The year was 1972.
"The Godfather" hit cinemas, America’s political system was shaken by the Watergate scandal, the first episode of The Price is Right hosted by Bob Barker debuted, and Bobby Fischer became the first American master chess champion.
In rural Lincoln County, Ga., Larry Campbell became the new football coach at Lincoln County High School, replacing Tom Bunch, after spending two seasons as the baseball coach and an assistant football coach.
“Tom hired me to start the baseball program, but it didn't take me long to figure out that, around Lincoln County, if you want to have a future, you better jump into football," said Campbell, 60, a native of Abbeville, S.C.
What would transpire in the next nearly four decades would transform not only Lincoln County High, a school with approximately 400 students, but the way people viewed Georgia high school football altogether.
Growing up in South Carolina, Campbell had his taste of small-town life, and he admits that was one of the things that drew him to Lincoln County (which borders South Carolina), especially to coach baseball. A former high school football player, Campbell’s sport of choice in college was baseball, but it didn’t take him long to switch to the gridiron.
“Lincoln County is in a small, rural town that loves athletics, especially football,” he said. “We’re not big here. Lincoln County doesn’t have a lot of restaurants. I told my wife we were moving to Lincoln County, and she said she could live anywhere for a year, and we’ve been here ever since. We like it here. I’ve been here so long it’s like home to me.”
Campbell’s first victory as head coach came against Warren County, a team the Red Devils had not defeated in the previous eight seasons. In his first season, Lincoln County had only three victories, but the foundation was laid for a program that would make its way to the state finals two years later.
“I tried to continue the tradition that was here when I took over, and we’ve been fortunate to do it,” Campbell said. “My enjoyment comes from the youth. Also, how many kids can we further their education? That is important to me, and we have been fortunate to have numerous kids go on and play in college.”
Times have changed
As head coach, Campbell has seen quite a few changes to the landscape of high school football, including integration. But while other parts of the South struggled with the changing times, integration in Lincoln County was a smooth transition, according to the coach.
“We went through a few bumps, but athletics helped with integration, and we came through with little confrontation,” Campbell said.
Campbell says the kids have stayed the same through the years, but the parents have changed.
“The kids are the same today as they were in 1972,” he said. “There’s always been good kids, middle of the road kids and bad kids. The parents are the biggest change I have seen. Years ago, when I had to discipline a kid, they didn’t want their parents to know about it. Today, the kids are first to call the parents.”
While he considers himself fortunate, others in the Peach State consider Campbell and the Red Devils to be one of the best programs in America. And they would be right.
In 37 seasons at the helm, Campbell has led the Red Devils to 426 victories and 11 state titles. Prior to 1972, Lincoln County was just 237-221-43 all-time. Now Campbell has the most wins of any coach in Georgia history, was the first to 400 victories and one of just a handful nationally.
With the success comes the expectation that year in and year out Lincoln County will capture a Class A championship.
“I feel pressure, yes. Anything less than a state championship is considered a disappointment. People here don’t believe in rebuilding. To be successful, you have to get to the big one year after year,” Campbell said.
In 2008, Lincoln County fell just short of its goal, falling 20-12 to eventual state champion Wesleyan in the Class A semifinals.
Only at Lincoln County could a semifinal loss be considered a disappointment. Of all of Campbell’s victories, more than 100 have come in the playoffs. Approximately 80 percent of the time Lincoln County has claimed a region championship and from 1983-1999, the Red Devils won 108 consecutive region games.
During Campbell’s years at Lincoln County, more than 20 state records have been set, but he refuses to take credit. He points to the fact that he has been able to keep his coaching staff stable, a strong booster club and great community support.
“Lincoln County loves its football,” he said. “The community tries to give us everything we need to be successful within reason. I think it is unique that one person and most of the staff have been here that long. There was Lincoln County football before Larry Campbell and there will be when I’m gone. The football program is about the community, the players and the assistant coaches. I am a small part of what has happened here.”
Tougher road to come?
Being a small school, Campbell realizes the deck is stacked against his team every season.
The reason? According to Campbell, it’s the edge that private schools have over schools in rural counties and towns.
“With around 400 students, we can’t compare to a lot of programs,” he said. “I have to take what I get through the door. I don’t have anything against private schools, but there is an unfair advantage that private schools in Class A have over schools like us.”
Campbell was in favor of a rule created by the late Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy, which counted students at private schools as 1.5 students, thus forcing them to compete in a higher sporting classification. The GHSA voted to eliminate the rule.
“I am not whining about it, but the facts are the facts,” he said. “We’ll begin to lose the opportunity to bring titles to our town because of private schools and the multiplier rule. I don’t want us to get to the point where rural schools cannot compete anymore.”
As for the immediate future – this season, Campbell will field a team with only six seniors, the fewest he has had as head coach as he heads into his 38th year.
“We will have decent athletes. The numbers aren’t there and that happens from time to time. It’s part of being at a small school. The immediate future should be decent. I would like to hold on coaching and keeping the staff together because we are supposed to have a new school in 2010 with new facilities. I hope I hang on long enough to see that through,” Campbell said.
Not good news for Lincoln County’s opponents.
Paul Gable is the Senior Prep Writer for football.com. Check out football.com. for NCAA football and NFL coverage.