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From Duke Blue to varsity blues

Fred Goldsmith took Duke to the Hall-of-Fame Bowl in his initial season with the Blue Devils, but after four years of losing and a major scandal, he was let go. In 2001 Goldsmith took coaching job at Franklin High School and has led his team to a 29-7 record in three season.

When Franklin High School head football coach Mark Leek unexpectedly left for an administrative position in Hyattsville, N.C., in the spring of 2001, the athletic department went through its usual process of advertising the position. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until a man named Fred applied for the job.

In a resumé that included the 1992 Sports Illustrated National NCAA Football Coach of the Year and the 1994 Bobby Dodd Award for National Coach of the Year for NCAA Division I football, former Duke head football coach Fred Goldsmith easily landed the job for the AAA North Carolina high school. Just six years earlier Goldsmith was turning down head coaching offers from Miami, Oklahoma and LSU. How did a man known for his brilliant defensive tactics go from turning down college football’s giants to seeking a job at a high school of which few outside the 828 area code had ever heard?

The first answer Goldsmith will give to that question is that, although he was perceived as a gray-haired tough guy of the old stock, the former Blue Devil coach was naïve in the spring of 1995. Goldsmith had just led Duke to an 8-4 season and a trip to the Hall-of-Fame Bowl in his initial run through the ACC. Goldsmith thought Durham was the place he wanted to be and that the winning would continue.

But the Blue Devils only finished 3-8 (1-7 in the ACC) the following season, and fell further into the ACC cellar by going 0-11 (0-8) in 1996, 2-9 (0-8) the following year and 4-7 (2-6) in 1998 before Duke fired him after the last game of the 1998 season.

“My transition to the ACC wasn’t that tough because the conference wasn’t all that strong [in 1994],” Goldsmith said. “I thought I could recruit just based on the strength of Duke University. But the University of Virginia, Georgia Tech and North Carolina all lowered their academic standard for their football players. The money poured into [other ACC schools] was unbelievable. I didn’t realize the commitment these guys were making. That caught up to me. At the time we could have asked for more; I didn’t realize how much to ask for.”

In addition to his problems on the field, Goldsmith found himself in a public-relations nightmare when Heather Sue Mercer tried out for the 1994 squad. Mercer made the team, but Goldsmith placed her on the inactive roster and forbade her from dressing out for games. Although Mercer was an All-State kicker in high school, Goldsmith was accused of making inappropriate comments to Mercer. On one such occasion, Goldsmith was heard to suggest that Mercer “sit in the stands with her boyfriend.” Mercer sued the University for discrimination and eventually won her case although it was later overruled.

Goldsmith, slow to speak about the unpleasant time, only added, “That lawsuit sure didn’t help me.”

After the disappointing and tumultuous years in Durham, Goldsmith decided to retire from coaching football. He and his wife, Pam Goldsmith, chose to settle down in a vacation home they owned in her hometown of Franklin.

After Goldsmith left Durham, he believed the stresses of coaching football were behind him. He spent the 1999 and 2000 seasons doing color commentary for Western Carolina football games, a job he very much enjoyed.

“You never lose when you’re calling a game,” Goldsmith joked.

But his competitive fire never completely diminished, so when the Franklin High position became available Goldsmith did not hesitate to apply.

“His resume spoke for itself,” Franklin athletic director Doug Plemmons said.

Goldsmith’s ample experience quickly paid off for Franklin. The school has gone 29-7 in his first three years as head coach, including a conference-winning 11-2 season in 2001 when Goldsmith was named Western North Carolina coach of the year.

The community has responded to the team’s success, often packing the stadium by 6 for 7:30 p.m. games. The school has even purchased new concession stands to deal with the increased demand.

Even with his excessive credentials, Goldsmith’s new players were skeptical of his ability to make the transition to the high school game.

“We were kind of iffy about him coming in,” senior free safety Daniel Gibbs said. “We didn’t know if he was going to coach like he was still in college and treat us like college players. But he has great compassion for his players. It’s an honor to play for him.”

Goldsmith uses many of the same coaching techniques from the college game when leading Franklin. For example, instead of sitting the entire team down to watch game film, Goldsmith splits the team into different sections where they can observe specifics from the tape.

“It’s the same system, only an easier version than college,” senior tight end and linebacker Ben Saviko said.

Despite the simplified tactics, Gibbs believes his coach is a “defensive genius.”

“When I was young, I was just ‘go for the man with the ball’. He’s really technical. He makes it fun for us,” he said.

Goldsmith said his team is a joy to coach, as everyone is on the field because they truly want to play the game of football.

“The boys are smaller, but everything else is the same,” he said. “These kids are playing just because they want to play. The games are just as important, if not more than in college. Most of these players are not going past the high school level—this is all they got.”

Despite his new love of the high school game, Goldsmith still reminisces about his experience at Duke. Though he felt that Duke terminated his employment one year too soon, he continues to have a positive relationship with the University.

“Duke’s been good to me,” the former Blue Devil coach said. “They’ve honored my contract. I haven’t had to get lawyers like many coaches do.”

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