Mention the name Bill Hayes and you’re sure to get a variety of responses.
To his legions of die-hard supporters he’s known as the guru of blue-collar football, a brilliant salesperson and recruiter, and a trailblazing program builder. To his detractors he’s remembered as a brash coaching maverick, someone who refused to bite his tongue or hide his opinions, but who was never quite able to live up to his own hype and take his teams to the promised land.
Whatever your take on the legendary former A&T coach, it’s undeniable that he, more than any other figure in the program’s history, is responsible for putting A&T on the national football map. With 106 wins, three conference titles, and two 1-AA playoff appearances under his belt, he remains the most successful coach in A&T history. However just three years after he led the Aggies to an magical 11-2 season in 1999 and the school’s first ever playoff victory, Hayes quickly fell from grace and was fired after the disastrous 2002 campaign.
Since then, the old ball coach has returned back to his Durham roots and taken over the athletic director job at his alma mater, North Carolina Central University. We sat down with him not too long ago and talked about the wild journey he has embarked on these last 28 years and what challenges still await him in the future.
Bluedeathvalley.com: First of all, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet with us today. As everyone knows, you were a legendary football coach at A&T and now you have moved on to become the athletic director at North Carolina Central University. How are you enjoying this new position?
Bill Hayes: “It’s really been a great ride so far at my alma mater, North Carolina Central. You know, I actually grew up three blocks from here and used to walk through a path from my neighborhood up to the school when I was a student here. So, being back at Central and rekindling relationships with a lot of my old friends- there’s still some of my former teachers here who are still involved with the program and a lot of my old teammates are still around trying to help me out as best they can- it’s just been unbelievable as a I try to rekindle the Eagle Spirit that we had when I was a student athlete.”
What was the main reason you decided to take on this job?
Bill Hayes: “The absolute main reason that I decided to try it again was that all my life –you know, I had got knocked down a little bit- and I always told my teams to never feel bad when you get knocked down, but you should always feel terrible if you don’t get up. And so when I got knocked down, I started to stay down. But then I got to thinking that all through my career the one thing that I had taught my players was to get up and fight, get up and try it again. And so in my weak moments those thoughts that I had been preaching all those years as a coach came back to me. I decided that for all my players who I had preached to all these years, I needed to start demonstrating what I had been preaching.”
So far, what has been the most challenging aspect of making the transition of being a head football coach to now a top administrator?
Bill Hayes: Actually, the same things that I’m doing here at NCCU, I did when I was coaching. I’m just doing them with more regularity now. The fundraising, the public relations, the community relations, the interacting with student athletes, the program building- these are things I already used to do before because I probably was not a traditional coach. Every job I ever had when I was coaching, I had to start from scratch and build the program from the ground up. Which meant that I didn’t have the luxury of going up to the office and draw circles all day and plot offenses and defenses. I had to fund raise and talk to local sponsors about corporate giving, and also change attitudes amongst the fan base. We did it at Wake Forest when I was an assistant coach there, we did it when I was at Winston Salem (State)- when people had no idea that we could build a great football team- and I did it again at A&T, because when I was there it was in shambles. So I didn’t have the luxury of just getting on the chalkboard and plotting defenses and offenses; I had to do everything. And that’s what I’m doing now. It’s nothing really new, it’s just that I have expanded the kinds of things that I was doing and my interaction with the athletes is on a broader scope. Now I deal with both male and female sports and I’m acquiring a greater appreciation for our female sports. I’m really learning to love them and what they do. I didn’t have a real appreciation for them when I was coaching football because you get tunnel vision. But now I am learning to appreciate our excellent softball, track and field, volleyball and women’s basketball teams, and I give them all the support that I can. That’s something that I hadn’t experienced before.
Were you surprised by how well you were received by the Central folk, especially since you had really been giving them the business over these last couple of years as the football coach at A&T?
Bill Hayes: "Well, every now and then somebody gives me a little jab (laughing). But see, this is my home. That’s the main thing. And every time somebody begins to cut their eyes at me I remind them that ‘wait a minute, this is my home.’ I played here and went to school across the street at Hillside High School. I (walked) these halls as a student athlete. I wore the maroon and gray as an athlete. I was captain of the team, most valuable player of the team, freshman of the year, All American and All Conference- so I shed a lot of blood here. It was just that in my quest to find my own identity as a player and as a coach, when I graduated I left and tried to do what I was taught here. I had great coaches and great teachers at NCCU, and my coaches would have wanted me to get out and find my own way. And that’s what I did. I was the first black coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference. I coached in the high school system in Winston Salem and helped integrate the high school system there. My coaches would have wanted me to do that rather than hanging around home and settling for being average. They would have wanted me to go out there and do the very best. So every time I played against my old team, the NCCU Eagles, I saw the faces of all those great coaches- the Herman Riddicks, the LeRoy Walkers, and the Jimmy Youngs- guys who came in and taught me how to fight and how to win, and so I would never want to let them down. Coming out of the tunnel and out on the field I could see all of those faces saying, “Man, you can’t let us down. You’ve got to show everybody what our teachings were about.” And so I went out there with a vengeance, trying to prove that I could get this thing done."
Well, I’m sure you definitely made your former coaches proud over the years. As you stated, you left NCCU, coached at Wake Forest for a few years, coached at Winston Salem State where you built that program from the ground up, and then you came over to A&T. Can you talk a little bit about the early days at A&T and the obstacles you had to overcome to get that program off the ground?
Bill Hayes: "Well, you know, I applied three times (for the A&T job). I had really built Winston Salem up into a Division II power. We were second or third in the nation in attendance, we had won seven division championships… and my goal was to make it the Grambling of the East. I thought Winston Salem State had that potential, but other people didn’t think like that. And, you know, if you do your job well in coaching you’re going to make a lot of enemies. If you do what you’re supposed to do, if you build like you’re supposed to build, and if you fight like you’re supposed to fight, a lot of people are just not going to like you. Because your personality and aggressiveness is going to be such that you’re going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. I always told my players and coaches that every year you’re at a school or in a business you’re going to make seven enemies. You could be the best guy in the world, you could do all the things right but there’s still going to be seven people that don’t like you just because. And I stayed around Winston Salem State 12 years, so you multiply that by seven. (laughing) And at A&T for 15 years, so you multiply that by seven. All of a sudden you look around and people start throwing bricks. So in the early days I thought A&T had more (to offer). From the outside looking in, I thought this athletic program was ready for the world. Because see, when I interviewed, they would never interview on campus; they’d always interview at a hotel. I had never seen the coach’s office, I had never seen the equipment room, I didn’t see any of that. And then all of the sudden I got over there and was like “wow!” We had one uniform- two jerseys, all battered and beat up, and one set of pants. No shoes, no socks, raggedy helmets, and a locker room for only 37 people. I said ‘wait a minute, what I left was better than this’ (laughing). But then, I didn’t have any quit in me so I started trying to figure out how to build this thing from nothing. The first thing I did was I went to the Greensboro Men’s Club- because we needed some uniforms badly- and asked them to give us a blue uniform. We didn’t even have a blue uniform then. We had a dingy pair of gold pants and a white jersey and another blue jersey, but we didn’t have an all blue suit. The way I tried to sell them was that I told them that they were all businessmen in the Greensboro Men’s Club, and you know that being a businessman, if you’re going to take care of business you put on a dark suit. I said we’re going to try to take care of some business here at A&T but we don’t have a dark suit. (laughing) So I said ‘I want you all to give me $10- 12,000 dollars to buy a blue suit so that when we go out to take care of business we can put on our dark, blue suit.’ Of course, they gave me the money to buy a blue suit and I think that, maybe even now with the new staff, when the team really gets ready to take care of business they put on that (all-blue jersey). Now you know where that came from.”
Also, as you kind of touched on, you didn’t have the best of facilities when you came to A&T.
Bill Hayes: "You know the fields were so bad that we actually practiced over at Bennett College during my first year. We didn’t have a field (at A&T); we were building the practice fields. I’ll never forget one summer that the fields were so bad that my wife and I went out there with a shovel. I had the shovel and she had the wheelbarrow and we just tried to patch that field up and make it playable for practice that first year. That summer leading into my second year we did a lot of work with our own hands, moving grass. There was some grass over in one area but there wasn’t a lot of grass over in the area where we practiced, so I was shoveling grass into the wheelbarrow- moving Bermuda grass over to the other area to make it grow and putting water on it in the evening. I did a lot of that with a shovel and with my own hands. And right in front of where the new field house is, there was a little area about 50 yards wide that we practiced at behind a fence until the field was ready. So either we were practicing in that little small area or we would go over to Bennett and practice over there while we were building the fields. And then we got together and we built the towers to film practices…I mean, we had to do everything. We had to just start from scratch and put a program together, and.. no excuses, no apologies…we did. We did it from the ground up."