James McCormick grew up on a football sideline.
“I remember my dad picking me up when I was in elementary school, probably first, second grade,” McCormick said of his father, Terry McCormick, then head football coach at North Caroline High. “He was at North Caroline and they were playing Tower Hill up in Wilmington (Delaware), and the bus had to go right by the house. And I can remember him literally stopping the bus and grabbing me. Yeah, I grew up on the sideline from the time I was probably five or six. It’s all I’ve ever done.”
That is until next season.
North Caroline’s career leader in victories, James McCormick announced Thursday he had stepped down as the Bulldogs head football coach after 22 years, which included 16 winning campaigns and four undefeated regular seasons.
“It’s time,” said the 50-year-old McCormick, who leaves with a career record of 144 wins and 87 losses. “I’ve been thinking about it for awhile. I told the kids, I still enjoy coaching. I still love being around the kids. The Friday nights in the fall are great and that’s easy. That’s the fun part of it.
“All the things that you have to do from January to August to make sure that you can be competitive in the fall is wearing on me,” McCormick continued. “I’m just tired. There’s a lot of work that goes into the offseason, and I don’t enjoy doing that part of it anymore. I still like coaching, but I don’t like the offseason part as much. When you get to that point where you’re dreading getting into the weight room and doing those things, you know it’s probably time to go.”
Some thought McCormick might resign after the 2021 season, when longtime friends and assistants Colin Joseph and Jody Ward decided to step away. But McCormick wasn’t quite ready.
“We had a mission. We had a focus,” McCormick said of building North Caroline into one of the Bayside Conference’s best programs. “And when I say we, it wasn’t just me. It was Colin. It was Jody. It was a bunch of people. And we knew what we wanted to do.
“When you get to that point where you kind of build something that’s sustainable, then it’s like, ‘OK, what’s the next goal?’” McCormick continued. “Colin and Jody decided they were looking for greener pastures somewhere else. They wanted to get out for a little bit. I knew I wasn’t quite ready. I wanted to stay around a little bit longer. But it’s time now.”
The Bulldogs were at .500 before a three-game skid put them at 2-5 this season. They bounced back with victories over Parkside and Colonel Richardson to close the regular season, then upset second-seeded Easton in the first round of the Class 2A East Region playoffs.
“We used to call them the lunch-pail kids, ‘cause they brought their lunch pail to work every day,” Easton head coach Matt Griffith said of North Caroline. “Just look at this year. I had no desire to play him in the playoffs just because their kids are so scrappy. Even though we handled them fairly easy (33-20) in the (regular-season) game, they came out with their hair on first that night and got us (41-14).
North Caroline’s season ended the following week with a 43-27 loss to 2A state semifinalist Stephen Decatur, giving the Bulldogs a final record of 5-6. Despite finishing under .500 for only the fifth time in his 22 years, McCormick waited to make his decision.
“I thought about it during the season,” McCormick said of stepping down. “But I knew I wasn’t going to make any decisions after the season. I wanted to get away from it for a month or so, make sure I don’t make any rash decisions. I just figured it was time. I needed to make a decision so I could give North Caroline an opportunity to do a search and try and find the right coach for them and kind of go from there.”
Whoever succeeds McCormick has a difficult act to follow.
Between 1978 — Terry McCormick’s second-to-last at North Caroline —and 2000, North Caroline had just four winning seasons on the football field.
James McCormick, who played quarterback and safety at Smyrna (Delaware) High before going to Salisbury University, where he played safety, was an assistant at Smyrna for one year, then joined Bill Miller’s staff at North Caroline in 1995.
“Bill was great,” McCormick said. “He brought in a couple of young guys with me and Colin Joseph, and gave us some opportunities to learn and figure things out.”
Miller stepped down after the 1997 season and was succeeded by Chuck Hunter, who was head coach for three years. McCormick was named head coach in 2001, and went 3-7 his first year, 5-5 his second. Then in 2003, North Caroline not only posted its first winning season in 17 years at 6-5, it earned its first postseason berth.
The Bulldogs reeled off three more winning seasons and earned playoff berths in 2004 and ‘05. But while McCormick, Joseph, Ward and company had put North Caroline on solid ground, they were also busy coaching in the Pop Warner ranks, pouring the foundation for what proved to be one of the more impressive runs in Bayside Conference history.
“I think our biggest thing was we went down to Pop Warner and got them on board with the youth programs,” McCormick said. “Colin, Jody and I, with a bunch of other guys, coached Pop Warner for about eight or 10 years. We would leave high school practice and go to the Pop Warner fields and coach until 8 o’clock at night. Saturdays we were at two or three Pop Warner games ‘cause we had kids in different brackets.”
By the time Caroline’s Pop Warner players reached the high school team, they knew not only the coaches, but the Bulldogs’ system.
“We weren’t starting from scratch,” McCormick said. “We could just keep building on all the stuff that we had done year after year after year, and the culture that we wanted to develop. We had certain things that we wanted our kids to be able to do culture wise. We wanted the blue-collar mentality. We wanted that work ethic. We didn’t want a lot of flash and dash. Once we kind of got that ingrained in Pop Warner, by the time they got to high school it just kind of kept rolling.”
And what a roll the Bulldogs put together.
North Caroline posted winning records in 12 of 13 seasons between 2009 and 2021, including 10 straight winning slates from 2012 to 2021, including the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. The Bulldogs went 48-2 in the regular season from 2015-19, which included undefeated regular seasons in 2015, ‘17, ‘18 and ‘19.
“That first year that we went 10-0 (in the regular season) in ‘15 was the first Pop Warner group that we had worked with since they started and were seniors,” said McCormick of a 12-1 season that ended with a heartbreaking 17-15 loss to Walkersville in the state semifinals. “And every year after that was one of our Pop Warner groups. I think we had a five-year run there we were (48)-2. It was the kids that we had been with since they started in third grade.”
There was yet another significant stretch where North Caroline went 55-3 against Bayside opponents, starting with the final two games of the 2014 season and ending after the first two games of the 2020 season (played in the winter of 2021).
“He would make people compete,” Kent Island head coach Bryon Sofinowski said of McCormick. “Caroline was that blue-collar, hard-nosed, country team that you knew was going to be a dogfight every time you played them. There’s certain coaches in the Bayside you know watch film and will be absolutely prepared, and will probably know your game plan. And James is one of them. James and his staff from the past were absolutely incredible. They always had their boys prepared and you know James could foresee what your adjustments would be.”
But through all the x-and-o scheming and one-on-one battles, Sofinowski noted another side of McCormick.
“James coaches with a lot of class,” Sofinowski said. “And he’s one of those individuals as a coach you kind of want to make sure that you represent yourself that way in front of James. I think as far as coaches he’s the class of the Bayside.”
North Caroline’s glorious run was aided by Division-I talents David Bailey (Boston College, Colorado State), Ja’Mion Franklin (Notre Dame, Duke) and Kendron Wayman (Wake Forest). But Griffith quickly pointed out North Caroline also won when it didn’t have big-named stars.
“First off, James is a great person and colleague to be around,” Griffith said. “And as a coach he does a great job preparing his kids. And probably even more importantly, getting his kids to play at a level even when he didn’t have D-1 athletes, that challenged every team in the Bayside every week. He always put together a strong staff and figured a way to take away whatever you did best to have his team have a chance to win.”
McCormick led North Caroline to 11 postseason appearances, eight of which came before the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association made the postseason an open format for all schools starting in 2019. In addition to coaching Bailey, Franklin and Wayman, he coached his son Connor McCormick, and watched one former player rise to coach in the Division I ranks — Charles Huff, now at Marshall.
“When we first started at North Caroline we really didn’t have the program and the tradition that people think of,” McCormick said. “It’s been a lot of hard work by a lot of people to kind of build something that we could hopefully try to sustain. It’s been a great ride. It’s been a hard ride. It’s been exhilarating. It’s been frustrating. It’s been a little bit of everything.
At that heart of that mix though, was the players.
“I liked the kids that we had,” McCormick said. “I still like the kids we have. And that was the biggest thing. We had good kids and we knew they were going to give us everything they had. That’s why you coach. You don’t coach to win games. You coach to be around kids and develop those relationships. That’s what it really was about.”