'I'm heading that way'
With the man of the hour flooded by memories from nearly four decades in the coaching profession, the Ray Stackley retirement announcement Friday at Stratford High School turned into a sentimental moment for the outgoing Knights football coach and athletics director. He choked up several times at the press conference and was unable to hold back tears.
But he didn't care.
“I'm trying not to get emotional but I'm an emotional person,” said the 63-year-old Stackley, who will retire from both posts effective May 30 after 31 years at the school. “That emotion has fueled me in my job as well… But certainly I will miss it. I will miss the relationship with the players and coaches. Everybody has their time… I'm a lucky person because I get to do it on my terms.”
The 270 wins and one unbeaten championship season Stratford racked up in his 29 years as head coach take a back seat to all those who made those victory celebrations possible. Stackley thanked his wife Lane for allowing him to live out his dream and gave credit to the former players and assistant coaches and countless others for making an impact. He said he began to think about retirement over the last year.
Stackley told he was most proud of the type of program he'd run on Crowfield Boulevard and an environment that helped shape productive young men as they left SHS for future endeavors. Over 160 football players inked college scholarships in his time at SHS and innumerable others took their life lessons in other directions and made their marks.
Former players come back to visit all the time. Those include soldiers, businessmen, family men, church-goers, current coaches and community leaders.
“It gets down to building a network amongst your staff and players to create a sense of family,” Stackley said. “I think without that you can't truly get players to commit 100 percent. The difference between a great coach and a good one is the one that can truly convince his players he cares about them. As hard as we coach them at Stratford - and we probably coach them harder than anybody - they would not take the pressure we put on them if they didn't know we cared about them as individuals.”
His final season on the sideline went down as one of Stratford's best. The Knights finished 12-3 and were state runners-up behind Georgia signee Jacob Park and a talented senior group. Five other Stratford seniors inked national letters of intent on signing day earlier this month.
Stackley and the Knights had one state title to their credit, 1999, and they played for two others, including this past season. The other title appearance came in 2004 when they lost to Rock Hill.
The 1999 season was the crown jewel in a decade of dominance from 1997-2006. Stackley's teams were 118-18 during the stretch and finished nationally ranked after the championship season. Stratford made it to nine state semifinal games and Stackley was named state coach of the year four times and region coach of the year 15 times.
They gave the field Stackley's name in 2006 and he was later inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame in 2008. He had already been elected to the state strength coaches hall of fame in 2004.
Another career highlight includes guiding an underdog Shrine Bowl team to a 23-19 victory in the annual battle of the Carolinas all-star teams in 2012. Also, he was a Shrine Bowl assistant when the Sandlappers set the scoring record in a game in 2000, beating their Tar Heels counterparts 66-14.
Stratford had just two losing campaigns under Stackley. The first one was in 1995. The other low point came in 2008 after Cane Bay High School opened. The new school took talent and numbers away from the Knights, who fell to 3-8 that fall.
But Stratford continued to plug away and rebuild, culminating in this past season's championship appearance. He feels he leaves the new coach in good shape.
“I wanted to turn this thing over at a time when we have rebuilt the program back to the elite level it was at before the schools split,” he said. “We've done that… I didn't want to turn it over when we didn't have a good nucleus coming back.”
Stackley's first seven years as a coach were spent at three different schools, Laurens, Richland Northeast and Barnwell. He also served as a head coach in wrestling and track and field in his three stops before Stratford.
“Somebody asked me the other day 'are we closing the book on this thing,” he said. “I said 'well a book can always be opened up. I'm not closing my door to ever coming back into coaching but I don't think I will.”
But he definitely has a new job lined up. He's also setting the bar high for that one.
“I want to be the best granddaddy in the world,” he said. “I'm heading that way.”