One of Paul Wheeler's favorite adages about building a winning high school football program is: "Sometimes you've got to take a step back to move forward."
A bread-and-butter guy whose three state championship teams featured hard-tackling defenses and running attacks powered by physical lines, Wheeler is usually referring to getting back to basics when he uses the line. But Wheeler is almost taking a step back in time in moving forward to the latest stop in his legendary coaching career.
Wheeler was named on Monday as the head coach at Virginia High, a Group A Division 2 school in the southwestern Virginia town of Bristol. Wheeler, who coached at Lafayette the past 10 seasons, returns to Virginia High 27 years after he began a six-year stint there as a young coach.
"It's a unique thing to go back there more than 25 years after starting there," Wheeler said. "I'm looking forward to giving something back to the community that they can be proud of.
"It's going to be a challenge, but me and my family are looking forward to going back to a place where we met so many good people."
Wheeler's six seasons at Virginia included Region IV title and berth in the 1987 state playoffs. He moved from there Lynchburg-area school Rustburg, where his teams won Division 4 state titles in 1990 and '93.
His next head coaching stop was at Lafayette in 2001, where he guided the Rams to Division 4 state title in his first season. The Rams lost in the state final a year later and Wheeler's teams would go 82-31 at Lafayette, improving his career coaching record to 195-69.
But his final season at Lafayette was turbulent. The Rams went 7-3 on the field, but forfeited two games – costing them a playoff berth because of a drop in their VHSL rating – because a player who had not turned in a completed physical form competed in two victories.
In October Wheeler resigned, effective the end of the season, because he said he had heard that a Williamsburg-James City County Schools administrator was threatening to dismiss him as coach as the result of an incident with a player at practice. Wheeler said Lafayette administrators had previously investigated the incident thoroughly, found it to be inconsequential and told him to go back to coaching.
Wheeler attempted to rescind the resignation following the season, but, to the consternation of hundreds of Lafayette fans and players, WJCC Schools refused. Offensive coordinator Andy Linn was named the named the Rams new head coach in late-March.
Wheeler will remain at Lafayette to the end of the school year. Then he'll immerse himself in rebuilding a Virginia High football program that went 4-6 in 2010 and plays in the tough Clinch Mountain District – which includes defending Division 2 state champion Gate City.
"I guess what I'll remember most about Lafayette are the relationships: the good kids and good people who worked hard and played hard," said Wheeler, who will teach social studies at Virginia. "Within that framework I'll have some memories.
"But I'm less about memories than I am about the day-to-day process of coaching, of getting kids to work hard. The day-to-day grind is what I enjoy, and once I get started I won't have time to think about missing Lafayette or anything else."Copyright © 2015, CT Now