Maybe it was because we were both from Pennsylvania. I don't know for sure.
But I always got along with Gary Whitman.
Not many sports writers could say that. During his first tenure as Lexington's football coach — the one from 1981-88 in which he won consecutive state champions (1985 and 1986), an era that still rings loudly in the Yellow Jacket timeline — Whitman had something of a reputation as a dead-aim straight shooter who could aggravate sports writers at will. Curt. To the point. Suffered no fools.
I was a sports writer for The Dispatch then, primarily covering the teams in Davidson County, so I had little contact with the city schools.
That is, until I became sports editor in the 1990s. Until Whitman came back to Lexington in 2004. Then I had to deal with him directly.
I was a little apprehensive of him at first, not only because of his reputation as a no-nonsense guy, but also with how he dealt with the media.
Turned out, I had nothing to worry about. We got along just fine. Every Wednesday during football season, I'd go to his office in the field house to get an advance story on the upcoming Friday night opponent. But before we'd get into any particulars, we'd simply shoot the breeze. Sometimes he'd offer me a Coke or Pepsi, and we'd talk about Pennsylvania. The Phillies. The Pirates. The Steelers. The Eagles. Tastykakes.
He was from Lock Haven, in the sparsely populated central part of the state above Harrisburg. I was from Allentown, smack dab in the corridor between New York and Philadelphia. There was six years difference in our ages. All of which means nothing.
So the Gary Whitman I knew, the one I had to work with, was cordial. Mellow. I even wrote a column in 2003 about that seeming personality change that nobody quite could put a finger on. Looking back, I'm thinking by then he'd already accomplished things he didn't need to prove anymore. He collected a third state championship with nearby High Point Central. On top of that, as Lexington's tennis coach through the years, he won state titles in 1986, 1987 and 1991. Plus, he was a little older. Age is almost always a mellowing factor.
What more was there?
I enjoyed my time with him. I never played organized football, so he occasionally explained to me some of the nuances of the game. Once in a while he'd show me game film, to show me some technique, to see what went wrong, or what went right. Those were eye-openers for me. I still try to look for those things when I watch games on TV.
He was 80-22 in his first tenure at Lexington, and 26-34 his second time around. He ended up with an overall record of 292-141-1 in a 44-year career with seven different schools.
When I heard the other day that he had died, at the age of 72, I was saddened. He was a helluva coach. He was a contemporary. And he was a friend.