Tom Knotts did not come to South Carolina to catch flies.
The veteran coach’s vinegar-based recipe for revamping the Dutch Fork football program has not won him a lot of friends, but it has achieved his goal of transforming the Silver Foxes into a championship caliber squad.
“I came down here to be a success and build championships and let the kids reap the benefits of that,” said Knotts, who arrived from Charlotte’s Independence High with seven championship rings and three decades of experience.
He had promised the principal he could have the Silver Foxes in the championship game within three or four seasons, and the changes he needed to make to fulfill that promise were not about what happens inside the Dutch Fork football stadium.
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Getting the Silver Foxes (12-2) to where they are now, on the eve of their third consecutive Class 4A title game in Knott’s fifth season, was about resetting the Dutch Fork football atmosphere. By placing an emphasis on strength and conditioning and instilling a year-round work ethic, Knotts pushed the Silver Foxes into title contention after three seasons.
Strength and conditioning coach Noah Dixon said Knotts’ emphasis on working in the weight room was the beginning of the team’s turnaround.
“We instill in our kids early on the importance of being strong,” said Dixon, who has 30 Silver Foxes bench pressing more than 300 pounds. “We just really make a big deal out of it, and it all comes from the top.”
Offensive line coach Bucky Tillotson said building a feeder system that lets future Silver Foxes learn strength training techniques and the basics of Dutch Fork’s system early has been key, also.
“It’s like in elementary school, you start with one plus one and build on that. By the time they get to high school, we’re just getting more specific, more detailed. That’s the way the best programs do it,” Tillotson said.
Along the way, the Silver Foxes have grown accustomed to Knotts’ self-described negative coaching style, which he believes also has helped spur the Silver Foxes to success.
“I’ve always had the thought that comfort destroys progress, so sometimes I tend to on purpose just try to make people feel uncomfortable so they’ll buckle down and listen to me and do more what I want,” Knotts said. “I employ that with my assistants, also, so nobody’s real comfortable around Dutch Fork football. But I think the results speak for themselves.”
The Silver Foxes are 55-15 during Knotts’ five-year tenure. They have reached the playoffs each year, and have the chance to win a second consecutive Class 4A Division 1 title when they face Hillcrest (13-1) on Saturday at Williams Brice Stadium.
“It’s been tough, but it’s been the best way,” senior linebacker Lane Ecton said. “You can’t fail. You can’t do things wrong. If you do, you don’t want to go there.”
Senior running back Matt Colburn, a Lousiville-bound Shrine Bowl selection, said Knotts’ coaching methods have benefited the team.
“His system works. When everyone buys in, it proves to work,” he said.
Assistants like Dixon and Tillotson understand the need for Knotts’ hard-nosed approach.
“You got to have a rough neck, you have to be able to take it,” Dixon said. “You might find some coaches that think he’s a slave driver, but not the ones that want to be successful.”
“He’s definitely a person who will harp on the negatives to enhance the positives,” Dixon said. “If you’ve got a kid on the field doing something wrong, either you’re coaching him wrong, or you’re allowing it. And we can’t let that continue to get where we want to be each year.”
“We don’t always like it, but we understand it,” Tillotson said, “and we coach at a high level because he does.”
Knotts holds his own feet to the same fire, and by nature focuses on finding and repairing flaws.
“It’s hard for me to be positive all the time, because I see so many things that we’re not doing, that aren’t up to my standards, so I tend to point them out,” he said.
But Knotts is not an all-stick, no-carrot coach.
This season, Knotts has started each Sunday film session by reviewing highlights with positive, effusive commentary. This week, linebacker Dominique Scott got a standing ovation for a sack, something Knotts has not done before.
And even after roasting a player he is careful to always add a bit of honey when it’s merited.
“I can jump down their throat one minute but the next I can tell them I think they’re a great football player, a great kid, a great student athlete,” he said.
“I’m always telling the kids if I’m not pointing them out to you, then you’re probably not in very good standing with me,” Knotts said.