Almost a half-century ago, David Gentry knew what he wanted to do - be a high-school football coach.
More than 35 years ago, he knew he needed to make a change, to break away from his hometown community and go somewhere that lived and loved and breathed football.
And now he knows his place in history - an accomplished Hall of Fame career, the most successful coach in the history of WNC, and perhaps before he finishes, the best in the history of the state.
When the Murphy High football team begins play Friday night on the field that bear their coach’s name, they have the opportunity to do what only two other teams in the history of North Carolina have done - win the 400th game for their coach.
It is the perfect setting - a home game against their biggest rival, Swain County. A Smoky Mountain Conference showdown between the two remaining undefeated teams in league play, the winner a heavy favorite to claim a regular-season title.
And that, insists Gentry is what is important. Not a milestone win, but a victory that means more than usual - and the man knows more than a little about wins.
“I’m not into numbers, and I’ve never chased numbers,” said Gentry, who at age 72 is in his 48th season as a head coach.
“I never really thought about 400 wins until everybody else started talking about it. But what’s important is beating Swain. We win that game, we probably win the conference. And that’s what the big deal is about Friday night.”
But 400 wins is a big deal, an incredibly big deal.
It’s happened just twice in North Carolina. Jack Holley, who died in 2013, posted a 412-96-9 record at six schools over 44 seasons. His winning percentage was .827.
Bob Paroli, who retired in 2012 after 55 seasons, was 403-206-13 (.661) at six schools.
Gentry (399-193, .673) is third on the N.C. career wins list.
He has 98 wins more than WNC’s No. 2 coach in all-time victories, Charles “Babe” Howell (303-122-6, .711 in 38 seasons). Howell is the only other area coach with 300 victories; third on the local list is one of Howell’s former players and a rival coach of Gentry’s at Swain, Boyce Deitz (233-87-3, .728 in 23 seasons).
Like Deitz and Howell, Gentry is a member of the WNC Sports Hall of Fame.
He holds the state record for wins at one school with a 343-118 mark (.744) in 36 seasons at Murphy, with seven state championships.
That is second in state and WNC history, behind only Bob Colvin, who won 11 state titles at Robbinsville.
Surprisingly, Gentry had losing records at his first two head coaching stops - Chatham, Virginia (12-17 from 1971-73) and Edneyville High (44-53 from 1974-82).
A native of Asheville who grew up in Hendersonville, Gentry was a four-sport star at Edneyville who played in the local Blue-White Basketball All-Star Game against legendary Henry Logan.
He also played at Elon, where he realized coaching was what he wanted to do.
“I was a student assistant under Red Wilson for one year at Elon, and I spent a year as a circulation manager in Greensboro at a newspaper,” Gentry said.
“Then I went to Chatham as an assistant coach, and I realized I didn’t want to be an assistant, I wanted to be a head coach.”
He inherited a losing program but won his first game in 1971 at age 25, against Dan River.
He moved on after three seasons, coming back home to Edneyville, but after nine years there he wanted something more.
“Edneyville was a nice community, but it was a small school, maybe 200-250 students, and it was tough each year just getting enough kids to come out for football,” Gentry said.
“I wanted to go someplace where football was important, a football school, a football community.”
He found that at Murphy, which plays in the always competitive Smoky Mountain Conference.
It didn’t take long for Gentry to show that when he had the talent and the backing of the school and the community, he could do special things.
In his fourth season with the Bulldogs, he won a state 1A title. He did it again next year, a star-studded two seasons led by future NFL standout Carl Pickens in which the team went 29-1 (the only loss to Swain).
“Those were my best teams, no doubt,” recalled Gentry, instantly rattling off the names of his players.
“We had so much talent. Carl was great, but it wasn’t just him. Mel Nicely, Tripp Beaver, James Shope.
“We had like 30 guys who could really play.”
The success has continued in a very competitive league that ranks among the best in the state, with 32 state titles among six different schools.
A major reason for Gentry’s huge win total has been the recent play of his program. With some success in this year’s postseason, the Bulldogs will win 10 or more games for a ninth straight year and the 10th time in 11 seasons.
Since 2010, the Bulldogs are 104-26 (.800) and have won three state titles and reached the state championship game twice.
Over the previous 10 seasons, his teams averaged 11.9 wins per season.
Rival coaches are amazed at what Gentry has accomplished.
“He’s an awesome coach, and you have to respect what he has done,” said Franklin coach Josh Brooks, who has coached against Gentry in games each of the past 13 years.
“He has changed players, changed staff, changed administrations, but he has remained successful. He has stuck to what works for him on offense and defense and not given in to the trends of football, and his teams are always so tough and well prepared.
“He does it the old-fashioned way, and I admire that. I can’t wrap my mind around his numbers, and when you have won as much as he has at the level he has played against for that long, it’s really unbelievable.”
How do you get to 400 wins, in addition to the good fortune of staying healthy and interested after nearly 50 years in the same job?
“We’ve had some great talent, and some great assistants and support,” said Gentry.
“But I think the key to coaching is getting your kids to play hard. If you are prepared and do the right things, then it’s just getting your kids to give it all they have. And we’ve been able to do that.”
For a guy who doesn’t chase numbers, he says the opportunity to get to 413 and be the state’s all-time leader in coaching wins won’t be a factor when he decides when it is time to walk away.
For the last several seasons, Gentry has taken some time off after the season is over and ponders - sometimes for months - whether he wants to continue.
With another good postseason run this year - and the Bulldogs are 30-5 in the playoffs over the previous eight seasons - he could pass Paroli for second place and be in position to pass Holley sometime next year.
“It won’t be about the numbers,” Gentry said in determining his retirement date. “It will be how I feel, whether I still have that desire to go out and do this for another season.
“It’s a big commitment. A lot of work, a lot of time. I just have to make sure I still want to do it.”
He knew what he wanted to do, back in the 1960s. He knew when he needed to find a place like Murphy, in the 1980s, and he will know when it is time to walk away, whatever the decade.
“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish,” he said. “It was always about sports for me, about being competitive and winning.
“I’ve done about all you can do as a coach, and maybe when I’m through I can sit back and reflect on these numbers.
“But right now, it’s all about beating Swain on Friday night.”
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