When Independence football coach Bill Geiler announced at the beginning of the season that this would be his last year, speculation of who’d become his successor quickly spread throughout Patriots Country.
But the search for a replacement didn’t take long. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, about a month after Independence lost its second-round playoff game to eventual state champion Butler, Patriots athletics director Kelly Lewis announced that Independence assistant Joe Evans would be the next coach.
Evans was the offensive coordinator the previous two seasons, and Lewis said the decision to hire him was easy.
“It was the best thing for the program,” Lewis said. “He’s been here and he’s been at Northeast Middle, and he already has relationships with a lot of the kids and they respect him. He’s a detail guy; he pays attention to everything. He’s very enthusiastic, and being young is always a plus. His energy and enthusiasm will serve him well.”
Evans, 32, succeeds two big names in Patriots coaching history: Geiler and Tom Knotts, who combined to win a state record seven consecutive state championships and led the team on a 109-game win streak.
This is Evans’ first head-coaching gig on the varsity level, but he’s already begun to put his stamp on Independence’s rich football tradition.
“It means a lot to me because now my name’s on the program,” Evans said. “I want to continue the success that’s been here. I don’t want to be the guy who lets Independence football take a step back. The last two years have been amazing, and I want to make it go further.”
There was a time, however, when Evans was more concerned with the Patriots losing games than he was with helping them win.
Evans grew up in west Charlotte and graduated from West Mecklenburg High, where he was a standout on the Hawks’ baseball, basketball and football teams.
For his first three seasons under then-West Meck football coach Jim McConnell, Evans was the starting quarterback. He assumed he’d start at quarterback his senior season as well.
“I went to practice and there was this big left-handed guy just slinging the ball,” Evans said. “I had been to quarterback camps all summer, it was my senior season and here’s this guy who could throw it, and he eventually beat me out.
“It was very humbling and I had to put my ego to the side. I’m thinking I’m supposed to be the starting quarterback, but I said, for the best of the team, I’d do anything the coaches asked me to do. I wanted to be a player and be successful.”
Evans moved to wide receiver and caught 10 touchdown passes, making the all-conference team. Evans also spent time at free safety, kicker, punter, linebacker and running back.
One vivid memory Evans has is hauling in the game-winning pass in a 14-7 West Meck win over Independence – on the Patriots’ field – his senior year.
Now, years later, Evans finds himself at the helm of one of the state’s top football programs. But it wasn’t always a clear path.
After graduating from West Meck, Evans studied education at Appalachian State University. But upon graduation, he found his true calling. McConnell called him one day and said West Meck had just hired a new young coach and he was looking for an assistant.
“I went and toured the campus and told the (new) coach I had gone there and was interested in the job,” Evans said.
The new West Meck coach turned out to be Rocky White, who’s now South Meck’s head man. The two remain close friends and confidants to this day.
“When I look at Joe I see a lot of myself,” White said. “When I first hired him at West Meck, it was a no-brainer. He’s so passionate about the game and he was so willing to do anything I asked him to do.
“He’s one of those guys that when he tells me something, I know it’s the truth because he’s genuine. The kids see that and they can tell he’s in it for them. He’ll do a great job.”
Evans stayed for four seasons with White before leaving when his wife, Courtney – who’s a third-grade teacher at Elizabeth Lane Elementary – gave birth to their first child, Brody, now 4. The couple also has a daughter, 19-month-old Brinley.
“I made a family-first decision (to leave West Meck) because I was teaching at Coulwood (Middle) and driving to practice every day,” Evans said. “Something had to give.”
Evans next got a job at Northeast Middle School, where he taught and coached the school’s football team for three seasons.
An encounter with Geiler at a faith-based coaching clinic ultimately led to Evans coming to Independence, where he served a year as wide receivers coach before becoming the offensive coordinator.
“I learned a lot from Coach Geiler, Coach White and all of the coaches I’ve had along the way,” Evans said. “I use a lot of what they taught me in my teaching and my coaching styles. Now, it’s my turn to lead.”
Next season, several key Independence players are returning, including running back Isaiah Robinson, quarterback Kelvin Hopkins, receiver Workpeh Kofa, lineman Tony Adams, and defensive backs Deion Washington and Adonis Alexander.
The Patriots are expected to be good, and it’ll be Evans’ job to make sure they are.
Graduating senior receiver Dequan Barnes, who also played for Evans at Northeast, said the Patriots’ transition to their new coach will be a smooth one.
“I see them going to the state (championship),” Barnes said. “It’s live when he’s coaching because he puts so much energy into our body. When we have the ball, he wants to score. It could be the first play of the game, but he wants to score. That’s his philosophy.”
“He gets us ready and prepared,” said Robinson, who’ll be a senior next season. “He helps us in the weight room and he has a good character. He just helps us out and does so much for us, really.”
Evans said he wants to keep the transition from Geiler to himself as smooth as possible.
“It’ll be a lot of the same,” Evans said. “With coaching changes the one thing you worry about is the kids. You want to keep these things steady. You don’t want to come into a place that’s been as successful as Independence has been and make big, sweeping changes, because it throws everything off.”
Evans said he’s ready to take the field on opening night in 2013, when, ironically, the Patriots will square off with White’s South Meck squad.
“I’m excited, but I’m most excited for the kids to come out and show how hard they’ve been working,” Evans said. “It’s not a Joe Evans thing; I want these kids to be good dads, husbands, sons, students, whatever. I want them to show that they’re growing because of what we’re teaching them. If I can do that, I’m already successful.”
Evans paused and smiled.
“But I’m tired of going home in the second round (of the state playoffs),” he said. “The kids, the parents, the community deserves another state championship. And we’ve got the coaches and the kids to do it.”