LITTLEFIELD – After five decades in coaching, many of them at Ayden-Grifton High School, the man affectionately known as “Chief” decided to call it a career.
Johnny Davis retired earlier this year after 50 years on the sideline.
“You always hear, 'If you find something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,’” Davis, 72, said. “That’s what I did, and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Davis, a Kinston native, attended Adkin High School, and later Frink High School in LaGrange in the mid-1960s. He played basketball; there was no football team then.
After graduating high school, Davis attended Fayetteville State University where he ran track, was a manager for the football and basketball teams, and graduated in 1968 with a degree in Health and Physical Education.
He had a long and varied coaching career in eastern North Carolina. But originally, Davis thought he would be a coach for only a short time.
“To tell you the truth, I was originally going to do it until my teaching certificate expired after five years,” he said. “But then something clicked. I loved it and stayed with it.”
Davis always knew he wanted to be a coach because he “grew up playing sports and had a good experience playing for my coaches in high school.
He spent two years at South Ayden High School (1968-70) and a year at Ayden High School (1970-71) before moving on to Ayden-Grifton High Schoo later in 1971.
“Back then, if you got a teaching job and were a male, they kind of wanted you to coach,” Davis said.
He coached basketball and football and then coached basketball and assisted with football at Ayden High.
Mergers followed – South Ayden with Ayden, then Ayden with Grifton High School.
“I couldn’t really see a difference because I grew up with blacks and whites who played together in Kinston,” he said. “When I came here, I never saw color.
“Even in the early years, if there were things going on outside of school, the kids weren’t the problem,” he continued. “The hard part was selling the adults in these communities that we were one school with one athletics program. But truthfully, sports helped us because once folks saw we were having success, everyone came together as a school and as a community. Basically everybody got along.”
Davis moved to Farifax County, Va., in the 1970s to begin a 13-year period away from Pitt County. He returned to the county with stints at Ayden Middle (1988-93) and E.B. Aycock (1993-96) before going back to Ayden-Grifton High School in 1996.
His teams at Ayden Middle posted a total 37-0 record.
In 2004, Davis retired from teaching, but kept on coaching.
He has won more than 500 games across the numerous sports he’s coached. He has been a head coach in football, boys' and girls' basketball at both the middle and high school levels in addition to numerous tenures as an assistant coach in football and basketball.
Davis got his nickname “Chief” while at Ayden Middle School.
“The team’s mascot was the Warriors, and I was the head coach, so they called me ‘Chief,” he said, laughing.
Davis served as an assistant basketball coach at A-G from 2000-07 under head coach Bob Murphrey, for whom the school’s gymnasium is named, and was an assistant under coach John-Kyle Moye since 2010. The Chargers donned “Johnny Davis Court” in 2018 to complement Murphrey.
Murphrey and Davis have known each other for more than 50 years.
“He’s been one of my closest friends and colleagues,” Murphrey, a North Carolina High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame member, told The Daily Reflector in an earlier interview. "He’s been an unsung hero for this school for many years. People don’t realize all the things he’s done and what an influence he’s had. The guy has integrity and I have such trust in him and respect for him. He’s worked closely with me all these years, and he’s been a tremendous force for the school and the community.”
Davis also developed a longtime friendship with Kinston coaching legend Paul Jones, who coached at Greene Central for a year and was Murphrey’s assistant (along with Davis) at A-G after leaving Kinston.
"Several years ago, we were talking and he’d always say he wanted to make it to 50 years and he made it to 48 (Jones died in April 2009 at the age of 76),” Davis said. “I said when I got to 40 years I decided I would try and make it to 50, because that is what Coach Jones would want."
“The biggest thing is, when I started coaching in the 60s, when practice was over you carried most of them home. Sometimes you had to go pick them up because the kids didn’t have cars then."
The best advice Davis ever received?
“Coach Murphrey would always say, ‘I’m going to do the very best job I can possibly do, and if that isn’t good enough, they can get somebody else,’” Davis said. “That stuck with me."
Davis still teaches driver’s education (it started July 1), and he and his wife of 50 years, Doris, plan on visiting their children and grandchildren often and traveling to places they’ve wanted to see.
Looking back on his career, Davis said, “The best thing about my job was all I had to do was come to practice and coach. If a parent asked me something, I would point to (the head coach) and say they needed to talk to him.
“I couldn’t have stayed as a head coach for this long because I am stubborn and tell it like it is,” he added. “Kids know I am not going to lie – I won’t tell them what they need to hear, but what they need to know."