’s most successful coaches.
He coached at five schools and his football teams went 143-71-6. In basketball, his girls at HHS went 418-129 with eight league titles, three additional shared conference crowns, 10 West Regional appearances – eight in a row from 1991-92 through 1998-99 – and three state championships.
Having coached two unbeaten state champs in different sports isn’t the norm, but little about Elder is either.
In high school at old Taylorsville High, he was a football star. He became the same at Lenoir-Rhyne University in football, where he is in the school’s Hall of Fame (his other two HOFs are the Catawba County Sports and the Alexander County Sports).
Elder was the first head football coach at West Caldwell when the consolidated school opened in the late 1970s, and then he came to HHS to in 1979 to work with the late Frank Barger in football.
It wasn’t until 1994 — after Larry Wittenberg (seven seasons) and Bob Hanna (two seasons) had followed Barger — that the reins of the Red Tornadoes’ football program rested in Elder’s hands.
He was ready.
After a 4-7 record in 1994, HHS was 10-3 in 1995. The Red Tornadoes opened the 1996 season with a 49-6 home victory over Hibriten highlighted by two rushing TDs by Lee Wilson and seven PATs by Cory Morgan.
When the Red Tornadoes put their equipment up for good that season, they had outrushed opponents 5,833 to 1,532, had an average win margin of nearly seven TDs a game (scored 767, allowed 99), and Elder won the North Carolina Associated Press Coach of the Year award.
“We had great skill people,” Elder recalled, mentioning running back Jamel Patterson, quarterback Daniel Willis and a tiny guy who was a big-time playmaker — Johnie Dillingham — who was 5-foot-7 and weighed about 135 pounds.
Elder has fond memories of how well the Red Tornadoes played together and how the pieces all came together.
“I started thinking about it,” he said. “We had Chris Nelson (at guard) up off the JVs. He played soccer and was about 6-4, 235 pounds… and by his senior year he was about 260 pounds.
“And (center) Bailey King, he was probably the most durable. He started all four years and he just put the ball in play every snap.”
As part of his retirement, Elder says he puts a ball in play every Tuesday and Thursday. He plays golf around the area with about 15 or 20 friends, and he’s the guy who keeps all the scores and keeps up with the schedule.
The group includes coaching buddies like Tommy Edwards (Bunker Hill and Catawba Valley Community College basketball) and Ken Morrison (longtime assistant coach at Newton-Conover).
“I’m a run of the mill type… middle of the pack,” golfer says Elder, whose Fridays are still filled with football.
After he “retired” in 2003, he worked in the pro shop at Hampton Heights and also found time to help Wayne Hicks, now head football coach at St. Stephens, when Hicks was the head football coach at LRU.
In 2004, Elder helped Roger Bost coach at Statesville. And in 2005, after being as away from football as he was going to get, Elder was asked to broadcast sports with WHKY. He will join Jason Savage in the booth for the Newton-Conover at Hickory football game on Monday night at 6 p.m. (the game was postponed on Friday).
“I just sit there and mumble and give a recap of the play,” Elder said. “I get to stay involved (with football). I enjoy being at the game and I get paid for running my mouth.”
He said when he coached the 1996 team at HHS, he didn’t stop and enjoy the ride as much as perhaps as much as he should have (he was worried, he said, about losing even a single game).
But now — as an onlooker who knows much better than the majority of fans about all the Xs and Os and what goes into having to get a team ready — Elder has a different prospective.
Like many former players, Elder says he doesn’t miss practice that much.
But game nights are still special.
“I missed it (coaching) a lot more (at first) than I do now,” said Elder, whose final football game as a head coach was a second round 21-10 loss at Asheville in which future NFL kicker Ryan Succop hit a 29-yarder. “Things now… I’d love to be out there on game night.
“You go to a game and you get that drive… to do it one more time.”
THE BEST TEAM EVER?
Game-by-game scores for Hickory’s 1996 varsity football team that went unbeaten and won a state 3A title:
Hibriten, W 49-6 Lee Wilson 2 TD runs
Statesville, W 42-10 Daniel Willis 3 TD passes
at Wilkes Central, W 71-0 Jamel Patterson 4 TD runs
at Newton-Conover, W 30-7 Lee Wilson 3 TD runs
Alexander Central, W 49-0 Jamel Patterson 4 TDs
at Freedom, W 33-14 Lee Wilson 3 TD runs
N. Iredell, W 56-0 Jamel Patterson 4 TD runs
E. Lincoln, W 72-7 Daniel Willis 26 points
at S. Caldwell, W 34-7 Daniel Willis 3 TD passes
Fred T. Foard, W 56-0 Johnie Dillingham 3 TD catches
at St. Stephens, W 63-14 Daniel Willis 3 TD passes
N. Surry, W 70-16 Cory Morgan 10 PATs
at Canton Pisgah, W 30-0 Daniel Willis 2 TDs
at Brevard, W 35-18 Jamel Patterson 3 TD runs
at Statesville, W 35-0 Lee Wilson 2 TD runs
Jamestown Ragsdale at UNC, W 42-0 Lee Wilson 3 TD runs
SOURCE: HobbsDailyReport.com, from official HHS statistics