COACHING LIFER: Gastonia’s Bill Eccles continued Ashbrook’s successful football tradition while building Green Wave’s wrestling program
By Richard Walker (Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame)
When Bill Eccles grew up in Gastonia’s Thomas Acres, perhaps his life’s passion was foretold when he was 12 years old.
At the time, Eccles simply wanted his neighborhood team of 9-year-olds to beat another neighborhood’s team of 9-year-olds.
“So I guess you could say I’ve always had an interest in coaching,” said Eccles, a member of the five-person class of inductees to the 2023 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame.
Eccles, who turned 75 in February, is the longest link to the rich Gastonia, Ashley and Ashbrook High football coaching history that includes previous Hall of Fame inductees Everette “Shu” Carlton (1969), Earl Groves (1975), Larry Rhodes (1979), Robert O. Mason (2005), Jerry Carpenter (2014), Pat Crawford (2017); Carlton, Carpenter and Crawford were head coaches and Groves, Rhodes and Mason were assistant coaches.
Eccles played and coached under Carlton, coached for Carpenter and coached alongside Groves, Rhodes and Mason during a career that continues to this day. While Eccles first retired as Ashbrook head football coach after the 2000 season, he’s remained involved with the Green Wave football program in some capacity ever since.
The same goes for wrestling where Eccles “retired” as head coach after the 1995-96 season but has stayed involved in one way or another in the years since.
Eccles’ longevity is something he reflected on when talking about his induction into the GCSHOF.
“When you grow up in this city, you know it’s an amazing place,” Eccles said. “I feel lucky to have lived and growing up playing youth sports here. It makes it special for me to have coached with or against so many great coaches that are in the Hall of Fame. I have so much respect for those coaches and the influence they have had on me and this community.”
A 1966 graduate of Ashley High School, Eccles went to N.C. State originally hoping to be a civil engineer before settling on becoming a teacher.
After graduating from N.C. State, Eccles married his high school sweetheart Sharon (also a longtime Ashbrook teacher) and spent one year in Baltimore, Md., before coming home to Gastonia in 1971.
He spent one year coaching football, basketball and golf at Gaston Day School before his interest in playing golf literally led him to the school for which he would become synonymous.
“I was playing golf at Gastonia Municipal and I hit this bad tee shot on the 18th hole and thought I was going to kill some guys on the course,” Eccles said. “And when I got retrieve the ball on the green, I see coach Carlton. I’m thinking, ‘I had played for him for three years and he never killed me but now he’s going to kill me on the golf course.'”
Instead, Carlton knew he had a coaching vacancy.
“The next day he called me, offered me a job and I accepted it,” Eccles said.
At the time, the position was varsity football assistant coach, junior varsity football head coach, wrestling head coach and tennis head coach.
When Eccles joined the Green Wave staff, the school was in the midst of its most dominating run in history of 10 league titles in 20 years – with Eccles an offensive lineman on the 1964 Western Conference championship team.
At Ashbrook, Eccles coached under Carlton for one year before becoming an assistant for Carpenter for three years and John Kinlaw for 12 years highlighted by a 1974 N.C. Class 4A state title team that was the first since Crawford coached old Gastonia High to the 1925 N.C. Open state championship.
Since Carpenter, Kinlaw and Eccles had been assistants for Carlton, it seems obvious all these years later that Eccles would be named head coach in 1988.
“I felt like I’d done a really good job and thought the community was behind me and thought I’d get the job, but they opened it up to interviews,” Eccles said.
That process proved Eccles to be worthy of the promotion most felt was deserved due to his years of service.
By the time Eccles retired as head coach, he had guided the Green Waves to six more league titles and a school-record 88 victories highlighted by a 1998 team that finished 13-1 overall after a Western N.C. 4A semifinals playoff loss.
In 2001, Ashbrook named the school’s in his honor – and he would remain as an assistant coach under Joe Shepherd that led to his favorite coaching memory.
“I have a lot of great moments but I don’t think there could be anything bigger than the clear No. 1,” Eccles said. “And that’s the (N.C. Class 3AA) 2002 state championship. We had no business winning that state championship. Joe Shepherd was just unbelieveable. The head coaching job he did was so special. I’ve never seen anybody do a better job than him. It was miracle after miracle after miracle. And it was really a lot of fun.”
Yet, there are many local sports enthusiasts who regard Eccles’ contributions to wrestling as his most lasting contribution.
After all, when Eccles became Ashbrook’s head coach for the 1972-73 season, wrestling in Gaston County was only five years old and he organized the Gaston County high school wrestling tournament in 1975 and helped get the county’s junior high wrestling conference started in 1977.
“When I got into wrestling, I fell in love with it,” said Eccles, who guided the Green Wave to 287 victories and 11 conference titles in his 24 years as head wrestling coach. “I started out loving football and I stayed with that and still enjoy the strategy and the work ethic that it’s involved with. You get a lot of positives in football, especially when you’re molding a team together.
“Wrestling had a lot of unique things to it. The personal relationships you make with the kids were great. Teaching the technique was something I really enjoyed. And I really admired the wrestlers and how hard they worked, how much dedication they had to get on the mat.”
During Eccles’ time at Ashbrook, he also got to coach both of sons in both sports – 1993 Ashbrook graduate Brad and 1996 Ashbrook graduate Jake.
“It was great,” Eccles said of his coaching his sons. “When you’re in an intense environment like wrestling and football and to be able to share that with your kids, for me, was special.
“My boys were dedicated and tough. My son Brad once won a regional championship when he had a fever of 103. And then Jake got behind 10-2 against a really good athlete at Crest but came back and ended up winning 15-13 so the courage it took to do that and the effort was special.
“And they both loved football.”
Jake eventually surpassed his father’s wrestling win total with 327 victories from 2005 to 2021 – and with Eccles as his assistant coach.
“Well there’s nothing like coaching with your son,” Eccles said. “What a great experience it was to coach with Jake. We had such a great time.”
Eccles also praised the support he has received from his wife Sharon and his daughter Shelby Ellison..
“When you talk to any football coach and you can’t be successful without a phenomenal wife,” Eccles said of Sharon, who taught English at Ashbrook for 29 years. “And she was the best.”
Of his daughter, who has been a honored teacher in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee and currently teaches in Clover, S.C., Eccles said: “If you were making a basketball player, you’d make Michael Jordan. If you were making a school teacher, you’d make my daughter.”