Hargis: First-year Baylor coach Erik Kimrey brings ‘big magic’ back to program

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Baylor football coach Erik Kimrey talks into his headset as he walks the sideline at Finley Stadium during Thursday night's TSSAA Division II-AAA BlueCross Bowl against Montgomery Bell Academy. After less than a full year on the job, Kimrey has led the program to its first state title since 1973.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Baylor football coach Erik Kimrey talks into his headset as he walks the sideline at Finley Stadium during Thursday night's TSSAA Division II-AAA BlueCross Bowl against Montgomery Bell Academy. After less than a full year on the job, Kimrey has led the program to its first state title since 1973.

It was just three games into the football season, and the first of what would be three straight mercy rule wins for Baylor, when the sense of déjà vu came over Chris Angel and Erik Kimrey.

With only seconds remaining in Baylor's 39-point blowout of Knoxville Catholic on that early September evening, Kimrey, the Red Raiders' first-year coach, approached his longtime friend Angel on the sideline, slapped him on the shoulder and asked, "Does this feel familiar?"

Angel, who had been the headmaster at South Carolina's Hammond School during Kimrey's 17 wildly successful seasons before returning home to take the same role as head of school at his alma mater, paused and nodded.

"When we were at Hammond together, we won a lot of those type games where we were so far ahead that we had a running clock," Angel recalled. "The students even had a specific cheer about it. So as our Baylor students were getting really loud, celebrating late in the game, Erik and I had a moment where we sort of just knew we had experienced that before.

(READ MORE: Final scores and photos from Thursday's BlueCross Bowl state championship games in Chattanooga)

"I knew when we hired Erik that it wouldn't take long to begin seeing his influence on the program, but that night I sort of realized we were getting to that point faster than expected."

You don't hire a coach away from a Southeastern Conference program's staff — a man with a resumé highlighted by a 91% winning percentage as a high school coach, with 12 state championships (including six straight) in 17 seasons — and not expect him to begin adding TSSAA gold-ball hardware to your school's trophy case.

But not even Angel, who knew better than anyone Kimrey's ability to bring together a group of players and coaching staff, could have envisioned the process happening so quickly.

Baylor's 38-34 win over previously unbeaten Montgomery Bell Academy in the TSSAA Division II-AAA BlueCross Bowl on Thursday night at frigid Finley Stadium gave the program its first state title in 49 years and validated the offseason decision to make a coaching change.

"When I decided we needed a different culture in our football program, I knew if we could get Erik, he could come in and make an immediate impact," Angel said. "I don't know that anyone had the expectation that we would be in the state championship in his first year, but I knew it was a possibility."

During his introductory meeting with the Red Raiders in February, Kimrey immediately began working on the players' belief in themselves and the culture he would build, informing them that Baylor would be playing for championships and that he adamantly believed they could do it this year.

"He knows how to make kids believe great things are about to happen," Angel said. "I've seen it many times before with him. He has this mantra to believe something great is going to happen.

"We've had four of the most exciting games I've ever seen this season with McCallie, the first MBA game, Brentwood Academy in the semifinals, and then the championship, and there were a number of times where our players could've quit, but instead I would hear them on the sideline saying to each other 'Believe something great is going to happen.'

"That came straight from Erik. He is a connector of people who thrives in chaotic situations, which is what football coaching is."

The son of a high school football coach in the Palmetto State, Kimrey played quarterback for his father at Columbia's Dutch Fork, where he set five South Carolina high school passing records as a senior and was the state's offensive player of the year. His college career at the University of South Carolina was highlighted by the Gamecocks' dramatic upset of Mississippi State in the 2000 season, when he came off the bench to replace an injured Phil Petty and completed a fourth-down fade pass to Jermale Kelly for the winning touchdown in Columbia.

After taking over the Hammond program as a 23-year old whose only previous coaching experience was as a graduate assistant with the Gamecocks, Kimrey needed just three years to win his first state title and went on to become the youngest coach to reach 100 victories in South Carolina prep football history.

When Shane Beamer took over the Gameocks prior to the 2021 season, he hired Kimrey as tight ends coach.

"The success that he had at Hammond is unprecedented," Beamer said recently. "He just did a fantastic job. Even when I was here as an assistant, the way people talked about Erik as a coach — and that was early in his time at Hammond — was really, really positive.

"To me, coaching is coaching whether it's the high school level, college level or pro. There are differences in all of them, but at the end of the day it's still coaching. Everyone in Columbia is certainly cheering and pulling hard for him. We're big fans of his and big fans of what he's doing in Chattanooga."

It took Kimrey a month before deciding to leave Columbia, the only home he had known, to accept Baylor's offer. The Red Raiders opened 6-0 for the first time in 11 seasons, including rallying for a dramatic four-point win over McCallie to snap a frustrating six-year losing skid to their rival, a stretch in which the Blue Tornado had also won the DII-AAA title the past three seasons.

And then came the chilled icing Thursday night when Baylor again thrived in chaos, rallying from a 14-point first-half deficit, then scoring on back-to-back possessions to take its first lead late in the third quarter and extend it midway through the fourth before salting away its first football title in nearly a half-century with one final gutsy drive called by Kimrey.

"This fresh start, seeing a bunch of coaches and young men buy into your philosophical vision, has been incredibly rewarding," Kimrey said. "To do this in year one is something that will always be special to me.

"I define love as the commitment to the steadfast well-being of another. If you do that day in and day out, your kids will start to believe in what you're teaching. Once you do that, they'll believe in themselves and that they can overcome obstacles to win. That's when you see the big magic happen. We've experienced a little bit of that this year, and I believe it's something our program will see more of as we grow. I can't wait to be a part of more of it for a long time moving forward."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.