At one time, Blake Smith wasn’t a fan of David Lovette.
Ahead of his senior season as the starting quarterback on the Gray’s Creek High School football team in 2006, Smith was about to lose his head coach Bill Yeager to retirement.
The school’s football coach in its first three years of existence, Yeager’s retirement opened the door for Lovette’s hiring and Smith was not thrilled, to say the least.
“He and I did not get off on the best foot. I was very pessimistic about how a guy who was gonna run an offense with three running backs was going to fit with a quarterback,” Smith said, referring to Lovette’s affinity for the Wing-T offense.
Whenever someone asks Smith about Lovette, the first thing that comes to mind is the team’s introduction to Lovette inside the gym at Gray’s Creek.
“He gave a funny speech and asked everybody in the bleachers, ‘Hey, I know everybody’s upset because you just had a bunch of success with Coach Yeager, but does everybody change their underpants?’ Everybody raised their hand except for me,” Smith recalled with a laugh.
“I was very tied to Coach Yeager and I had never played football before. Coach Yeager was the only football coach I had ever had, so I was upset. I didn’t raise my hand and Coach Lovette was like, ‘Blake, you’re telling me you don’t change your underpants?’ I said, ‘Nope, not no more, I don’t change my underpants.’”
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Now, after getting to know Lovette over the past 15 years, including several as an assistant coach, Smith’s defiance as a senior player in 2006 has become one of the go-to stories around the football office.
“Every time we get a new coach or someone on staff, or a kid that wants to hang out in the office, he likes to tell that story,” Smith said of Lovette.
“I like to listen to that story because I couldn’t see myself doing what I did with him for the past 10 years. I couldn’t see doing that with anybody else.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Lovette announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Former players and fellow coaches flooded social media to show their appreciation for the 52-year-old Lovette, who spent 15 of his 21 years as head coach for the Bears.
“You sort of get to the point where the state will pay you not to work and another place will continue to pay you to work,” Lovette said of the decision.
“I would be hurting my family if I wasn’t taking advantage of that opportunity.”
Hired to take over the Bears in April 2006, Lovette claimed his 100th win with the program earlier this month. He finished with an overall record of 138-107-1 with five conference championships, including three at Gray’s Creek. He won one title each at Red Springs and St. Pauls.
In his debut season with the Bears, Lovette led the team to a 9-3 record and Smith threw for more than 1,000 yards. Not bad for a quarterback in the Wing-T offense.
“Looking back, I ended up with more (passing) attempts under Coach Lovette than I did the year before,” Smith said.
‘Preparation, accountability and winning’
After completing his prep career with the Bears, Smith returned to Gray’s Creek as an assistant coach under Lovette.
During that time with Lovette as a player and coach, Smith said three words best define what his head coach is about on the field: “Preparation, accountability and winning.”
“Winning in the sense of wins and losses, but also doing the things that it took to be able to get those wins,” Smith added. “Those are the first real things that come to mind.”
Initially, Smith thought Lovette was “kind of vanilla and nerdy.” That perception changed after the team’s first practice in 2006.
“On the first day of team practice, we’re kind of ho-hum and going through the motions,” Smith recalled.
“(Lovette) grabs a facemask of a kid … and headbutts him. The next thing you see is a big stream of blood rolling down (Lovette’s) face and he’s not hollering or asking for the trainer. He told us to get in the huddle, run the play and that made me feel like I could run through a wall for him.”
Three conference championships, 100 wins — including a school-record 12 victories in 2009 — and more than a decade later, Lovette has become the face of Gray’s Creek football.
In the 165 games under Lovette, not including the 2008 season, the Bears logged 49,398 rushing yards.
“He was always really, really good at getting kids up to the edge… that’s what he likes to call it,” Smith said.
“He got kids up to the edge, getting them ready to go and buy in. I think there’s a misconception about him being dry and maybe being a closed-off person. I think if you asked his players, he’s one of most loyal and hard-working people I’ve ever met.”
GATA, cheese and crackers
David Lovette got his start in Red Springs, where he was raised and graduated from high school in 1986. After graduating from Pembroke State, now UNC Pembroke, in 1991, he joined the coaching staff at St. Pauls.
He served as the head coach of the Bulldogs for two seasons and returned to Red Springs in 2002 to take over the Red Devils.
Charles Campbell was there for two of Lovette’s four seasons in Red Springs, helping the program win the Tri-Six title in his senior season with 134 tackles and 1,314 rushing yards to go with 13 touchdowns.
When he thinks about his time with Lovette, Campbell said he’s reminded of the slogan GATA, as in “Get After That (expletive).”
“Coach Lovette, he created the culture. What comes to mind is ‘GATA’, G-A-T-A. I don’t know if it’s newspaper friendly,” Campbell added with a laugh.
Smith said Lovette doesn’t curse but “he’s got a bunch of one-liners that I still like.”
“He’s just a real no-nonsense guy,” Smith continued. “He says things like, ‘Cheese and crackers!’ and the kids give him a hard time about stuff like that. To me, my lasting memory of him will be him teaching what it takes to win and what you’ve got to be willing to do to win and get things going in the right way.”
But like Smith, Campbell initially butted heads with Lovette.
“He didn’t actually think I could play running back,” Campbell said, laughing. “He thought I should play a different position. Then, it was 37 iso and he just kept giving me the ball … and the rest is history.”
Campbell credits Lovette with changing the culture and trusting his players to lead in the right way. As a veteran with the Red Devils, Campbell saw the work pay off.
“He gave me the keys and was like, ‘Do what you wanna do.’ I had the power to put people off the team,” Campbell recalled. “He actually let me lead and in my senior year, we won the conference championship.”
‘An exceptional coach’
Like so many of Lovette’s players, Campbell’s relationship with his head coach went beyond the football field.
“What stands out the most, Coach Lovette was like a father figure to me. He gave me knowledge on the football field and he also was like a mentor,” Campbell said.
“The type of father he is, that stands out … just the type of man he is, period, stands out with what he believes and cares about with his players. His dedication, he’s a standout guy if they pay attention. He’s an exceptional coach.”
Campbell didn’t want to go into details about the best advice he’s received from Lovette, but the two had a “deep conversation” at a recent dinner.
That continued relationship speaks to Lovette’s love for his players.
“We’re still in contact. We’re actually supposed to do lunch on Saturday and I’m trying to get a few of the players together,” Campbell added.
After being a head coach at three different schools in North Carolina, along with his time around the Shrine Bowl and East-West All-Star games, Lovette has welcomed the opportunity to coach and mentor a seemingly-endless list of kids.
“There’s just too many kids to name. The friendships that you form with coaches that you coached against and that you coached with… there’s just a ton of relationships that you build with people,” Lovette said.
“Through social media, you’re still in touch with them. It’s just an amazing thing being able to be a part of a lot of different peoples’ lives over the years.”
That “camaraderie,” Lovette added, has always been his “driving force.”
“I hope they say I was a hard worker and I did a good job,” Lovette continued.
“I hope the kids will say I was fair and I prepared them well, and when they went out on the field on Friday night, they felt that we had a good chance to be successful because of the things that we’d done.”
Staff writer Rodd Baxley can be reached at [email protected]