Shared experiences, similar struggles bring three Black Chatham football coaches together

Johnson, Gary and Little are more than just conference rivals.


Seaforth football head coach Terrance Gary didn’t have any more questions to answer in his post-game interview following the win over Jordan-Matthews on Oct. 19.

After breaking the program’s single-season wins record, Gary spoke to the Chatham News and Record about the game and the Hawks’ growth over the years. He could’ve just ended the interview there, but, before he walked off the field, he sent a special message to the coach on the opposite sideline.

“I just wanted to say thank you to coach Ryan Johnson,” Gary said. “He’s been somebody (that’s) good to lean on this season and since I’ve been in Chatham County.”

Gary shared that Johnson, head coach of the Jets, has been a valuable resource for him and Chatham Central’s first-year leader Derrin Little, specifically when looking for advice on coaching and life or just someone to talk to. The coaches’ connection, which predates this past season, has grown into something all three men cherish, especially with shared experiences of tough losses, needing help and the pressure of winning as a Black head coach.‌

Coach Speak

Seaforth is the shiny school with new and updated athletic facilities. Chatham Central and Jordan-Matthews hate each other.

That’s reason for the three coaches to feel the same way, but their history has made it quite the opposite.

Johnson and Gary first crossed paths at Southwest Guilford in 2005.

Johnson served as the defensive coordinator while Gary, in his first high-school coaching gig, handled the defensive backs.

“It’s crazy because (Gary) kind of reminded me of Derrin,” Johnson said. “I met him, kicked it off, and it was cool. Then he left.”

Gary bounced for another position before the start of the regular season, but the two kept up with each other as time passed. When they both found their way to Chatham County 16 years later, this time as head coaches, another young yet experienced coach in Little came along looking for another opportunity.

Before landing his first head coaching job at Chatham Central, Little spoke with Gary about joining the Seaforth staff, but it just didn’t work out. Prior to that, Little had also talked with Johnson about coaching at Jordan-Matthews, but that didn’t come into fruition until this spring.

Just like Gary, Little spent what Johnson joked was “five minutes” with the Jets before taking the Chatham Central job months later. Despite not spending a regular season on either staff and now becoming a conference rival, the genuine welcome from Johnson and Gary, who wanted to see him succeed, brought Little into the fold.

“They both reached back out to me,” Little said. “It’s the ‘congratulations’ and the ‘whatever you need, I got you,’ but you get that from everybody. But as far as who I can really count on, and I know I can hit either one of them at any point in time, it’s both of them.”

Little really saw why that was the case during the 2023 season.

All three teams finished below .500 with Chatham Central failing to win a game for the first time since 2015.

Tough times require tough people — and someone to turn to for help.

“I know there were times where Coach Johnson got tired of me,” Little joked.

Dealing with similar struggles throughout the season, Johnson, Gary and Little constantly bounced ideas off of each other no matter if they were battling for a playoff spot or bragging rights over one another.

Phone calls between the three coaches this season went from “real quick” to almost an hour and eventually to a group chat.

“There ain’t no secrets,” Gary said. “For some reason in coaching, people don’t like to tell you everything. If I’m presenting something or telling you something, it doesn’t matter if you’re not able to implement it. I want you to do what’s best for your kids.”

Sometimes the coaches pick each other’s brains on strictly Xs and Os, especially with Chatham Central running a similar offense to Jordan-Matthews.

One of the biggest things they pick up off each other, though, is how to handle what goes on behind the scenes.

Johnson and Little helped Gary adjust and be more involved in the Chatham community, which is much different than what he experienced growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Little then learned from Gary the “administrative” things, like how to utilize social media, and from Johnson, he picked up tips on structuring a program — specifically at the 1A and 2A level.

“Everywhere else I’ve been is 4A schools or 3A schools,” Little said. “You got kids galore. You don’t have worries like, ‘we’re not going to have a whole lot of people today.’ Coming into a situation (at Chatham Central), it was new for me.”

Said Little, “I’m coming in, we’re getting ready to put in this offense, and I’m thinking we getting ready to have everybody…The dudes are still running track, so I wasn’t going to have them for at least two weeks.”

For Johnson, who deals with that same problem at Jordan-Matthews, his solution for Little was to just roll with who he has.

“How do I get these kids caught up? That’s number one,” Johnson said. “Number two is the kids that are there, you don’t want to treat them like they ain’t nothing. You want the kids that are there today to come back when the dudes are in. So, you put the offense in with not the dudes.”

With all three coaches building their respective programs up from the bottom, support like this can be the difference in taking the next step toward success.

Morning Will Come

At first, Johnson didn’t think much of becoming the first Black head football coach in Jordan-Matthews’ long history.

The Siler City native and Jordan-Matthews alum took the job for family reasons. One of them was to be able to fill the shoes of his late father, Rudy Johnson, who was an assistant coach for the Jets while Johnson played there.

According to Johnson, the first time someone made a point that he was the first Black man on the job was during Black History Month when his cousin brought it to attention.

“It’s definitely something I take hold of,” Johnson said. “It’s a responsibility for me because I know that me being the first is important…Not only for me and my community but for other coaches trying to get their foot in.”

Gary said that at the beginning of his time at Seaforth he felt extra pressure because of his race, even though he’s the only coach in school history. In his case, worries came with relating to his players.

“With my demographic, we have nothing in common,” Gary said. “But, you’ve got to still build those relationships. Those relationships are what matters. I’ll tell (players) it’s going to be times in their lives that there’s going to be some challenges, and I know they probably won’t ever go through all the stuff that I’ve seen, but I still tell them those stories…They’ve got to be prepared, and that what football is preparing them for.”

For Little, being a relatable coach and educator who also knows the community gives Black students, athlete or not, someone to talk to and find comfort in. Johnson doesn’t have to worry about relatability too much, but when it comes to the pressure of winning, all three coaches put that weight on their own shoulders.

Being a head football coach already comes with the pressure of winning. Yet, in addition to looking different and coming in with more unique experiences than most, if not all, of one’s predecessors, being the first Black coach, or second in Little’s case, can make that pressure much more intense — especially when feeling one has to succeed faster to keep the job.

“Coaching is a lot, but it’s added pressure when you’re a minority,” Johnson said. “You don’t really get shots on this level, college level nor pro level. So, when you get them, just make sure it’s better off from before you got there.”

All three coaches are, in a sense, starting from ground zero. Johnson is trying to return a Jordan-Matthews program to its glory days, Little is trying to establish a long-awaited winning culture at Chatham Central and Gary is laying the foundation at Seaforth.

Those situations have brought struggles in the win-loss column, and because their predicaments are so similar, they’ve helped bring the coaches together in support of one another.

“When you go back to the group chat, we check in every week,” Johnson said. “We have the humor of us facing each other. Then, we share the same pains. We give an encouraging word like, ‘morning will come.’ Like, hey, it’ll be all right tomorrow.”

Sometimes, the coaches may need a different message. In Little’s situation, he has to handle strength and conditioning and other tasks, like laundry, on top of being the head coach.

And with being a head coach who wants to win badly, he spends a lot of time studying film and preparing for the next opponent. That brings the problem of a work-life balance for Little.

“The football part ain’t really what I have questions about,” Little said. “I’m getting ready to be married. This is the first time where somebody else actually matters…That’s what I’ll be asking about. She’s mad I’m spending all my time over here, how am I supposed to balance this and balance that?...I know it’ll be some long conversations when I’m on the phone with them like, hey man, let’s get a beer or something.”

Although times seem tough now for the three programs, they’ve all made baby steps towards better days in the 2023 season.

Seaforth won two more varsity games than last year while also brewing a strong young core that went 6-3 at the JV level. Jordan-Matthews also won two more games than the year prior and ended the season with a 22-12 win over Graham, the largest margin of victory for the Jets since beating East Chapel Hill, 24-0, in 2021.

Chatham Central continuously and visibly improved throughout the season and made the 1A playoffs, despite going 0-10.

Should these coaches turn their programs around, they’ll all have themselves to thank when it’s all said and done.