KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The last time Oak Ridge football coach Joe Gaddis met with his team was filled with shock and a lot of, “I love you’s.”
On Nov. 15, Gaddis called a team meeting to break the news of defensive coordinator, Jeff Miner, taking the head coaching position at Hardin Valley. He also broke the news of his retirement.
“I was very surprised actually, I thought he was going to keep going after 48 years,” senior Walker Rice said. “It really surprised me.”
Rice’s teammate Jacob Berven said rumors started to circulate around school about the possibility of Gaddis retiring. He speculated the decision would come eventually, but not this soon.
“He means a lot,” Berven said. “He’s going down in the Hall of Fame, for sure.”
Gaddis decided to retire the whistle after 48 years of coaching, 38 of which were as head coach. Twenty of those 48 years were spent at Oak Ridge. He also had stints at Tullahoma, Henry County, Pascagoula (Mississippi), Austin (Alabama), Lexington (North Carolina) and Peabody.
“I would want to be remembered as the guy who at least extended the tradition of Oak Ridge football over the last 20 years and a guy who loves it,” Gaddis said. “I love it here.”
He certainly extended the program’s winning tradition. During his tenure at Oak Ridge, Gaddis led the 1991 team to the Class AAA state championship, ignited a nine-game win streak in the 2020 season that came to an end in the Class 5A state championship game, and racked up 196 wins.
“There’s no tradition like Oak Ridge high school football in this state over the last 75 years,” Gaddis said. “The city is one that demands excellence in everything and that’s why Oak Ridge has been so good through the years.”
Gaddis ends his coaching career with a 334-146 record overall. Out of those 334 wins, Gaddis said the 42-41 overtime thriller against Central in 1991 was one he will remember forever. The Central Bobcats had quarterback Todd Helton, the would-be Vols and Colorado Rockies baseball player, under center for that game.
“The best football game I’ve ever seen at any level, and I was lucky enough to be coaching here for that,” Gaddis said.
While Gaddis is fueled by his hatred for losing, it is the relationships he built with his players that mean more to him than any touchdown scored at Blankenship Field.
“I’ll miss a lot about the job but just the relationship with players,” he said. “I love the relationship you have with coaches and teachers and administrators but with players – that’s special.”
Garfield Adams, Oak Ridge’s principal, played for Gaddis on the 1991 state championship team. His brothers also played for Gaddis along with his son, Jaxon Adams, who is a walk-on defensive lineman at Tennessee. Adams described Gaddis as a mentor and brother to him. He is just one example of the bonds he formed with his players.
“We had a state championship reunion at Blankenship Field and these are guys who have been friends for over thirty years and we’re still tight to this day,” Adams said. “That’s the legacy bringing us together as a family. Thirty years later coming together and telling each other we love each other and staying in touch across Tennessee and the country.
“To have that bond we attribute that to coach Gaddis.”
Adams said there was an “outpour of support” from the community for Gaddis once the news was made public.
“I’m happy for him that he gets to experience the gratitude that we’ve always had for him on a level that I don’t think he’s ever experienced, but he will be sorely missed,” Adams said. “He’s an absolute legend but this is a great time for him to enjoy him.”
The next coach to take over the program has big shoes to fill. Adams said they are looking for a champion with a history of winning.
“We’re looking for someone of great character, and we’re looking for someone who is going to invest everything Oak Ridge High School and our community from our feeder program to the high school,” he said. “Someone to get one-hundred percent involved in this community, and someone who is willing and ready to stay for a very long time.”
As for what is next, Gaddis said he is still drafting a game plan. For now, he will continue to teach at Oak Ridge and support the football program from afar.
Oak Ridge should return a lot of skill players and linemen who were out this year with injuries. Gaddis is confident the team will do well next season.
“Selfishly I kind of wanted to stay one more year and go out on a better note than the season we just had, but I’ve had good seasons here, and other places and I thought the new coach could have a great year … and have the city and community rally around him hopefully with a great season in 2022,” Gaddis said.