The first time I met Gary Fleet I remember a strong handshake. Not the kind someone gives you when they are just going through the motions, but the kind where a man makes eye contact and acknowledges you.
A first impression of Fleet is a soft spoken, courteous and big teddy bear of a man.
Then football practice starts. Dr. Jekyll leaves the room and Mr. Hyde appears.
Fleet commands his offensive linemen at Robert E. Lee with a loud, continuously booming voice. He pushes them, drives them and sometimes provides a verbal blast or two.
His coaching style may be unsettling to some, but it has produced results.
During his time as offensive line coach, the former John Tyler all-state linebacker has produced nearly 25 Division I offensive linemen. Two of his former players, Brandon Pettigrew (Detroit Lions) and Jake Kirkpatrick (Indianapolis Colts), are taking part in NFL minicamps.
He’s helped Lee teams capture a state championship (2004) and be a perennial playoff team nearly all of the time he’s coached there.
But after 29 years, Fleet took his position on Lee’s sideline one final time Thursday night as a Red team coach at the annual Red-White spring game. It was a last chance to drive, push and inspire his offensive linemen under his care one final time.
Fleet has decided to retire and is looking forward to now watching his players perform from the stands instead of the sideline.
“God blessed me with some great players and blessed with me just to know how far I could push them, but at the same time they knew that I loved them, and when it was over in four years they understood that what I was trying to do was make them into upstanding young men and citizens and not just football players,” Fleet said.
“I was really lucky to always have young men that would do anything for me and for the team. I am so proud of each and every one of them.”
Also, don’t think for a minute his players hold a grudge.
It’s in fact quite the opposite which I witness every year at the Lee football banquet. When Fleet speaks about each of his graduating senior linemen, you can see a glint in his eye when talking about them. After each one receives their certificate, a bear hug follows with both coach and player fighting back tears.
His players love him.
The end-of-season highlight film is always loaded with players imitating and talking about “Coach Fleet.”
Fleet is the exception, not the rule in the coaching profession which has turned into a game of musical chairs. Rarely does a head coach stay in one place for long and it’s almost nonexistent for an assistant to remain at the same school — especially if the head coach changes.
Fleet began his coaching career at John Tyler 29 years ago as running backs coach, and after what he deemed, “a couple of good seasons and a couple of lean years, I was basically fired. I was lucky enough to get hired by Biff Peterson at Lee and stay in Tyler.”
He’s never left Lee despite three head coaching changes in 24 years. First Mike Owens in 1996, Randy Huffstickler in 2011 and most recently, Darrell Piske in 2012; all of them wanted Fleet to remain on their staff. Fleet worked with the offensive line through spring drills, but officially ended his coaching responsibilities on Thursday. Brandon Denson of Moody High school will replace Fleet as offensive line coach.
Fleet no longer wants to bring out Mr. Hyde.
“I’ve had a lot of reaction from guys that have seen me coach for the first time; they understand why I am tired and I don’t want to be that person anymore,” Fleet said. “That person, sometimes you have to force yourself to be that person on the field to get what you want out of your players and that’s hard to do for 29 years.
“Some days it’s an act because the kids expect you to be that. Whether they like it or not, they rely on that (persona) and that structure. Many times they tell you they don’t like it, but in the end, they really liked someone pushing them to the limit.”
Fleet said he loves all of his players, but a few who did not sign the big Division I scholarship stand out.
“Brett Hone started two years at center for me and played his senior year with both wrists broken; played the entire year (like that) and had surgery at the end of the year; Melvin Williams stepped in at center after our starter Jordan Owens hurt his knee and he’s 5-10, 215 pounds and we win 10 games that season and go deep into the playoffs,” Fleet continued. “Three or four years ago it was Brandt Martin, who was 5-9 and 185 pounds who played defensive end and we needed a guard and he stepped in there and made first-team All-East Texas.
“And on the state championship team, everyone talks about Ciron Black (LSU) and rightly so, but right next to him was Sam Banks, who was 5-9, 220 and played 50 snaps on offense in the state championship game and 20 snaps on defense.”
So, what is Fleet going to do now?
He turns 50 this summer and plans on focusing his time on a side business he’s done for years.
“I buy and sell antiques at First Monday in Canton and I’ve been doing that since I was 22 years old. I don’t hunt or fish, I do that; I hunt junk and re-sell it and it’s kind of a game and kind of fun and I make a little money doing that and look forward to keep doing it,” Fleet said.
His longevity and success has always seemed to spark interest and rumors as far as Fleet one day being a head coach.
But Fleet remains steadfast that Thursday was his last game coaching football.
“I don’t see any chance that I will ever come back to coaching. Football will always be a part of my life as far as watching it and enjoying it, but I don’t see me ever coming back. I don’t have aspirations of being a head coach, so I think this is a new chapter to my life,” Fleet said.
“It’s been a great, great run and I have been very blessed.”