ROCK HILL — There were so many reasons not to take the job.
None of them were as compelling as the reason he had to take it.
“I talked to people here at the school, some said don’t do it. Some said, it’s still Northwestern,” football coach Page Wofford said before a recent practice. “And it is, it’s still Northwestern, and it’s still a great job. I knew what it could be. It was time to get it right.
“I left the best job I ever had for the job I always wanted.”
Wofford, who grew up on Lowcountry football fields at Berkeley and Stratford, then served as an assistant coach at Wando and Hanahan, is six games into his dream gig. For 35 years, “Head Coach, Northwestern Trojans” has been a position admired and coveted across the state.
Wofford knows it because he helped build it. As Northwestern’s wide receivers coach from 2012-17, he helped the Trojans reach three state championship games. It was only four years ago that the Trojans were finishing a run of six title appearances in eight years with their fifth state championship.
But since, Northwestern has fallen. Wofford is the school’s third coach in four years.
Northwestern fired David Pierce — a 30-year assistant promoted to head coach after two-time state champion coach Kyle Richardson departed for an assistant spot at Clemson — five games into the 2017 season. Pierce’s replacement, James Martin, resigned in April after a school board investigation into parents’ complaints about weightlifting regimens (Martin was not accused of any wrongdoing and remained at the school as a teacher).
Lauren West, the athletic director who hired Wofford in June, was placed on administrative leave in August. That job is currently posted on the school district’s website.
The Trojans went 4-7 in 2018, their first losing season since 2005. Even with the program's illustrious past, it’s easy to see why the job was viewed with skepticism.
Wofford was at Daniel and had no reason to leave. He left Northwestern for Daniel and had produced a prolific offense. The Lions went 11-2 last year and gave Wofford a homecoming when they returned to Rock Hill to play South Pointe in the playoffs.
Daniel shocked the Stallions, who were gunning for their fifth consecutive state championship, in double overtime. They lost to Greer in the Upper State title game, but Daniel was perfect for Wofford and his family.
The offense, Wofford's specialty, was thriving and had a lot of experience returning. The school, located a deep spiral from Clemson, had a national championship staff right there for advice. Wofford was coaching the sons of several Clemson coaches. His wife and kids were happy.
Something about Northwestern beckoned, even though Wofford didn’t play or graduate from there and the program was on the rockiest footing it had ever been on.
Sitting in Wofford’s new office, it’s easy to see why.
The program’s five state titles are emblazoned on the wall behind him, flanked by pictures of Northwestern greats. Highlighted among the state record-holders and the 2010-11 National Gatorade Player of the Year (former quarterback Justin Worley) are an incredible four Northwestern Trojans currently in the NFL.
Cordarrelle Patterson, Benjamin Watson and Johnathan Joseph are amazing in their own right. Yet the fourth has the most notoriety — Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback Mason Rudolph.
(Contacted for this story, Rudolph didn’t have time to comment further but wished Wofford well).
The struggles are immense, but with all that history, that tradition, Wofford knew that was where he wanted to be.
“The situation just seemed right. The system was still in place, with academics, conditioning, practice,” Wofford said. “One of the things I heard about last year was they gave up during games, so that’s been a focus. You’re still at Northwestern, period. Enough is enough. Just start doing what you know is right and what you’re being coached to do.”
The hire was applauded. Northwestern found a man intimately familiar with the program’s success, who had been involved with creating that success and who was familiar with Rock Hill’s football-crazy atmosphere (Wofford graduated from Winthrop in 1997).
Retired Stratford coach Ray Stackley saw it all from the earnest, intelligent young man he had on his team in the early 1990s.
“You could pick Page out at an early age and say he would be a real good guy to go into coaching,” Stackley said. “Attention to detail, love of the game, tough, hard-nosed.”
A 270-game winner with one state championship (1999), Stackley is one of the coaches Wofford has occasionally contacted throughout his career.
“Page is a guy that’s reached out to ask me certain questions involving football. It may not be X’s and O’s, it may be managing coaches or hiring assistants or organizational tips,” Stackley said. “Guys that do that are going to be good because they’re smart enough to rely on folks who have been there and done that.”
It’s all played into Wofford’s career before Northwestern, and now as he labors to lift the Trojans. He doesn’t regret coming one bit, yet he found out just how hard it will be to restore it.
They’re 1-5 after a brutally tough non-conference schedule. The Trojans, after a run of QBs including Worley, Rudolph, College of Charleston baseball alum Dupree Hart and 2016 S.C. Mr. Football Gage Moloney, have found out that quarterbacks do not, in fact, grow on trees.
A two-year starter transferred. His backup suffered a knee injury in spring practice. Another broke his wrist a couple of weeks ago.
The defense has played admirably but the offense couldn’t get out of neutral, especially against that schedule. The Trojans haven’t scored a point in their last two games and have been shut out in three of their past five, although they did notch their lone win on the road in the rain against Ridge View.
It’s nearly an entirely brand-new coaching staff of mostly eager young guys who haven’t been in the game that long. It's a great group of players, practices are still enthusiastic and everyone is still bought in, but the talent Wofford oversaw as a Trojans assistant isn’t there this year.
“You go back to the saying, ‘God gives his toughest jobs to his strongest soldiers?’ He must think I’m Hercules,” Wofford said. “This has been some of the hardest days of my life waking up to come in here and fight for this program.”
But that’s why he did it. The purple and gold logo on his shirt and splashed around his office doesn’t put pressure on him; it reminds him that success will be there again. Not can be, will be.
“You come to Northwestern to play these teams. Maybe not all in a row, but to play them in those big games. That’s why I’m here, to coach in those games,” he said. “The lack of offense has been personally tough. I’ve been able to score points everywhere I’ve been. But I see improvement and am trying to put pieces together for the future.”
The school and city have embraced him. The pro pipeline has and will continue to be good to him and his new program, Wofford painting NFL hash marks on the adjacent field at Rawlinson Road Middle School during the summer to help out some buddies.
Those were Rudolph and Patterson, working on routes before training camp. Wofford was snapping the ball to Rudolph.
That kind of history and opportunity speaks to a lot of potential players.
As it did to a coach.