'This town is forever grateful': Late J-M football coach Phil Senter changed lives on the field and beyond

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 8/26/20

SILER CITY — He roamed those sidelines for 19 seasons, a 6-foot-4 gentle giant whose steady hand and penchant for the counter right run play made his name synonymous with successful Jordan-Matthews …

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'This town is forever grateful': Late J-M football coach Phil Senter changed lives on the field and beyond

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SILER CITY — He roamed those sidelines for 19 seasons, a 6-foot-4 gentle giant whose steady hand and penchant for the counter right run play made his name synonymous with successful Jordan-Matthews football, enough so that the Jets’ administration named the facility after him in 2003.

So where else would three generations of family, friends and former students salute the late Phil E. Senter one last time than on the 50-yard line of Phil E. Senter Stadium?

“It was the only place fitting enough for my daddy’s homecoming,” his daughter, Wendy Copelan, said.

And a homecoming he got, as around 50 people from Siler City and beyond filled the bleachers last Friday morning to pay their respects to Senter, the longtime J-M head coach who died Aug. 18 at age 76 after a fall.

August was her father’s “prime time,” Copelan said, and it wasn’t lost on her that in any other year, the high school football season would have kicked off that Friday night, and Senter would have been there, in the Jets’ stadium, either pacing the grass as a coach or cheering from the bleachers as a loyal fan.

“This year, God had a different plan,” said Eddie Mason, a former linebacker for Senter in the 1980s, who’d driven five hours from Sterling, Virginia, that morning to help lead the 11 a.m. funeral.

Mason made his way to the raised stage at midfield and glanced at the notes he’d prepared as Donald Southern, Senter’s pastor at First Wesleyan Church in Siler City, opened the service.

“We wished this day would never happen,” Southern said, “but this is also a time we want to cherish and savor and honor. How many of you are thankful to have had Phil Senter in your life?”

Everyone raised their hands, and Southern smiled.

“That’s right,” he said. “This is a celebration of his life. Amen?”

“Amen.”

‘You were always ready’

Phil Ellis Senter was born Oct. 24, 1943, in Harnett County. The son of Alton and Maudie Holland Senter, he graduated from Sanford Central High School and Western Carolina University.

Senter was an accomplished athlete — he was on Sanford Central’s 1962 state championship basketball team — but never played football himself. Marty Scotten, a tight end for Senter at Jordan-Matthews, said that ultimately made him a better coach.

Football to Senter was cerebral, something he could study and ponder and educate his players on — a fitting mindset, given he also spent 46 years as teacher at J-M and later Chatham Charter School.

“We spent a lot of time preparing for the other team, going over what they were going to do,” Scotten said. “And when they did, you were ready.”

Senter was steady. His kept his weekly practice schedule for the Jets consistent, and he was a man of habit. In his social studies classes, the day before every test, Senter held an extensive review session. Although he didn’t explicitly reveal any questions or answers, he always touched on every key concept his students needed to study.

“You figured out eventually: ‘Hey, I better listen now!’” Scotten said, laughing. “And the next day? No surprises. There it was. You were always ready, whether it was a test or a game.”

John Phillips, a 10-year assistant football coach for Senter who also coached Jets basketball for 20 years, said they ate lunch together hundreds of times on school days since their schedules lined up.

And every day, without fail, Senter would duck into Phillips’ classroom to fetch him for meals with the exact same three words in his deep, booming voice: “Let’s chow down.”

“We might exchange a few words,” Phillips said, “but he always got right down to it: ‘Let’s chow down.’”

“If Phil hadn’t been such a good man, I probably would have moved on,” Phillips added of his time at Jordan-Matthews. “But I never even interviewed for somewhere else. There was no reason to leave.”

At Jordan-Matthews, Senter stayed busy. He coached year-round, adding winter women’s basketball and spring track and field duties to his fall obligations. Copelan, his daughter and a 1986 J-M graduate, treasured her time on the court with her dad.

On Aug. 18, the day he died, she posted a photo of them back then: him kneeling in a polo and khakis, with a whistle around his neck and a head of wavy brown hair; her standing in her white uniform with the blue and gold sleeves, her right hand on her dad’s shoulder and a grin on her face.

He was everything to her, Copelan said. Her father. Her hero.

“And my coach,” she said last Friday, wiping away a tear.

‘The best decision he made’

Beloved in all of his roles for Jets, it was the football field where Senter truly took off.

He started as a defensive coordinator and got the head coaching job in 1977, when he was 34 years old. Over the next 19 seasons, he took the team to new heights: two NCHSAA semifinals in 1988 and 1995, four undefeated regular seasons (1979, 1985, 1986, 1991) and 14 consecutive playoff appearances.

He coached Division 1 talents like Robert Siler, a star running back who played basketball at Wake Forest; Terrence Newby, a shifty quarterback who played hoops at UNC; and Mason, a linebacker who played football at UNC and spent five years in the NFL.

As for Senter’s coaching tree? Extensive, to say the least.

He coached former J-M men’s basketball coach P.J. Lowman, current J-M men’s basketball coach Rodney Wiley, Chapel Hill High football coach Isaac Marsh and Dallas Cowboys senior defensive assistant George Edwards, among others. Scotten, his one-time defensive coordinator, succeeded Senter as head coach in 1996 and held the post for 23 years.

“And when I think of Jordan-Matthews football,” Scotten said, “I still think of him.”

On the field, Senter coached a hard-nosed style. His offenses operated from under center, and once he found a play that worked — like the counter right run he adapted from Joe Gibbs’ bruising Washington teams — he ran it until an opponent stopped it. Plenty of his 2A foes never did.

Just as much, though, his former players remembered the man he was outside of Friday nights. Scotten always admired how Senter took losses — “The sun will rise tomorrow,” he’d say — and found time for his family. Senter and his wife, Wilda, were married for 53 years, and he had three children.

When he retired from coaching after the 1995 season, at age 52, family was on his mind. Senter’s first granddaughter, Allison, had been born, and he wanted to be present for her and future grandkids.

“Looking back, it was probably the best decision he made,” Scotten said.

And even though he retired, Senter didn’t totally relinquish his duties. As current Apex Friendship basketball coach Lowman put it: “He stayed our coach 25 years after he was gone.” Late in his life, Senter became incredibly active on Facebook, even preferring its messaging system to texting.

He loved keeping up with former players on the platform, too. On Monday, Aug. 17, the day before Senter’s death, Lowman posted a photo of his empty Apex Friendship classroom. It was the first day of school, but he was teaching his students remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Time to make the best of virtual instruction,” Lowman wrote.

“Things look different,” Senter commented. “I know things are tough right now. Glad that I am not still teaching. Good luck.”

‘Coach Senter changed my life’

That night, Senter fell while pulling a recycling bin in from his driveway and broke his neck. Copelan said he had been “a little unsteady” from neuropathy, a side effect of the chemotherapy he’d been getting to combat lymphoma. Senter had virtually beaten the cancer, she said.

Neurosurgeons arrived to treat Senter and transferred him to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, but his injuries were too severe. Copelan announced Senter’s death on Facebook at 4 a.m. on Aug. 18.

“My daddy and my hero left us peacefully this morning,” she wrote.

Three days later, at 11 a.m., she and her family gathered for a final goodbye.

They sat on 50-yard line of Jordan-Matthews’ football field last Friday, flanked by bouquets and bundles of blue, white and yellow roses and balloons— the Jets’ colors. Although the forecast had called for rain, the sky was clear. A family friend livestreamed the service, and down the field to his right, the Jets’ scoreboard displayed the time 1:46 — a nod to Senter’s 146-65-2 record with Jordan-Matthews.

“This town is forever grateful to him,” Southern, the pastor, said at the podium. “For his 46 years of impacting three generations of kids, we are the benefactors.”

It was Mason’s turn to speak now, and he warned the crowd from the start it wasn’t going to be easy. He stopped to compose himself multiple times as he praised Senter, the man who convinced a freshman Mason, riding his bike in the school parking lot just around the corner in 1986, to come out for the football team.

Senter drove Mason and other teammates home from practice in his old green truck when they needed a ride, and he often picked them up food for dinner, too. His words of encouragement were nonstop. Their only disagreement was more of a running joke: Mason attended UNC, and Senter loved Duke.

“We didn’t have a dime growing up, but I felt like I had everything because of him,” Mason said. “You could dream big. You felt like anything was possible.”

Senter was a like second father, Mason said, and at other times in his speech he dropped the qualifier and simply called the coach “my dad.” They never lost touch, and they’d spoken earlier this month on the phone after Senter read a story about Mason in the News + Record.

He insisted that Mason have a physical copy — a website link wouldn’t be the same — so Senter cut out the article and mailed it to Mason’s gym in northern Virginia. Mason said the letter, postmarked Aug. 10 and addressed in Senter’s usual longhand cursive, is still on his desk. It’ll stay there for a long time.

“Coach Senter changed my life,” he said. “And he had to run one more play.”

He paused, eyes misty below his glasses. He looked toward the parking lot where it all started, the practice field where he’d learned the game and the locker room — they call it the Jets’ Hangar — where Senter had riled him up with dozens of pregame speeches and led him out to the field, ready for battle.

“He used to run the counter right play until you stopped it,” Mason continued. “He had one more counter right he had to run, and that was up to the heights of heaven.”

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.

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