A triubte to Jack Groce III: Peers, players respected coach
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
It's even harder when you don't necessarily have the most talented or athletic players on the field.
None of that seemed to matter to the teams that Jack Groce coached at Appalachian High School and later at Watauga High School.
Groce took teams from both high schools to state finals during his coaching career. Appalachian High won state championships in 1961, 1962 and 1964.
Watauga High School reached the state title game in 1974, but lost to Salisbury in the finals. The Pioneers did it without a major star on the team. Instead, a collection of good football players executed their assignments and made few mistakes, according to some the players.
"It was a group of guys where there were no superstars, but we played very well together," said Steve Haysacker, who played defensive back on that 1974 team. "Everybody knew their assignments. We would do what we were supposed to do to be successful."
Former players and coaches who worked with Groce said that the coach wasn't necessarily a screamer, but instead calmly made his mark by making sure things were done correctly before any practices were finished.
"He was very intelligent in how he planned everything and how he set it up," said Bob Littleton, who played tight end, defensive end and punted for Groce during 1972-75. "He was a quieter coach. He didn't do any yelling. We respected him for that as far as he conducted practice. We practiced like we were playing a game. He was very easy to get along with."
Haysacker added that Groce was an old-school coach who came up with a game plan, and stuck with it until an opponent could stop it.
More often than not, opponents couldn't.
"He was an old-school coach and was one of those guys who would ran a play until you could stop it," Haysacker said. "Then if you stopped it, he'd run something else until you stopped it. Then if you stopped that, he'd go back to running the first play until you could stop it again."
Haysacker said one of those plays Groce liked to call was an off-tackle play call "Slam 25."
"We ran the play 'Slam 25' about 30 or 40 times a game," Haysacker said. "We ran out of the basic I formation, and all it was is basically the fullback kicks out the defensive end and the tailback runs between the tight end and the tackle."
It seemed to work since the Pioneers reached the state 3-A finals in 1974 before falling to Salisbury 13-0. Salisbury returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns, but did not score on Watauga's defense.
"We moved the ball around, but we couldn't get it across the goal line," Littleton said. "If you looked at the film, you would have thought we had won."
Groce's coaching success was only a part of his appeal to players. His laid-back style made him approachable for clarification of assignments, or for any other reason.
"He was very easy to get along with," Littleton said. "If you had any problem, he was very approachable. I was lucky to have him as a golf coach for one year."
Coaches who worked with Groce, either on his staff or when Groce was the Watauga athletic director, felt the same way. He was a mentor to several coaches and administrators, including current Watauga athletic director Tom Wright, current Ashe County High athletic director Marc Payne, and former Watauga football coach Bill Mauldin.
"There is not a finer man ever created than Jack Groce," said Payne, who was hired by Groce in 1989 to coach boys' basketball, and then replaced Groce as Watauga athletic director two years later. "He lived by example. He treated people with the upmost respect and he received the upmost respect by people who knew him or worked with him."
Mauldin, who coached Watauga High to a state 3-A championship in 1978, first met Groce when Mauldin was a student at Albemarle High who was visiting his brother at Appalachian State when Groce was an assistant coach there.
Eventually, Mauldin ended up on Groce's staff at Watauga High School, and recalled how Groce was always available to talk about anything.
Once Mauldin took over the head coaching position in 1976 from Groce, the new coach said the former coach would not meddle, but would help any time he was needed.
"He always supported you 100 percent," Mauldin said. "I would bounce things off Jack, but he never told me what to do. I would ask for suggestions, but we had a great working relationship and a very open relationship. We'd talk about everything and anything. Jack hired people and let them work."
Payne, who used to travel with Groce to football games, agreed.
"His style was you were hired to do a job, so do your job," Payne said. "He always came to the games and he was very supportive. He didn't meddle in the practices. He was someone to go talk to if there was a parent issue that you needed to talk about."