It’s been three years since former Independence High football coach Tom Knotts has been on campus. And, honestly, he said he’d rather not return Friday night.
Last year, because he couldn’t find an opponent to play, Knotts reluctantly signed a two-year agreement for his Dutch Fork High team to play Independence. Dutch Fork, No. 1 in the S.C. 5A preseason poll, won 45-0 at home last season. The rematch is Friday at Independence.
So Knotts - who once led Mecklenburg County teams from Harding, West Charlotte and Independence to 11 state championship game appearances - will head to Mint Hill with a slightly heavy heart.
“I don’t really want to go to back, but I’ve got to,” said Knotts, 61. “The places like Harding and West Charlotte and Independence are special to me. I had about 10 years at each, 10 years of my life, and I put my heart and soul into it. I still pull for all three, so it’s hard. ...I don’t know how to say it, it’s just hard to go back. I don’t want to do it.”
There is little argument that Knotts is the greatest high school football coach in Mecklenburg County history. He has 375 wins in 34 seasons. He has won nine state championships. His teams have won more than 80 percent of their games.
And it all began at Harding, where Knotts went 3-7 his first two seasons. But then the Duke graduate built what was then one of the state’s smallest 4A teams into a power. He led Harding to the 1987 N.C. 4A state championship game.
Knotts left for West Charlotte in 1989. The Lions were an established power, coming off state championship appearances in 1986 and ’88, but Knotts turned West Charlotte into an offensive juggernaut, using a wide-open passing attack that few teams in North Carolina knew how to coach or defend. Most of the power teams then were primarily running teams.
The Lions reached the 1991 and ’93 state championship games, and Knotts won his first state title in 1995.
Five years later, Knotts moved to Independence High and connected with a rising sophomore quarterback named Chris Leak. Knotts’ offensive mind and Leak’s extreme talent were a perfect match. Leak would throw for nearly 16,000 yards, much of it in his final three seasons. He became a three-time national player of the year and started what would become a 109-game win streak that saw the Patriots win seven straight state championships.
Knotts left Independence for one season to become an assistant at Duke in 2004, but he returned a year later. He was coach there for six of the championships.
“That was a special time,” Knotts said. “I have a lot of memories.”
In 2010, Knotts left Independence for Dutch Fork High in Irmo, a Columbia. And both schools’ fortunes shifted. Independence was 148-7 during Knotts’ years there. Since, the Patriots have had five coaches, two losing seasons and a 53-34 record.
First-year coach Mike Natoli, an offensive coordinator last season for state champion Statesville Christian, is the school’s 10th coach. He’ll make his debut with the Patriots Friday.
Meanwhile, Dutch Fork has lost but two conference games since Knotts arrived and has won two state championships, including a S.C. 5A title in 2016 when the Silver Foxes went 15-0. Knotts is 79-20 at Dutch Fork.
In the three seasons before Knotts arrived, the Silver Foxes had won a combined nine games. When he interviewed for the job at Dutch Fork, Knotts said he told the principal that in three years Dutch Fork would be in the state championship game. In 2012, Knotts’ third season, Dutch Fork reached the first of three straight finals. The Silver Foxes won in 2013. After reaching the state finals for a fourth time in five seasons last December, Dutch Fork beat Boiling Springs 28-21.
Since the 1987 season, Knotts has coached 15 state championship games in 29 seasons.
He said he figures to add to that run at Dutch Fork.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with ego,” he said. “It is what I believe. My next job, if I take another job, it’ll be the same thing. I’m not going to set myself up for failure at age 61, but I’ll say the same thing (to the next principal). ‘We can take it to new heights.’ You just have to have an administration that believes in the same thing.”
Knotts said when he came to Independence nearly 20 years ago, he had that kind of support. Three years ago, when he returned to campus to film a TV show with former Patriots wide receiver and NFL Super Bowl champion Hakeem Nicks, Knotts said he was greeted warmly by boosters, coaches and friends.
He said that makes it even harder to return Friday night and work on the visitors’ sideline. But Knotts is known as an intense competitor, and he promises that’s who will be coaching against Independence.
“I smell blood in the water,” Knotts said. “From (7 to 9 p.m.) is a different deal than right now. From (7 to 9) all’s fair in love and war.”