05/01/08 — Pope pioneered Rosewood athletics

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Pope pioneered Rosewood athletics

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on May 1, 2008 3:06 PM

Steve Craft lost a great comrade.

Rosewood lost an ambassador to its community.

Friends, family, former students and athletes paid their final respects to Branch Pope at the Seymour Funeral Home Chapel on Wednesday afternoon. A vibrant, influential individual known for his tough, but caring demeanor, Pope passed away during the weekend.

He was 59.

For nearly a decade, Pope and Craft toiled to turn Rosewood High School into the highly respected Class 1-A program that it is today. The duo spread themselves thin coaching four varsity sports -- football, basketball, baseball and softball.

When the community began to grow, Pope knew the school had to grow with it. He worked to expand the facilities and add sports to make the rural community-oriented school competitive with larger athletic programs.

Rosewood became a force in the mid-1970s on the basketball court. As the athletic program grew, the Eagles challenged for conference, regional and state supremacy in other sports during the 1980s and 1990s.

"What we're living now is his vision for what athletics could become at our school," said Rosewood Principal David Lewis. "What we see in place here at Rosewood now is a direct result of Coach Pope's vision. He was in favor of adding sports and getting as many kids as possible involved in athletics.

"He wanted us to offer as many things as we could for the students."

As of today, student-athletes can compete on 24 different athletic teams.

Pope served as athletic director for 26 years. He earned coach-of-the-year honors on 11 occasions in six different sports. A native of Wilson County, Pope served as president of the N.C. Athletic Directors Association and received the N.C. State Award of Merit in 1996.

While those dusty trophies and faded plaques sitting in the gym lobby recognize Pope's achievements, his true legacy -- however -- is his relationship with the student-athletes and community.

Pope was known for his wit, the pride he showed around campus and how he assisted people in everyday life.

"When I think about Coach Pope and the things he did while he was at Rosewood, whether at the time you agreed with him or didn't agree with him, you could be rest assured he truly believed it was in the best interest of students at Rosewood High School," said former Eagles football coach Daniel Barrow.

Barrow remembered when he and his wife, Laurie, came to Rosewood after he accepted the head varsity football job. The couple hadn't found a home and Pope welcomed them, including their children Daniel Jr. and Abigail, into his house with open arms.

Pope treated Barrow's kids as his own, always offering sound advice and supporting them during their games.

"I really appreciate everything he did for me and my family," said Barrow. "When I took over AD duties behind Coach Pope, I wanted to continue to build on the things that he started. It was an awesome responsibility they gave me to continue his legacy."

Barrow recommended naming the football stadium after Pope. Then-Principal Wayne Williams carried the request to the board and helped push it through.

"That was a proud thing for me," said Barrow.

Pope never hesitated to fill in as a substitute teacher or serve as an assistant coach in some capacity. After his retirement, he continued to give back to a community which embraced him when he first arrived in 1970 from the tiny town of Lucama.

Pope stayed active behind the scenes, but never interfered. Just his presence was enough to assure someone that whatever task was in progress would be completed with integrity and class.

Four years ago, Pope organized the Rosewood High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Fittingly, he was member of the first class of inductees. But Pope quickly shucked the recognition, and said he felt it was necessary to honor student-athletes and community members who helped Rosewood grow.

"Branch just cared about the kids," said Craft. "You can't say anything more positive than that about a teacher, coach and athletic director. It's the number one compliment I can give anybody in that field.

"That's a tribute to him. All the kids that he worked with did a whole lot of good things and that will be his legacy."

Coaching will, too.

Pope, and good friend Dave Thomas, started the Rosewood-Charles B. Aycock football series which lasted for two-plus decades. Several of Pope's former assistant coaches went on to become head coaches, and most remain in the education field today.

"I was very fortunate to start out coaching with him and Steve Craft," said Jimmy Tillman, the winningest coach in SouthWest Edgecombe football history. "Rosewood is a really good place and it's a sad day to lose a buddy like Branch Pope. Rosewood was his first and only coaching job.

"He loved that community and loved that school. The rest of us left Rosewood, but Branch stayed right there until the very end."

(Editor's note: In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Branch Pope Scholarship Fund for Rosewood High School, in care of Charlie Satterfield, 105 Hill Court, Goldsboro, N.C. 27530.)