JOHNSTON — The Strom Thurmond High School football team has been without a head coach since Lee Sawyer resigned from that position more than a month ago. The vacancy is expected to be filled in the very near future, and the program will look to move forward after 10 incredibly successful years under Sawyer’s stewardship.
The Edgefield School District Board of Trustees will meet tonight and a recommendation will be made for a candidate to be hired to become the Rebels’ new head coach. Strom Thurmond athletic director Doug Painter said the board will be asked to approve a candidate for the position.
According to the board’s agenda, discussing a recommendation on a new head football coach is one of the items planned for tonight. It will be discussed when the board will adjourn the regular session and enter into the executive session.
Should the candidate be approved, which Painter said should be the case, it’s expected there will be a formal press conference at the school on Wednesday to introduce the new head coach. With spring practice set to start in two weeks, it’s important for the Rebels to have their new head coach in place as soon as possible, especially since the board won’t meet again until May 13.
Painter wouldn’t identify the candidate who will be recommended, nor did he comment on the possibilities. That includes a number of internal candidates as well as applicants currently outside of the program.
There has been plenty of speculation on message boards and other outlets about potential candidates. With Painter playing things close to the vest, there’s no information to determine if the speculation is anything more than just that.
But among those who have been prominently mentioned are a pair of assistant coaches from Sawyer’s staff – Antwaun Hillary and Thomas Coleman. Both were players for the Rebels who have come back to guide the team to tremendous success. Hillary has served as the offensive coordinator while Coleman has been the offensive line coach.
Former athletic director and assistant football coach Louis Scott has been mentioned in speculation, as has Painter. He has a strong résumé, serving as Sawyer’s offensive coordinator as well as Strom Thurmond’s athletic director from 2006-08. In addition to that, the Edgefield native and Strom Thurmond alum also was the head coach of the football teams at Saluda, Laurens, Belton-Honea Path and Aiken – where he guided the Hornets to a state championship in 1992.
When Sawyer resigned, however, Painter was adamant that he wasn’t interested in becoming the Rebels’ next head coach.
“My objective is to be solely the athletic director at Strom Thurmond High School, not to coach football,” said Painter, who returned to Strom Thurmond in November. “I’m not going to return to coaching football.”
Whoever fills the vacancy will have a hard time filling Sawyer’s shoes. Since he became the head coach, the Rebels have consistently been among the elite programs in South Carolina.
Sawyer is the 53-year-old football program’s winningest coach, and 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 opponents in two classifications (Class AAA and Class AA), three regions (twice in 5-AAA, as well as 4-AAA and 3-AA) and won the Class AAA 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.
Sawyer’s teams weren’t just good, they were dominant – winning 10 or more games eight times. He won nine region titles, posting a 48-2 record against region opponents despite being realigned four different times in 10 years. The success wasn’t limited to the regular season. Sawyer’s playoff record was 22-9 (.710) and his teams made it to at least the third round of the playoffs in eight of 10 years.
During that stretch, Sawyer’s Rebels outscored opponents 4,339 to 1,676, making the average outcome a 33-13 Strom Thurmond win. Sawyer’s specialty was coaching the Rebels on defense, and their was no mistaking the dominance. In 10 seasons, the Rebels recorded 21 shutouts, with six in 2008 when Strom Thurmond limited opponents to a meager 8 points per game.
When he resigned, Sawyer said he hoped his successor would be one of the assistants on his coaching staff. He also said if somebody from his staff was hired as his replacement, he’d be available to help them in any capacity that was desired.
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.