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Randy Raper turned in his keys Tuesday as a physical education teacher and head football coach at Northern Nash. The Wilson native coached 36 years, including the last 31 at Hunt, where he was the head coach from 1991 to 2012.
“You know, it’s bittersweet in a lot of ways,” Raper said in a telephone interview Monday. “You do something for so long, the true reality of it hasn’t set in. When I wake up the next day and know I don’t have to go anywhere, but when football season rolls around, that will tell the tale.”
Raper said that he hasn’t had time to think about what he will do in retirement other than that he’s “going to chill for a little while.” But at age 60, Raper could conceivably find himself on a sideline again in the future.
“As of right now, I have no desire to do that,” Raper assured with a chuckle.
Waiting in the wings to take over the Knights program is Raper’s longtime assistant coach at Hunt, Andrew Farriss, who coached the offensive line at Northern Nash this past season after a year as an assistant coach at Fike.
“Andrew’s been around a good, long time now and he deserves the opportunity to be a head coach,” Raper said.
Farriss, who spent 13 years as an assistant coach at Hunt, looks forward to the opportunity despite inheriting a Northern Nash team that went 1-10 this season.
“It was good for me to come over here and I can’t imagine taking over and not having been here this year because I know the kids and they know me,” he said. “It was good to go through a season with them and hopefully build some rapport with them.”
Farris said that he enjoyed his one year at Fike but going to Northern Nash was almost like being back at Hunt with several members of Raper’s staff either former Hunt players or assistant coaches.
“I was received well at Fike but it was very different,” Farriss said. “It was a good experience for me, especially in the weight room and to work with a set of guys I hadn’t met before and had a chance to work with them.”
However, being at Northern Nash “kind of felt the same except for a different color” compared to his time on Raper’s Hunt staff.
Raper pointed out that the “cupboard isn’t bare” at Northern Nash for the 2018 season.
“There’s going to be a lot of kids back in a lot of key positions,” Raper said.
Raper’s Northern Nash teams went 18-38 in his five seasons in Rocky Mount, making the playoffs just once — losing in the first round to 3-A Big East Conference rival Southern Nash in 2016. But the Knights had gone 18-49 in the previous six seasons before Raper’s arrival with much of that success coming in 2010 when Northern Nash finished 10-4 and shared the Big East title with Raper’s Warriors.
“He came over here and picked them up off the mat and turned it around to where they could compete,” Farriss said. “That’s why I feel like we’re not as far away as it looks like we are and I think you have to give Coach Raper a lot of credit for that.”
However, both Raper and Farriss agreed that they key for the new Northern Nash coach’s success will be finding quality assistant coaches.
“That is absolutely the key and we have to develop some continuity here. This past season we were a completely new staff,” Farriss said.
The focus will be on hiring coaching staff members who work during the day at Northern Nash.
“Our administration is definitely committed to making that happen,” Farriss said, noting that he was encouraged by conversations with Northern Nash principal Brian Hopkins.
Farriss, a 1994 graduate of Wilson Christian Academy who played football at Methodist College, said he always wanted to be a part of a successful program. He spent four years at Smithfield-Selma before coming over to Hunt in 2004.
“I came up wishing I could be a part of that. I was fortunate to come over from SSS to a place with the success and tradition,” he said. “Coach Raper is definitely a players’ coach. He loves the kids and that’s one thing I learned from him.”
RAPER’S LEGACY SECURE
Raper’s legacy as a football player and coach is secure. After a standout high school career as a linebacker at Fike High under legendary head coach Bob Paroli, Raper played first at Chowan, then a junior college, before going to Elon College, where he was part of the Fighting Christians’ NAIA national championship team in 1980.
Raper noted the many coaches for whom he played — from Ralph Kennedy and James “Bulldog” Ellis at Charles L. Coon Junior High to Paroli at Fike to Jim Garrison and defensive coordinator Linwood Ferguson at Chowan to Jerry Tolley at Elon.
“I was blessed coming up with some hard-nosed coaches and that’s what I’ve tried to mimic,” Raper said.
He was an assistant coach under Bill Williamson at Hunt for nine seasons, taking over the Warriors in 1991. His 203 wins at Hunt, where he won more than 73 percent of his games as head coach, are unofficially the most in Wilson County history. He led the Warriors to five regional finals and to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A championship game in 2004. He will end his career with a 221-110 record (.668). The only thing missing from Raper’s resume is a state championship.
However, that wasn’t enough to turn Northern Nash’s football program around, although Raper believes he won the most important battle — instilling a winning attitude in Rocky Mount.
“I feel like it didn’t translate into the wins column as much as it did about bringing back respect,” he said. “I think we were in a lot of games that we had to a chance to win. … I feel like our kids played hard and with a lot of class.”