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Woolwine's legacy at Capital goes beyond wins and losses

Chris Dorst
Jack Woolwine is remembered as much for his deeds off the field as he is for his coaching record at Capital. Woolwine died July 3 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

I REALLY DIDN'T want to do it, but I had no choice. It was my job.

Five years ago, during the days of the great coaching purge at Capital High School, Jack Woolwine was actually an innocent bystander, but got pulled into the storm.

Clinton Giles, the principal at Capital, had just made a shocking request, asking for the resignations of successful basketball coaches Carl Clark (boys) and Steve Freeman (girls).

Clark was about five years removed from leading the Cougars to back-to-back Class AAA state championships and Freeman carried an 82-12 record with four straight appearances in the regional finals. Freeman stepped down as requested, but Clark decided to file a grievance (and eventually kept his job).

If those coaches' positions were in peril at the time, one could only assume that Woolwine, coming off a 5-5 season and a rare miss of the Class AAA football playoffs for Capital, would also be in hot water. As a reporter, it was my duty to call him and see if he felt any undue pressure.

As I said, I hated doing it. Woolwine was such a rare man - a gentleman's gentleman, as I like to say - that to drag him into that mess was a real disservice to him.

That's one of the emotions I was left with last week when I received word that Woolwine had died on July 3 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He stepped down as Cougars coach shortly after the 2009 season, going 57-42 with six playoff berths in nine years.

At the time of the coaching unrest in 2007, Woolwine handled the topic with grace and ease, just like he always did.

"Where I stand is where I feel like I always stand,'' he told me that day. "I've always had a good relationship with the administration as far as that goes. They've always supported me and what I've done - and that's all I can go on. I never had any reason to feel anything different. But just like any job, you never know what's going to happen.''

Woolwine's job was never in jeopardy.

Giles later said his requests about Freeman and Clark were made in part because of trends off the court and not entirely those on the court. He also said that Woolwine's position was "his for as long as he wants. He does it the right way.''

Fans mostly noticed only the program's won-lost record and not the behind-the-scenes contributions Woolwine made to keep Capital's football team solvent. He never hesitated to meet with a player after hours - sometimes well after midnight - if the young man was in a tough spot.

"Jack was all about his players,'' said John Vencill, who worked with Woolwine for 33 years at Capital and Charleston High. "But he was also a disciplinarian. I think those go hand in hand.

"There were some times I'd go with him [late at night] when you had a kid with a home situation, a tough situation. We'd go and meet him someplace and feed him and have a good talk with him. Talk him through the situation.''

Jon Carpenter served as an assistant on Woolwine's staff for three years before succeeding him as head coach. He also got to see the off-the-field side of Woolwine that many on the outside didn't.

"I've tried to tell people that he really puts it all in perspective,'' Carpenter said. "It's why you do this. A lot of guys have better records than him, or state championships, but they don't have the relationships with players that he did - everybody involved. I think he had a grasp on that.

"He kind of instilled in me a love for that community and those kids. It's a different place. Different situations than most. I think helping those kids out took precedence over everything else. Your character is what everybody remembers, not your record. Hopefully, that's the thing that lasts.''

Vencill knew that no matter how tough the situations got for Capital, Woolwine would handle it with dignity. No player was ever singled out for criticism after a loss.

"It was the same way with Jack and with Roger [Jefferson, Woolwine's predecessor],'' Vencill said. "They always tried to give the kids credit, and if things didn't go well, we took the hit for it. He'd say they played the best they could, they gave all they had. He'd say maybe he could have done something a little different. He did not throw them under the bus.

"I really think the one best thing I can say about Jack is that if I had a son getting ready to play football or any sport, I would want them to play for Jack. I know he would treat him as a gentleman and do the best he could for that kid - not only make him a football player, but a model young man.''

Those who knew him and worked with him were always amazed on how unflappable Woolwine could remain in situations that often drive others to disgust or dismay.

"We played Riverside a few years ago,'' Vencill recalled, "and they beat us in a real good ballgame. Now nobody likes to lose, but we're going through the line after the game [shaking hands] and the coaches are always at the end of the line. Jack shook hands with [Riverside assistant] Danny Hill and he looked at Danny and said, 'You like to fish, don't you?' Danny said, 'What?' Jack said, 'You want to go fishing tomorrow? I'll pick you up and we'll go fish.' Danny said, 'Sure.'

"Sure enough, he picked him up at his house at 6 the next day and a couple hours later, they had their lines in the water. That's the kind of guy he was. He was competitive, but he left it on the field. That epitomizes him more than anything.''

Carpenter realizes he has a tough act to follow as Capital coach - from the standpoint of both successful teams and strong leadership of young lives, often in trying times.

"Class is the best word that describes him,'' Carpenter said. "He always took the blame if things went bad and gave away credit when it went good. He never got mad at officials, never felt cheated, any of that. Always felt it would be OK. The only person mad at him is someone sharing a fishing hole with him. He was never mad at anybody, and nobody ever got mad at him. I've been around some of the classiest guys, and he was just a unique guy. He wasn't going to cheat or cut any corners to win.

"I would always complain about things, and try to understand why he wouldn't. I wanted him to jump up on the table and slam things like I would, but that wasn't him. It took me two years in that job to realize why he didn't. He knew it wasn't going to change anything. That's not a good way to confront your problems that you face. He was a whole lot wiser than I am. I'm selfish  . . . I just can't get past how much I'll miss him.''

Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com.

 


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