When the Western Carolina men's golf team closed its fall schedule Nov. 8-9 -- hosting the annual WCU/Sapphire Valley Invitational in Cashiers, N.C. -- it will also marked the end of a distinguished era in Catamount history as head coach Johnny Wike has announced his retirement, effective this December.
"Coach Wike has given many years of service to Catamount Athletics," said WCU Director of Athletics Chip Smith. "We are grateful for his dedication to Western Carolina University and wish him and his wife Carolyn only the best."
A search for Wike's successor will begin immediately.
"I have been truly blessed," Wike said. "The people I have had an opportunity to come in contact with and the lives I have been a part of has been great. The whole key is that I feel like I have never had a job. I got a check once a month, but never had to `go to work,' even though I worked seven days a week from dusk until dawn a lot. This has been my life."
Wike, Western Carolina's first paid assistant coach, started with the football program in 1964 under the direction of Dan Robinson. One year after helping Elon to a conference championship, Wike ended his four-year run as assistant coach with that program to come to Cullowhee. His first season at Western, the Cats improved from a 2-6-1 record in 1963 to a 5-4 scoresheet in `64. Western built on that success the following year to post a 7-2 record and rank among the nation's top defenses.
Wike said of his new position at Western, "We only had one way to go and that was up."
Wike stayed on with the football program in 1969 when Bob Waters was brought in as head coach. Those two and Don Denning helped build the foundation for Western's finest days, going 9-1 in their first season.
"It was an exciting time when Coach Waters came. He brought a new demeanor in his coaching style and players really bought in to what he was selling. My time from 1969 until Coach Waters' struggle with ALS was a pleasant journey. Not just the success and working with Coach Waters, but the whole process."
During his first 10 years as an assistant at Western, Wike recruited four All-Americans (Don Dalton, Steve Williams, Mark Ferguson and Jerry Gaines) as well as Wayne Tolleson, who went on to be the Southern Conference Athlete of the Year as a dual sport star in football and baseball. Also, Wike helped bring Keith Elliott to Western as the first African-American to play football at a predominately white school in the South. Elliott, who had a solid career, in turn was a mentor to Williams, who ended up playing in the NFL for the Baltimore Colts. In addition to Williams, Wike recruited and coached Donald Turner, who went on to play in the NFL as well. Wike also mentioned his first recruit was an undersized Paul Smith, who proved everybody wrong by starting four years at "Catback" and starting Western's tradition of excellent wide receivers.
When Waters arrived at Western (1969), he decided the athletics department needed to reinstate its dormant golf program.
"Don (Denning) did not play golf, so I was asked to be the coach," Wike said. "It was just a student team; no scholarships. We did not have as much success as the football program and we had few real players. Now, I feel we have the best players we have ever had. This bunch will make a significant impact in the Southern Conference."
Wike held his dual role as assistant football coach and head golf coach from 1971-73, when he left Cullowhee to become head football coach at Carson-Newman in February of 1974. After his stint at Carson-Newman (1974-77), Wike returned to the area to become head coach at Cullowhee High School for six seasons.
In February of 1984, Wike returned to the football staff as defensive coordinator, reprising his role as Coach Waters' chief recruiter. In that role, he continued attract some of the top talent to ever wear the Purple and Gold, including his fifth and sixth All-Americans in Todd Harkins and Kerry Hayes, as well as Willie Williams, Tony Jones and David Patten -- each of whom went on to play in Super Bowls. Also in his second tenure with the football team, he brought in 17 All-SoCon selections, including Willie Carpenter, Fred Davis, John Martin, Toussaint Kennedy, Otis Washington, Eric Lautzenheiser, Harkins, W. Williams, Hayes, Tom Bodine (WCU's all-time tackles leader), Kevin Thigpen, Andrew Jordan, Jim Tulley, Derek Summerour, Patten and Brett Chappell.
"It was awesome to be a part of the Western Carolina football program during its highest times," Wike said. "You get into coaching to compete and to succeed. We were able to do that."
Wike, who retired from the WCU football staff in 1995 after 21 seasons as an assistant coach, also reprised his role as head golf coach in 1991. In 1995, Wike was asked to take on an additional responsibility by starting the women's golf program. (He relinquished the duties as head women's golf coach in 1998.)
Under Wike's direction, the men's golf team has shown steady improvement of late. In the Spring of 2002, the Catamounts fired a three-day total of 872 in the Southern Conference Championships, which was its best score ever in the event. The previous year, the team carded a total of 893 in the SoCon Tournament, which was its second-best score. Over the past three seasons, Western has shattered every team and individual school record, won two tournaments as a team and had two individuals win tournaments.
The current squad, which has no seniors, features five of the school's all-time career leaders in scoring average. Tripp Morrow, just a sophomore, owns a 74.97 career scoring average to rank as the school's all-time leader, while Chase Kress ranks fifth, Blake Wray is eighth, Keith Tyburski is 15th and Matt Flueckiger is 22nd.
"We currently have 12 people who are very talented," Wike said. "I do not know which five of the 12 will do it (make that impact in the SoCon), but as someone once said the `cream always rises to the top.' Not only do I not know who it will be, but I do not know when. However, I do believe it will happen."
As he did with the football program, Wike has been associated with some of the best golfers in WCU history. In fact, nine of the school's top 10 all-time scorers play for or have played for Wike.
He is a native of Mt. Holly, N.C., and a graduate of Wingate (Junior) College and East Carolina University where he received his undergraduate (1960) and graduate degrees (1963). He was a National Junior College Football All-America selection as a lineman at Wingate in 1957 and was a two-way starter on East Carolina's offensive and defensive lines in 1958 and 1959. He also lettered in golf at both schools and is a member of Wingate College's Sports Hall of Fame. At Wingate, Wike was a two-year starter, helped Wingate reach the Pine Bowl (1957) and two-time co-captain (1956-57), as well as being named all-conference (1957) and all-region (1957).
Wike is an accomplished golfer, finishing second at the Western North Carolina Seniors Golf Tournament in 1992 and posting low net score honors in the event. He also served his country from 1954-56 as a member of the United States Marine Corps.
Wike, born August 12, 1934, is married to the former Carolyn Alligood. They have two sons -- Eric, a WCU graduate who is an assistant principal at Seneca (S.C.) High School, and Matt, who is also a WCU alumus, is now a sergeant with the North Carolina Highway Patrol -- plus four grandchildren -- Tanner, Hayden, Kendall and Lawson.
What others have to say about Johnny Wike:
Steve White, WCU Historian and Former WCU Sports Information Director
"Coach Wike has to be one of the greatest personalities in the history of Western athletics. He is also one of the most versatile assets. He has been a great recruiter, outstanding coach and a tremendous salesman for our program."
Kent Briggs, WCU Head Football Coach
"Coach Wike is the best evaluator of talent that I have been associated with in my 25 years in coaching. He loves to work with young people and he recruited some of the greatest Catamounts. He has always loved Western Carolina and he truly bleeds purple through and through."
Todd Raleigh, WCU Head Baseball Coach
"Coach Wike is a person who helped me a lot when I first got here and started coaching. I have a lot of respect for him both for the person he is and what he has been able to do. He is a cut and dry, old-school type of person, which I like, and he brings a lot to the table with his experience. No one is a bigger fan of Coach Wike than me. I love him and few people have done as much for this University than him."
Danny Williamson, WCU Head Cross Country/Track & Field Coach
"Coach Wike is a part of Western Carolina. When you talk about Western Carolina, Coach Wike's name always comes up. Also, when you are away from campus, people will always want to know, `How is Coach Wike?" I had the opportunity to watch him when I first got here. When I realized I wanted to go into coaching, he took me aside and helped me understand what it takes to be successful. He is one of the biggest reasons I am where I am at today."
Fred Cantler, WCU Senior Associate AD/Internal Affairs
"Coach Wike has been a mainstay in the program, which is what you need in building a program for success. He has shown a tremendous ability to adjust to new staffs. He will be missed."
Eleanor Lieberman, Longtime WCU Athletics Department Secretary
"When I think of Johnny Wike, the term `dear friend' comes to mind. I have known him for many years and have always treasured our friendship. He has the best sense of humor of anyone I know, being very dry in his wit without him realizing it. A valuable part of our coaching (football and golf) staff for many years, I, and everyone here in WCU Athletics, will certainly miss him."