It was Jimmy Upchurch’s program — built from the ground up. And, after nearly two decades at the helm of the West Stokes football team, his tenure is over.
Travis Gammons, the athletics director at West Stokes, confirmed Saturday morning that Upchurch, who guided the Wildcats from a fledgling program to eventual state champions, will retire as a teacher and coach. The decision came earlier this week after a meeting to discuss safety protocols for limited football practices set to begin on July 6. That’s when the dead period for high school sports lifts for Stokes County Schools and several surrounding school districts. Upchurch led the Wildcats to 137 wins during his 17-season career, including an NCHSAA Class 2-AA title in 2011 and two regional appearances — most recently in 2019.
“It’s a decision that I did not take lightly. It’s one that kind of came unexpected to me,” Upchurch said in a video released by the high school via Twitter on Saturday afternoon. “It’s something that I didn’t see happening anytime really for, at least, the next three or four years.”
According to a report released by The Stokes News early Saturday morning, Upchurch and his wife, Crystal, entered a partnership last summer with longtime assistant Harrell Bowen and his wife, Jan, to open The Tilted Ladder — a restaurant and bar in Pilot Mountain. Upchurch bought out Bowen’s share of the company last fall. That meant a bigger time commitment, and it became harder to teach and coach with the added responsibility.
Gammons said the day after that initial meeting with Upchurch regarding COVID-19 guidelines, he received a call from Upchurch asking to talk again. Upchurch, who was a P.E. teacher, then notified both Gammons and principal Kevin Spainhour of his retirement.
Gammons was named the athletics director in 2018 and has served as the Wildcats’ assistant in charge of defensive backs and special teams. He will serve as interim head football coach because of the short time frame leading up to the start of limited workouts. He said West Stokes hopes to name a permanent hire before Aug. 1.
A retirement video was recorded for Upchurch’s players, because restrictions prevented a meeting. The video was emailed to players on Friday.
“Very unselfish and that’s the thing about him is, you know, he wants to be 100% in everything he does,” said Gammons. “He didn’t feel that he could do two things 100%, and he didn’t want to cheat our kids.
“You know, and some people maybe wouldn’t have felt that way and would’ve continued to try to do something. And, in reality, we’re cheating the football players and he didn’t want to do that.”
Upchurch graduated from East Surry in 1984 and was previously a defensive coordinator with the Cardinals under David Diamon. Upchurch was hired at West Stokes in 2003, taking over a program that had just four wins in as many seasons under the previous two coaches.
West Stokes went on to reach the playoffs in 16 consecutive seasons, and defeated Kinston in the Class 2-AA championship at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh back in December 2011. That team featured quarterback Austin Fleming, who went on to play tight end at Campbell from 2013 to 2016. Fleming held the West Stokes record for single-season passing yards with 1,988 yards before Tyler Smith, now a rising sophomore quarterback at Winston-Salem State, set a new milestone when West Stokes won a Western Piedmont Athletic 2-A championship in 2018 — the first of two straight conference titles.
Senior Amon Conrad broke that passing record last season, as Upchurch ended his career guiding fourth-seeded West Stokes to the Class 2-A West Region final against Reidsville in late December — its deepest playoff run since 2011. The Rams beat the Wildcats 63-13, moving on to claim their 21st state title.
“We averaged eight wins or something a-year throughout his career at West,” Gammons said. “And that’s a tribute to him. He’s built it into what it is now.”