The small, dark confines of a high school weight room may not seem like the ideal backdrop to end a 35-year career. But for Black Mountain native Kenny Ford, it was not only suitable, but symbolic as well. It was here, on March 16, that he informed his team he would not be returning the next school year.
He could not have made it through the back pain he endured the past several seasons without their support, he told them. He assured them next season's team had the tools to be successful. He thanked them for their hard work, much of which had happened on the weight machines in the very room they were gathered.
"I've done nothing but play or coach football for 48 years," Ford said. "I don't like leaving."
Owen principal Meg Turner told the emotional group of players that the school would begin the process of finding another coach immediately, calling the task "probably the most important hire since I have been here." Ford, she said, was a "legend in this valley." Owen athletic director Anthony Lee told the players they were part of "the Coach Ford legacy."
That legacy started long ago. Ford, speaking to the Rotary Club in 1986 days after being named head coach, vowed to restore pride in the program he had played for just a decade before. "No team will work any harder than we do," he said.
Hard work is just one of the many things the Owen Warhorses became known for in Ford's 29 seasons patrolling the sidelines. Under his guidance, platoons of young men won 230 victories and 14 conference championships. The Warhorses posted four undefeated regular seasons and a 29-18 playoff record. Stellar numbers, for sure. But Ford's biggest accomplishment may be the way he united the community under the stadium lights on Friday nights.
His commitment to his players, community and football program made him an icon in the Valley, where many people have known him his entire life.
Meant to be
Ford played varsity football for Owen under head coach Jim Levine, part of the team that won the Buncombe County championship in 1974. That team responded well to Levine and his staff, and representing the Valley was, once again, an important part of being a Warhorse.
"The program had been kind of laughed about for a number of years before Coach Levine came in during my sophomore year," Ford said . "His toughness made everybody love him as a coach, and the players wanted to play for him, so they could see him smile."
Ford went on to play football at Mars Hill University for five years, redshirting as a freshman. He returned to school later, earning a master's degree in physical education from Gardner-Webb University.
Working as a lifeguard at the Black Mountain pool after graduating from Mars Hill in 1980, Ford accepted the offer to coach the junior varsity team's defense at McDowell High School. According to him, he learned to coach "the right way" under Titans head coach Johnny Anderson.
During the summer of 1986, Owen principal Larry McCallum asked Wendell Begley for his advice on choosing a new football coach to fill the position vacated by Franklin Cecil. The first person that came to Begley's mind was the son of his friend, Frank Ford.
"I didn't know Kenny (Ford) that well, but I knew his mom and dad really well," Begley said. "I called Larry (McCallum) and told him to call Kenny in for an interview and see what he thinks. Larry called me back within a two or three day period and told me he thought that's who he needed to hire."
According to Ford, nobody else wanted the coaching position at Owen. But his roots in the community made the job attractive to him long before he was hired to fill it.
"I just found a piece of paper four of five years ago," Ford said. "In some class at Mars Hill they had us write about what we wanted to do after college, and one of my goals was to be the head football coach at Owen before I was 30."
Ford set the bar high his first season, going 10-3 and advancing to the third round of the state playoffs at Shuford Field, the former home of the Warhorses. That roster included senior quarterback Brad Johnson, an eventual Super Bowl champion with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I wasn't going to play my senior year," Johnson said. "I had already missed a couple of practices, and I was just going to play basketball. I was done with football. He (Ford) talked me into coming back and playing, and we had a fun year."
Spoke the language
The shared experience of growing up in the Swannanoa Valley enabled Ford to relate to players, helping him instill in them a strong desire to represent their hometown.
"He always said that we were 'the pride of the Valley,' and it meant something to be a Warhorse," Johnson said. "You always hear 'once a Warhorse, always a Warhorse,' and even though in my college days, our big rival was the University of Miami, and in the pros it was the Green Bay Packers, I remember that at Owen it was all about beating Erwin, beating Reynolds, beating North Buncombe."
Many people who have been around the Owen football program during Ford's tenure have been impressed by his work ethic and dedication to his team. Announcing home games from the press box, Carl Bartlett has been watching the Warhorses play for nearly 40 years.
"He's a motivator," Bartlett said of Ford. "He just seems to get more out of the boys than the other coaches do. He's always had his boys in shape when it comes time to open the season. I think that we have won some early season games under Coach Ford against teams that were better than us, simply because our boys were in better shape."
Ford's ability to motivate young athletes has become lore for generations of high school football players in the Valley, sometimes passed from father to son. Senior Tate Brown's father, T.K. Brown, played for Ford and knew that his son would face challenges when he went to Owen as an undersized freshman. His father's stories about a tough, demanding head coach intimidated Tate Brown. But Ford's early advice instilled in him a will to succeed.
"When I came in, I wasn't strong at all," Tate said. "I wasn't gifted with natural ability or strength. Coach (Ford) told me that to be successful in this world, you're going to have to do things for yourself."
Tate Brown responded by working out regularly with a teammate and growing into a key player on what turned out to be Ford's final team.