When I contacted Heath Sexton to request an interview for a story about his decision to retire from coaching after 17 seasons, his response was quick: “Surely I’m not worthy of an interview.” On Monday, as we chatted in my office, he asked the question again: “Do you really think this is newsworthy.” 

My response to Sexton: You’ve done more to impact middle school football in East Tennessee than you’ll ever give yourself credit for.”

To be sure, Sexton won’t take much credit for the successes Oneida Middle School has experienced during his time at the helm; the best, it seem like, never do. And, to be sure, it’s “just” middle school football. Maybe the lights don’t shine quite as bright on Thursday as they do on Friday. 

And, yet, Sexton still made an impact. He made an impact on the players he coached, because many of them said so upon learning of his resignation on Friday. He made an impact on the men who coached with him, because they said so, too. And he made an impact on the men he coached against. Again, they said so.

To understand Sexton’s impact on East Tennessee middle school football, consider this: In 2014, there was a dust-up over alleged dirty play at Norris Middle School. The controversy became so intense that Norris was booted from the league and the postseason was canceled. It was the only time in a nine-year stretch that the Indians did not win a TMSAA championship. Oneida wasn’t the first school to file a petition against Norris — but Oneida caught the flack. A couple of years later, there was another dust-up: Spring City received a postseason ban after being caught filming a jamboree in violation of TMSAA rules. Oneida wasn’t the only school to turn Spring City in — but, again, Oneida caught the flack.

Over the past decade and a half, Oneida has been the football program that other middle schools priding themselves on their football have tried to emulate, the program that some of those schools have loved to hate. Why? Simply, because Oneida has been synonymous with winning.

Not that Sexton invented middle school football at Oneida. Middle school football was being played long before Sexton came on the scene, and he would be the first to tell you that — in fact, he talked about how it was tough to follow in the   afootsteps of Kevin Terry in 2002 because Terry had had success with the Indians. And middle school football will go on being played at Oneida now that Sexton has stepped away.

But during his 17 years at the helm, Oneida won. A lot. The Indians won 136 games while losing only 24. They made it to 11 of the 16 championship games that were played during that span, winning nine of them. And most of their games weren’t even close.

Sexton didn’t just win at a high level. He also passed what is perhaps the greatest test of all for middle school coaches: longevity. He isn’t the dean of middle school coaches at the local level; that title would go to Huntsville’s Mark Proffitt, who was coaching at Fairview when Sexton was himself a middle school player at Oneida. But Sexton is next in line behind Proffitt. In a sport and at a level where most coaches don’t last more than three or four years, Sexton lasted almost two decades. And he was still in his prime when he made the decision to step away.

Sexton also became something of a specialist in the old single-wing offense. Not many coaches are willing to go old-school with the single-wing anymore, preferring the new-age spread offense. Sexton tried some spread during his early years of coaching. He also tried some veer, some I-formation, some wing-T. Then he went exclusively to the single-wing. And proved unbeatable with it. 

Sexton’s Indians had been to the championship game a couple of times before he adapted the single-wing, but hadn’t won one. Then they had gone to the Class AA level, and had made it to the semifinals and quarterfinals. In 2008, the year Sexton went to the single-wing, the Indians won the championship. They went on to win six in a row, and won nine championships in 11 seasons that he used the single-wing, averaging better than 35 points per game along the way.

I asked Sexton many times over the years why he didn’t move up to the high school level. It’s not that he hasn’t had offers. But as far as I know, he’s never considered it.

I asked him that question again on Monday. His answer: “So many people I see just aren’t happy with where they’re at. I’ve always thought, man, I like this. I liked who I worked for and loved who I worked with. I always thought if you’re really and truly content, why mess with it.” 

There’s something to be said for that. Would Sexton’s style and approach work at the high school level? It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t. But he was comfortable where he was, so he stayed put. And when he decided it was time to hang it up, he walked away a winner, having led the Indians to their ninth — and perhaps most improbable — championship this past season.

In an interview about politics a few weeks ago, State Senator Ken Yager, R-Kingston, said: “It’s a hard thing for politicians to do, to know when to leave.” The same could be said for coaches. In fact, it’s probably even harder for coaches to know when to leave. The annals of sports history are rife with coaches who held on just a little too long, and the results spoke for themselves. No one would’ve said Heath Sexton was in danger of hanging on too long. His last season was arguably his best season, and at his age he could’ve won for a long time to come. The biggest thing that happens to grizzled old coaches is the game passes them by. But when you can take old-school football and mold it to fit your program, as Sexton did, it’s hard for the game to pass you by. 

Marv West, the high school girls basketball coach at Oneida, said it well on Friday: “Lot of middle school coaches breathing a sigh of relief tonight.” 

Tyler Harper, the head coach at Oliver Springs, said it better: “An incredible coach! Always was there to help me out this past year in my first year as a head coach. He built a model program based around winning! The competitor in me hates to see this happen cause I wanted to beat that guy just once to feel like I had accomplished something!”

And Jellico’s Brent Peel put it like this: “I have a ton of respect for Heath. We have coached against each other for a few years and his teams were always well coached, well prepared and extremely competitive. Win or lose, him and his team were always respectful. Glad to call him my friend.”

It’s one thing when your friends say good things about you. It’s another thing entirely when your rivals do the same. As the door closes on Heath Sexton’s remarkable 17-year tenure as a middle school football coach at Oneida, he didn’t completely rule out returning to the game someday. If he ever does, he’ll have no trouble landing a job. His resume speaks for itself. And maybe — just maybe — we’ll get to see whether that old-school, single-wing offense would work at the high school level somewhere. They say it won’t. But they also said it wouldn’t work in middle school. And they were wrong.

From The Pressbox is a weekly sports column by Independent Herald editor Ben Garrett. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.