Heart of a coach

The lessons Robert Cody ’80 learned as an Elon football player have translated to success as a high school coach.

Kyle Lubinsky ’17 

For many collegiate athletes, playing professional sports is an aspiration. For others, playing a sport helps them find their calling in life. For Robert Cody ’80, a backup quarterback at Elon in the late 1970s, the lessons learned at the college level have translated to success as a high school coach.

The idea of coaching football began at Elon, Cody says. During his tenure as a member of the football team, he learned how to draw up plays and learn opposing teams’ game plans. “It wasn’t all that difficult for me,” he says. “I was on the scout team. [I was] learning the other team’s plays.” 

After graduating from Elon in 1980 with a degree in health and physical education, Cody remained in North Carolina after accepting a teaching job at Rocky Mount High School and later Johnson County Schools. But he still hoped to be head coach for a football team. Then, on a family vacation, his life changed forever. While reading a newspaper, he noticed an ad for a coaching position at Plymouth (N.C.) High School.

Feeling that he had nothing to lose, Cody applied for the position. When he was offered the job, he took it. In his first season, the team went 8-3. But after this initial success, the team went through a lull for a while. That changed in 1992 with the addition of the recreation department, which allowed players to develop before joining the varsity team and offered Cody more competitive players to choose from. He typically gives 22 players the chance to play every week, and no spots on the field are guaranteed, making every practice a battle for position.

While Plymouth has enjoyed success during the last decade, it took patience for Cody’s teams to win consistently. At first, Cody was on his own—the team didn’t have a band, and support from the school was lackluster at times. “You can’t turn something around in two or three years,” he says. “It takes you a decade.” 

The turnaround at Plymouth culminated in a state championship in 2006, and the team has consistently contended for the title since, winning state championships in 2007, 2012 and 2015. “He’s had a tremendous impact” in the region, says Wesley Stokes, director of transportation and athletics for Washington County Schools. “Football here in the 1970s was good, but then we went through a dry spell. After he got it going, we’ve been a contender.” More importantly, Cody is building confident young men. “He’s such a great teacher,” says Stokes. “He doesn’t do a lot of yelling. He goes and individually talks to players.”  

For many in Plymouth, the high school football team is a source of strength. Cody currently employs five of his former players as coaches. Many of the players he coached during his younger days now have sons who play for the team. “It’s a real family environment down here,” he says. 

Not much has changed for Cody since he started at Plymouth in 1985. He still gets up on the weekend and mows the grass on the football field. After 31 years, though, there isn’t much he’d change. “I don’t think anything is better than having a group of people that all have the same goal,” he says. “It’s what happens at state championships—there can’t be a personal milestone bigger than a team milestone.”