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Holcomb lives his dream with Knights

North Davidson football coach Mark Holcomb paces the sidelines during the Knights' 4-A playoff victory over Mt. Tabor on Friday. (Photo by Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch)

WELCOME | Some may have thought Mark Holcomb was crazy when he made his announcement in the spring of 2008.

Holcomb had spent two years as assistant principal at North Davidson, after a four-year run as the head football coach at the 4-A school in Welcome. Making what some may have considered a step down the career ladder, he just couldn’t stay away. And, his native school needed leadership, badly.

But, his first run wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty. Holcomb’s teams went 31-19 in four seasons, including back-to-back 6-6 campaigns the last two years. North went 3-7 in the Central Piedmont Conference those two years, and whether or not the Knights could compete with the big boys was a legitimate question.

Despite an underwhelming stretch as a head coach, Holcomb wasn’t certain he was ready to step down. “It was an extremely difficult decision,” Holcomb confessed. “But I felt like it was the right thing for me and my family at the time.

“Being a head football coach and an athletic director is really a time-consuming job.”

But, if he gained some free time as an assistant principal, that may have been a bad thing. “I had a hard time going to any athletic event and watching,” he said. “You wonder in life what your calling is, what you’re supposed to be doing, and I just knew at that time that I still wanted to coach.”

It didn’t help that the Knights struggled in his absence. Holcomb grew up in the area, played for the Arcadia Packers before moving on and playing for North Davidson himself. He graduated from North in 1988, then got his degree from Appalachian State in 1992. His first teaching job was at West Davidson, but he made his way home to Welcome after a short time in Tyro.

So watching North go 10-13 in the two seasons he was gone, and only winning two conference games, Holcomb itched to return to the sidelines. And his wife and children knew where his heart was. “My family has always supported me in whatever decision I’ve made,” he said. “From being a head coach, to an administrator, to being a head coach again, whatever it was. They’ve always supported me.”

When the job came open, Holcomb wasted no time. He went to athletic director Tanya Burcham, and requested an interview. He went to the county office and gained the blessing of Superintendent Dr. Fred Mock; being offered an administrative position is an honor, and he was hoping to walk away from that opportunity.

North hired him back to lead the football program once again, and Holcomb has led the Knights back to the glory days. Don Palmer led North to a Western North Carolina Activities Association championship in 1966, and tied for another one in 1975. Dickie Cline guided the Knights to an 11-1 record in 1991, and Bill Butts went 11-1 in 1999 and 11-2 in 2001.

The Knights enjoyed a steady ascension, after Holcomb reestablished his footing the first two seasons. The last three seasons, North has gone 12-3 in the CPC, proving it can not only play with the big boys, but also beat the big boys on a regular basis. Holcomb has gone 43-19 overall the past five years, and at 14-0 the Knights will host Porter Ridge in the 4-A state semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Palmer Field.

The turnaround has been a matter of consistency, hard work, and slowly learning how to win at the 4-A level. “Once the kids got over that first hump, once they beat West Forsyth one time, then it took us a couple of years to beat Davie,” he explained. “Once we started winning those games, our kids were like, ‘wow, we can do this.’

“Then our JVs went 8-2 and 10-0 in back-to-back seasons. So those kids had success.”

While his teams have enjoyed success recently, and unprecedented success this season, Holcomb measures his success by the impact he makes on the players he coaches. He has said before, “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” He admits he tells his players he loves them, that they need to hear that. And he hopes the stamp he leaves on the community he holds so dear will go way beyond football.

“It’s very humbling, because when I was in school here, all kids wanted to do was play football or basketball or baseball or softball at North Davidson,” he said. “I want kids to do the same thing. I want kids to come to a game and say they can’t wait until they can play here.”

If things keep going the way they have recently, they may be playing for Holcomb. Like Don Palmer did for 15 years and Steve Hinkle did for 14 years, Holcomb is making his mark on the sidelines and in the community.

“I want kids to come back here, and introduce their wife or their kids to me, and introduce me as their coach,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility. And it’s heavy. It’s just really a nice thing, when people call you their coach.”

Jason Queen can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 220 or