PERRY TWP. — The second act of Keith Wakefield’s coaching career at Perry High School could be considered a reclamation project.
If that’s the case, consider that project a major success.
The man who represents Perry football in so many ways is stepping down. After mulling retirement the last few years, the 71-year-old Wakefield told his coaching staff of his decision Thursday night and his players on Friday morning.
Wakefield has spent 50 years coaching football, including 37 as a head coach. Twenty-nine of those years came at Perry, where he built the Panthers into a rugged, consistent winner over two separate stints from 1982-2003 and then returning in 2013 after the Panthers had fallen on hard times.
It was a time of plenty again under Wakefield.
The Panthers went 0-10 in Wakefield’s first season back. Two years later, they went 12-3, losing in the first of two straight Division II state championship game appearances against Cincinnati La Salle. Wakefield’s final six seasons as head coach saw the Panthers go 12-3, 12-3, 9-2, 8-2, 9-3 and 9-1 while winning four Federal League titles (including a 5-0 run through the league this past fall).
“I just think it’s a good time to step away,” Wakefield said Saturday night. “I came here in ’13 to fix it, and people know we fixed it. But I didn’t really expect to stay eight years. Hell, I could stay four more, but I think it’s a good time for me to go.”
Already in the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Wakefield, who turns 72 in May, actually is not ruling out a return to coaching at some point. The thought of being an assistant again appeals to him, like he was for eight seasons at Mount Union with Larry Kehres.
But this decision likely closes the door at Perry, where he won 222 games and 15 league titles. He led the Panthers to three regional championships and the two state runner-up finishes.
The demanding, suffer-no-fools Wakefield, an Orrville native, was famous for squeezing every bit of potential out of his teams.
Running his trusty wing-T on offense and a typically bend-but-don’t-break style on defense, the Panthers were known to improve as the season progressed.
Wakefield didn’t talk about winning. He talked about attitude and effort. He was more worried about the “how,” a self-described “end-of-the-road guy.”
“We’ll know at the end of the season, we’ll know what we were,” Wakefield explained. “So at the end of a career at one place, what will we be remembered for? Toughness. Fighting it out. Never quitting. Won’t we? Yeah.”
After head coaching stops at Mansfield Madison and Austintown Fitch, Wakefield led Perry to 157 wins and 11 league titles during his first stint at Perry. He left to become the head coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary for two years, then joined Kehres’ staff at Mount Union.
It was there he also coached with one of his former Perry players, Matt Campbell, who has gone on to become one of college football’s rising stars in the coaching ranks at Iowa State. Campbell was a defensive end and tight end for Wakefield at Perry from 1995-97 before a one-year stop at Pitt and an All-American career at Mount Union.
“I think you have the mixed emotions of knowing something really special is leaving not only Perry but Stark County and the entire community,” Campbell said about Wakefield’s departure. “You’re talking about a guy that probably can coach football at any level at any place in the country. Whatever he is or he isn’t, he’s done it right. He’s inspired and impacted so many people to see him walk out of the community and the Stark County area I think is certainly bittersweet.
“Now I think the other part of it is you have such a profound sense of gratitude for him earning it. No one’s given more of his life and himself to the school district and community than he has.”
Leaving behind a healthy program is important to Wakefield, who plans to stay involved through at least the end of the school year to help with the transition.
“The program is on solid ground,” Wakefield said. “We have some good young players coming and we’ll have a good O-line and D-line next year. The cupboard’s not bare. I feel good about that.”
He makes no secret he believes the next coach should come from his current staff. He’s said numerous times in recent years he believes assistant head coach Zach Slates should be the choice. Slates was a standout offensive lineman for Perry from 2000-02, earning a spot in the Stark County High School Football Hall of Fame, and has coached at his alma mater since 2010.
“Ultimately, that’s still up to the school board and the superintendent,” Wakefield said. “I met with them Thursday night and I think they respect what I’ve done.”
Wakefield, whose wife, Maryann, passed away in 2016 from pneumonia, is building a house in the Cambridge area to be closer to his daughter, Darcy, and his two grandsons.
Whatever this next chapter of his life holds, he leaves behind quite a legacy in Perry Township.
“Will I miss it? Yeah,” Wakefield said. “My face has been on it for a long time. It is hard to leave. But I woke up this morning and told my daughter. She worries about me. She didn’t know if I was doing the right thing.
“I told her, ‘My heart felt good this morning.’ I feel like I’m doing the right thing.”
Reach Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @jweirREP