It all started so well.
Knowing he was stepping into a minefield created by months of rumors and allegations concerning his predecessor, Eric Puryear quickly brushed aside the problems that plagued the Southern Lee Cavaliers in 2008 and was intent on placing his own stamp on the program.
“Last year was last year,” Puryear said in his first meeting with the Cavaliers players and their parents a few days after he was hired. “This is a new year. What’s happened has happened, and there will always be a story to tell about that. But all we’re going to worry about is where we’re going and what we’re trying to do, and that’s to start trying to build a foundation.”
Puryear was hired in June 2009 after the abrupt 363-day tenure of Bill Maczko, getting a firm endorsement from Lee County Schools Superintendent Jeff Moss.
“He comes with some positive features that we believe will impact the school in a positive manner,” Moss said of Puryear that summer. “It’s not just in wins and losses, but also in the way he’s carried himself in his career so far.”
Puryear came to Southern Lee after successful stops as a position coach and coordinator at the small college level. He has a business degree from N.C. Central University and a master’s degree in business administration from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., where he served as a graduate assistant coach.
The plan was for him to earn his teaching certification via lateral entry. At the same time, he was asked to begin the rebuilding of a football program that fell apart after two playoff appearances in its first two varsity seasons.
The improvement, though, would have to be judged in ways other than wins and losses. Southern Lee played a brutal nonconference schedule before embarking in the realigned Cape Fear Valley Conference. The result was a winless season in which the Cavaliers struggled mightily on both sides of the ball, though the team closed with a competitive 10-0 loss to Union Pines in the season finale.
“These guys make the game fun for me,” Puryear said before the end of the season. “Anybody that gets the opportunity to play football and uses it not just as something to do, but as something to try to do well in and to excel in and get better at, that means everything to me.”
Following the season, which ended without the public criticism that came the previous offseason, Puryear helped out with the wrestling program and was the boys’ track and field coach in the spring, helping the 4×200-meter relay team qualify for the state 3-A meet.
But on March 22, a job posting for the Southern Lee head football coaching position appeared on the state jobs board online, prompting a reaction of surprise from Puryear and caution from Southern Lee Principal Bonnie Almond.
“The advertisement put on the Web site is cautionary and due to the terms of (Puryear’s) contract and the requirements he’s got to meet by June 14,” Almond said.
Citing personnel issues, Almond did not give specifics as to what the requirements were. But Puryear noted that they had to do with his teaching certification, and said that the dates of the licensure deadline were up for debate. Puryear said in April that he believed he had until June 30 to receive his teaching certification, and added that he was on track to complete his coursework by then. But he contended that the administration first told him the deadline was June 1, and that the date changed again upon Almond’s comment to The Herald. Puryear also said that the first he heard of the June 14 date was when he read The Herald’s article.
“That would not be my field of expertise,” Almond said of the deadline debate in April. “Since I am the principal I do not handle licensures. The requirements would be handled by the state.”
Puryear’s relationship with the school continued to sour from there. After a meeting with Almond and Assistant Athletic Director Tammy Batten, Puryear said he left with the feeling that his days at Southern Lee were numbered.
“I would like to (be the coach), but I can’t envision it, no,” he said on April 8.
Six weeks later, amid internet rumors that the school was deep into the interview process and that a new hire might be imminent, Puryear said he chose to step away. School officials have not commented on his departure.
“I did appreciate my time spent in Sanford and I know that I was appreciated by the kids,” Puryear said on Tuesday, the 1-year anniversary of the day Maczko’s leaving of the program was confirmed. “The upside for the program is tremendous with the right coach and the right people around that coach.”
It was a loud cry from his words 11 months earlier.
“It’s going to be a good year. Trust me,” Puryear said on June 18, 2009. “It’s going to be a good thing.”