By Bob Sutton
Special to The Alamance News
John Kirby, who has been football coach at Eastern Alamance for more than three decades, is retiring after a career that was filled with strong teams, conference success, and state-playoff memories.
He decided it was time to step away.
“I kept saying I was going to do it, and I’d find a way to change my mind,” Kirby said of retirement thoughts in past years.
The Eagles have been one of the region’s top teams for much of the past two decades.
“I have had the honor to serve the past 32 years as your head football coach,” Kirby said in a message to the Eastern Alamance and Mebane community in announcing his retirement. “A position that I have cherished and embraced every day since being named interim coach in 1991. In the blink of an eye, 1991 turned into 2024. And with all great things in life, there is always an end point.”
Kirby’s coaching record is 291-120. He had been Eastern’s coach since taking over for Jim Orr with two games remaining in the 1991 season.
He’s an Eastern alum. He also has been athletics director, a role he’ll retain through the end of the school year along with his teaching position for exceptional children.
Then he’ll see what else there is to discover – “I don’t have a plan yet. I’m not old,” he said – without such a devotion to overseeing the football program. In the 24 hours since his announcement became public, he was blindsided, in a good way, by well wishers.
“It has been overwhelming,” he said. “I cry. I laugh. I cry some more. It makes your heart feel warm.”
Kirby, 61, said he became so fond of players who would enter the program that he would brush aside inclinations to give up his whistle.
“You always think, ‘I’m going to get the next guy through,’” he said. “He might be a sophomore. And then someone else would come along.”
Eastern’s success included reaching Class 3-A state finals in 2009 and 2010.
Under Kirby, the Eagles had one-loss seasons four times (1992, 2014, 2015, 2019). He experienced extremes, with the unbeaten 1992 regular season and a winless 2004 record – one of just four losing seasons.
“In 1992, we went undefeated and I thought I had all the answers,” he said. “In 2004, I got reminded I had no answers.”
Since then, the Eagles have stacked up winning records for 19 seasons in a row.
Yet it was no shock for many that Kirby might step away from the sidelines.
“You might have seen it coming, but it still doesn’t seem real,” said Eastern senior Jason Ball, the starting quarterback the past two seasons. “He definitely left a legacy.”
The 2023 team finished 8-3 with a first-round loss to Southern Durham in the Class 3-A state playoffs. That ended a streak of 15 consecutive seasons with at least one victory in the state playoffs.
“We’re spoiled,” Kirby said. “It has been a good run. … Bottom line, good players make you look good.”
His coaching staff and many team supporters became fond of a tradition of practicing on Thanksgiving morning “with a big breakfast,” Kirby said.
With it came great pride for Mebane. Larry Johnson, a member of the first graduating class at the school in 1963, was a longtime public address announcer at football games.
“He made it elite,” Johnson said of Kirby. “He did more than just coach football. John Kirby has been great for this community.”
Also, in part of his retirement message, Kirby wrote: “Since 1991, the program has experienced the joys of success and the sadness of defeat. We have witnessed the unique good the game of football can have on both the young men who play and the community who supports them. None of this would have been possible without the immense support of people who have been willing to put in the work and do things the right way.”
Kirby spent all 39 years of his teaching/coaching career at Eastern. After graduating from East Carolina in 1985, he said he wanted to stay in Greenville. But there was a job in his hometown and he joined Jimmy Teague’s coaching staff at Eastern while serving as head coach of the Woodlawn Middle School team.
Then he was called upon to fill in as head coach for the Eagles for the last two games in 1991. The first game was a loss to Cummings. The next game, a victory against Southern Alamance.
He also coached wrestling during his earlier years at the school.
Kirby’s coaching tree includes former assistants Patrick Stokes (Williams) and Tony Aguilar (Eastern Guilford and now Southeast Alamance) taking head coaching jobs.
Times are changing at Eastern.
“He’s got his own set of rules,” senior receiver Charlie Deacon said. “It’s definitely going to be different. I think they’ll still do good.”
After games, Kirby would address the team briefly on the field and then be joined by his wife, Lisa, as many spectators would stop by, usually to offer another congratulations. He has two grown children, J.T. and Lauren. J.T. Kirby is a former Eastern player and has been on the Eagles coaching staff.
Now, John Kirby might try to be in the background, but he’ll still be around.
“I’m a true Mebanite,” he said.
Photos courtesy of Alan Pennington