Wilbur Sasser, a man who inspired Havelock High School athletes on the football field and in the classroom for more than two decades, died on Saturday. He was 68.
Sasser coached Havelock football for 24 years from 1979 to 2003 after spending time as head coach at Hobbton High School. His overall career record was 226-100-2 and he is Havelock's all-time winningest football coach with a 207-76-2 record.
"He was just a great motivator and inspirer," said current Havelock High coach Caleb King, who played for Sasser from 1998 to 2001. "We all felt invincible playing for him and we were scared, not of him, but scared to disappoint him because we loved him."
King said much of Havelock's recent success, including three consecutive state titles from 2011 to 2013, is a credit to the foundation Sasser built.
"Coach created a culture of toughness that enabled us to have a swagger about us. It wasn't called that then but it is definitely what it was," King said. "I don't think he got enough credit for what he did defensively and how good his teams were on that side of the ball. He knew how to teach it and what kind of players he wanted and had to have."
Sasser never won a state title of his own, coming close in 1986 but losing in the title game to Shelby High School. He did have six teams go undefeated through the regular season, won 11 Coastal Conference championships and one 4A Big East conference title. The football field at the high school is named in his honor.
Even though he retired in 2003, he remained a big supporter of the program and continued to attend games on Friday nights. He also volunteered to coach Havelock Pop Warner football teams.
He was born in Goldsboro and played offensive line for the East Carolina University Pirates from 1967 to 1970. After graduating from East Carolina in 1971, he became an assistant coach on Havelock's state title team in 1971 that went undefeated. He later became head coach at Hobbton before returning to Havelock High as the head coach in 1979. Sasser was a 1998 Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas assistant coach and a 1988 East-West All-Star Game assistant.
Sasser also coached wrestling, including several state champions. He taught driver's education, and in retirement, served as a substitute teacher at Havelock High.
Not only did Sasser have the respect of his players, he also had the respect of opposing coaches. Former West Craven High head coach Clay Jordan and Sasser were competitors on Friday nights but friends every other day of the week.
"He was a true friend to me," Jordan said. "I'll think about times we had together the rest of my life. We'd talk on the phone every week except the week we played each other. We played golf together and we rode to the coaching clinic each year together."
Jordan said they motivated each other and made each other better.
"I mean we'd want to beat each other so bad the nights we were going against each other, there was nobody I'd rather beat and vice-versa," he said. "Because I knew if I lost to him, I had to hear about it for a whole year."
Jordan, who is known for his offensive schemes and prowess, echoed King's claims of Sasser's defensive knowledge.
"Wilbur would downplay his football knowledge and play dumb about it, but nobody should have ever let him fool them," he said. "He was smart enough to understand that back then, nobody really threw the ball much and so he would make you do it to beat him. His mindset was 'you're not going to run the ball against me.'"
New Bern head coach Bobby Curlings, growing up and playing his football in Bertie County, had an older brother that coached with Sasser and says Sasser was one of the names in N.C. high school football he knew before he met the man.
As Curlings got older and became the Bears' coach, going against Havelock each year, he got to know Sasser even better because Sasser rarely ever missed a game, even after his coaching days were through.
"Playing against (Sasser's) teams, there was no doubt you were going to get a tough, well-coached, structured and disciplined team," Curlings said. "He was a very fierce competitor but as fierce as he was, he was as nice of a guy."
His former players took to social media to mourn their coach.
"God bless. I still practice life long lessons coach Sasser taught me," posted Ron Lundy, who played for Sasser in the early 1980s.
Steven Daub, who also played for Sasser, posted "RIP my coach, we'll get those Shelby Lions in heaven one day!"
Jordan Honeycutt can be reached at 252-635-5670 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.