Monday, March 17, 2014
JOHNSTON — Lee Sawyer has resigned from his position at Strom Thurmond High School as the head coach of the football team.
“When I got into (coaching) 30 years ago, I said I’d do it for 30 years and this was my 30th year,” the 51-year-old Sawyer said Monday, revealing that he previously made up his mind that this would be his last season and school year. “It’s something that I decided I was going to do over the summer. I decided over the weekend it was time.”
Sawyer has been the Rebels’ head coach for the past 10 years, previously serving as an assistant. He sandwiched three seasons as head coach at Saluda High School between stints at Strom Thurmond, ultimately taking over as the Rebels’ head coach in 2004.
Sawyer succeeded Dusty Triplett as head coach at Strom Thurmond and elevated the historically successful program to an extraordinarily high level. His overall record with the Rebels included 107 wins, compared to just 24 losses, an astounding .817 winning percentage. The Rebels have been a fixture in the playoffs, a menace to region opponents in Class AAA and Class AA and won the state title in 2005. This past season, Sawyer guided the Rebels to an 11-2 record before falling to eventual state champion Myrtle Beach in the state quarterfinals.
While Sawyer will leave very big shoes to fill, he said he never expected to enjoy this much success.
“Going back, in 2004, Dr. Sharon Keesley was the superintendent, and she asked me to take over the football program,” Sawyer reminisced. “I was a little scared to death, but she tried to convince me of the success I could have here. My confidence was not that great (after going 9-21 at Saluda), but she saw something and kept after me. I said, ‘what the heck.’ I’m indebted to her, she took a chance and it’s been a dream 10 years.”
Sawyer said he has no plans to return to coaching or the field of education. Although his pension is secured, he said he’s had discussions about the possibility of another job, but kept the details private. He did say it would be on a part-time basis, likely three to four days per week.
“I’m not going to sit around, just watching Dr. Phil,” said Sawyer, who added that he’s looking forward to the extra time to do more bass fishing, one of his favorite pastimes. “I’ve had a blast, but it’s a grind. It’s too time consuming and I’m ready to move on with another chapter in my life.”
Sawyer also said he hoped his successor would be one of the assistants on his coaching staff, but he wouldn’t have any more input into the hiring of the new coach beyond a recommendation. That responsibility will fall to athletic director Doug Painter. This is Painter’s first year at Strom Thurmond after serving as a football coach the previous 18 seasons. Painter was head coach at Saluda, Laurens, Belton Honea Path and Aiken – where he guided the Hornets to a state championship in 1992.
Painter didn’t return calls made to him Monday about finding the Rebels’ new football coach.
Sawyer said if somebody from his staff was hired as his replacement, he’d be available to help them in any capacity that was desired. He said that included the prospect of continuing his tradition of painting lines on the football field prior to games, something he’s done religiously. While he’s enjoyed the moments under the lights, preparing for the Friday night action, Sawyer said his favorite memory of the past 10 years was an unusual one.
“It’s not the wins or the championships or the state championship,” Sawyer reflected, before zeroing in on the moment that stands out. “There’s only one football game in the past years that we didn’t have a chance to win in the fourth quarter. It was in the playoff in 2006 against Myrtle Beach (a 30-6 loss in the second round of the postseason). I’m very proud that was the only time we were standing on the sideline with our hands in our pockets. Our guys always fought to the end and gave us a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.