By Cam Huffman
When Ray Lee was hired as the new head football coach at Greenbrier East High School this spring, his first task was to put together a coaching staff.
There were some coaches on the staff who wanted to come back, others who had coached before and were ready to return and a few whom Lee knew he wanted to hire.
But one came completely out of the blue.
Shortly after officially being named the new coach, Lee, a former head coach at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., received a call from a man named Marc McClain, who was looking for a job. A former cornerback at Southern Utah State College, the Las Vegas, Nev., native said he could help with the Greenbrier East defense.
“He just called me and said he was interested in being a defensive coach,” Lee remembered. “We sat down and talked X’s and O’s. We visited a couple times, and I ended up hiring him.”
Lee, who got back into coaching after 18 years away from the game, said the conversation was never about anything but football, but he soon learned that the coach also had a son, Cole, who was a talented football player blessed with speed and a strong knowledge of the game.
“My conversation with him was that if his son earned a spot, he would play,” said Lee. “But he wasn’t guaranteed anything. I was more interested in what (Marc) could do than what his son could do. But as they say, the rest is history.”
A new face is not always welcome in a locker room, and the combination of an out-of-stater moving to a small town and being the son of a coach is one that would be difficult for most high schoolers to overcome. But it didn’t take long for Cole to be welcomed as a Spartan.
“He got here, and pretty much everybody wrapped their arms around him,” said Lee. “He didn’t come in with a chip on his shoulder. He just came in, worked hard and did what everybody else was doing. He just did his job, and everybody saw that.”
That approach continued into the regular season. Cole didn’t necessarily draw the attention of bruising fullback Tre’ Moore or speedy quarterback Isaiah Kinder, but the numbers told the real story.
He ended the season with 794 yards rushing — seven touchdowns included — and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. He also caught 10 passes for 259 yards and two scores and returned 12 kickoffs for 378 yards and a score.
On defense, he ended the season with four interceptions.
“He’s one of those guys that does everything you want him to do,” said Lee. “You don’t always notice him, but at the end of the night when you look at the stats, he’s up there. You just don’t see it happening, because he’s not a flashy guy.”
On Saturday in the season finale against James Monroe, though, the junior was impossible to ignore. In a 45-6 crushing of Greenbrier East’s rival from neighboring Monroe County, Cole rushed for 207 yards on 14 carries, caught an 11-yard pass and took a punt back 53 yards for a score.
With both Moore and Kinder out of the lineup, Cole took full advantage of his chance to shine.
“We have a system where we don’t just give it to one person all the time,” said Lee. “We try to spread it around. But we lost our quarterback, our fullback and we had some people banged up at other positions. We still tried to have balance, but (Cole) did what he had to do.
“I don’t think we changed a whole lot. We did what we always do. The one adjustment we made was to put in a package where he ran some quarterback, sort of like a Wildcat package.”
After Cole’s performance Saturday — one that earned him Register-Herald Player of the Week honors — opponents might see much more of that package in 2013.
“He’s that kind of athlete,” Lee admitted. “We can put him in the Wildcat; we can put him at tailback. That kind of keeps the defense off balance, and we have other guys that we can go to. He helps everybody.
“He’s a critical ingredient to what we’re trying to do. He’s a versatile athlete and a well-rounded person.”
The next step, Lee said, is for Cole, who will be a senior next fall, to assume more of a leadership role.
“That’s what we’re counting on, for him to become more of a vocal leader,” said Lee, who played football at West Virginia Wesleyan. “Right now, he pretty much just leads by example. He’s in there working hard in the weight room doing what he’s supposed to do. That causes everybody else to pick their game up.”
And it also has Lee excited about the future.
Greenbrier East’s 3-7 record wasn’t what Lee and his staff were searching to find — especially after a 5-5 campaign under Aaron Baker in 2011 — but the coach said he was happy with the foundation this year’s squad put in place for the future.
“I don’t ever want the players, or myself, to start letting wins and losses define who we are,” he explained. “I think we did a pretty good job, especially starting a little late. We got started pretty much May 1 and tried to build a staff and get things in place.
“We’d like to win more games. Everybody would. But we accomplished some things, and six of the teams that beat us are in the playoffs now. We hung with those teams, too. It wasn’t like we got blown out. We played them pretty well. I think that will help get our guys mentally tough for next year, and everything else should fall into place.”