After 17 seasons at the helm of the Oneida Middle School football program, Heath Sexton resigned last week.
Sexton, who is not yet 40 and has coached since he was fresh out of college, said it was simply time.
“I told Jeanny (Hatfield, Oneida’s director of schools) today, I think no matter where you’re at, if you’re there long enough, eventually, it just kinda wears itself out,” Sexton said Monday.
Sexton informed Hatfield of his decision on Thursday.
“It was a hard decision,” he said. “I’ve never taught and not coached. It’s hard to give up anything after 17 years, it doesn’t matter what kind of addiction it is.”
Sexton amassed a career record of 136-24 (.850). In his 17 seasons, the Indians advanced to the league championship game 11 times, winning nine of them.
Sexton said there were several factors that led to his decision.
“It’s been kinda in the back of my mind, because nobody can do it forever,” he said. “So I kept asking myself, ‘When would be the right time?’ It’s one of those things where we have a lot of starters coming back. We don’t lose hardly anybody. And that seventh grade class, man, they’re good. And all of them who are back, they’re great kids. So whoever comes in, it’s a great situation to come into. And I knew I’d feel better leaving it like that.”
Sexton was hired by then-Oneida Special School District Director of Schools Mayfield Brown in 2002. He had just graduated college and was looking for his first teaching job. He had spent seven years as a player in the Oneida system, first in middle school and then in college, and had been an assistant coach under Jared Henry as a college student.
But when Brown asked him to take over the Oneida program when Kevin Terry resigned, Sexton initially said no.
“He said, ‘What do you think about coaching?’” Sexton recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll assist.’ Because I had done that with Jared Henry, who had given me my first opportunity. Mayfield said, ‘Well, I need a head coach.’ I said, ‘Well, whoever you hire, I’ll help them.’”
But Brown was persistent.
“He leaned forward and said, ‘If you want a teaching job, you’ll be my football coach,’” Sexton said. “I told him I didn’t know anything about it. He slapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’ll learn as you go.’”
And learn he did.
In Sexton’s first season, the Indians were 4-4 and missed the playoffs.
“I wasn’t a good coach,” Sexton said. “I was terrible.”
It wouldn’t be that way for long, though. In his second season, 2003, Sexton’s Indians finished 6-3. They advanced to their first championship game in 2004, losing to Harriman. The next year, the Indians were back in the championship game, where they lost again. But they just kept getting better.
“I was told I had to coach for three years and I could quit,” Sexton said. “I don’t know why I stayed 17 years. I told Mark Martin (an assistant coach) early on that I might coach in 50 games. And then I just never quit.”
Frustrated by a lack of quarterback play, Sexton made a huge change after the 2007 season, implementing a single-wing offense.
“I had probably 2,000 pages of notes, I had talked to 10 coaches about it, I had all these DVDs, and I was still scared, because I didn’t know it,” Sexton said of adapting the old-school offense to fit Oneida’s players.
But it worked. The Indians won their first TMSAA championship in 2008, the first year the offense was implemented. They were a Class AA school that year. They won the championship again in 2009, and once more in 2010. In 2011, TMSAA went to three classes. Oneida was Class AAA, and won again.
In all, Oneida won six consecutive championships from 2008 to 2013. The only reason the Indians didn’t win the title in 2014 is because the postseason was canceled. They came back to win two more championships in 2015 and 2016. After being eliminated short of the title game for the first time in a decade in 2017, the Indians rebounded to win the championship as an underdog in 2018, defeating Spring City in the semifinals before knocking off an unbeaten and heavily favored Rockwood team in a thrilling overtime game for the championship.
Along the way, Sexton’s old-school, single-wing offense averaged about 37 points per game. It had its critics — Sexton admits that some of the criticism weighed heavy on him at times — but it was also unstoppable.
“I know running off tackle don’t look good,” he said. “(But) we’ve played every defense imaginable. We’ve played every offense imaginable. And we’ve throttled every one of them. Why would we want to switch?”
For Sexton, the 2018 season would be hard to top — in more ways than one. With few eighth graders and dramatically under-sized, the Indians were supposed to be one year away from returning to the championship game. But they did it. Then they did what no one was supposed to be able to do: they knocked off a Rockwood team coached by Scott Harvey — who formerly coached at Robbins, and is one of Sexton’s favorite coaching adversaries.
“I think for me, personally, this is the best coaching job I’ve done,” Sexton said of the 2018 season. “And the kids, all they wanted to do, every day, is get better. They worked every day. Me having the 17 years of experience probably helped because I had to have a ton of patience this year, which I typically do not have. Ten years ago, I would’ve probably lost them.”
Had he chosen to stick around, only time would have told how many more championships Sexton’s middle school program might have won. He was already in unchartered waters as a TMSAA coach. None other in Area II — regardless of classification — has won anywhere close to nine championships.
Asked if he ever had the urge to step up to the high school level, Sexton demurred.
“So many people I see just aren’t happy with where they’re at,” he said. “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?”
Now, as he hangs it up, Sexton isn’t ruling out a return to coaching some day. For now, though, he just wants to enjoy the things he hasn’t been able to enjoy for the past 17 years.
“From January to November, it’s seven days a week,” he said. “I wake up at two or three in the morning every night, thinking if I line up in this and bring motion, will they be man or cover three? Can I get an angle here? So now I may sleep.”
Sexton told Hatfield on Monday that he’s not saying he’ll never coach again. “But I’m not saying I will either,” he added.
“I’ll miss the kids tremendously,” he said. “There’s a bond there, a trust. I’ll also miss the camaraderie with the other coaches, that you coach against, because almost all of them are good people.
“I wouldn’t trade the last 17 years of coaching at Oneida for anything.”
Ultimately, Sexton said, his success is due to the players he coached and the coaches he worked with.
“I’ve had a real good, real good run of kids, and a real good run of assistants,” he said. “I’ve had kids who were players for me who came back and coached with me. That was pretty neat, to see them as sixth graders who can’t put their knee pads in and years later you look over there and they’re running their own group and doing a danged good job.”
Sexton had 20 assistants over the course of 17 years.
“I got to coach with Dustin (Lay), and we had been best friends since kindergarten,” he said. “I got to coach with Jack Jeffers, and we had been best friends since kindergarten. Me and Jason (Pike) got to coach together. Me and Daniel King played together and then coached together. Devlin (Marcum) was great. Zach Smith was a phenomenal coach for us.”