Matthews, Branch saluted as Tillman Coaches of the Year - Restoration NewsMedia (2024)

Matthews, Branch saluted as Tillman Coaches of the Year - Restoration NewsMedia (1)

Being recognized among their peers is an honor for Lee Matthews and Reggie Branch, but having that recognition come through someone both men respected and admired makes it all the more special.

On a day when the late Wilson County Schools athletic director and former coach and principal Jimmy Tillman was remembered, Matthews and Branch took home some memorable hardware as the recipients of the Jimmy Tillman Coach of the Year awards for high school and middle school, respectively, Thursday at the WCS coaches luncheon. The event, which Tillman initiated several years ago as a way to celebrate and thank Wilson County Schools coaches at the end of each school year, was renamed the Jimmy Tillman Memorial Coaches Appreciation Day last year when the awards were inaugurated.

The award resonated with an astonished and emotional Matthews, coming off the best year of his 26-year coaching career at Fike.

“I was absolutely floored,” Matthews said. “I’m overwhelmed because he hired me. Way back when. When I didn’t have any experience teaching and I didn’t have any experience coaching except for a basketball team one season at church. To win this award that’s named for him …”

Branch has been coaching at Darden Middle for 13 years, the last four years as head football coach. In his 25-year coaching career, the veteran Wilson Police Department sergeant has also coached at Speight Middle and Beddingfield High. He, too, deeply appreciated the fact that the coach of the year honor came attached to Tillman’s legacy.

“It feels great!” Branch said. “Jimmy Tillman was one of my heroes and one of my mentors. He really helped me get into coaching. Always talked to me about it, always gave me a lot of great advice.”


Branch has been a seemingly ubiquitous figure at Wilson sporting events for more than two decades — either as a coach, a fan or on the job as a police officer or security worker. In addition to coaching at Darden, Branch has been a major contributor to the Wilson Police Athletic League that was spearheaded by his late co-worker, Capt. Reggie K. Smith, before his death in 2022.

“I have to thank the City and the police department,” Branch said, “because they always encouraged me to do it and gave me time to do it because they always said that it helps us out in the community to get involved with youth.”

Branch is looking forward to retirement, however, which is coming quickly. His last day with Wilson Police Department is July 31 but he plans to keep coaching.

Branch said that great coaches aren’t of their own making.

“A lot of times, it’s the people around you — great players and great parents,” he said.

Middle school sports in Wilson have suffered in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic essentially killed middle school sports for nearly two years and the impact was felt heavily here.

“During the pandemic, a lot of them stayed inside so much that when it comes to doing things outside, they’d rather stay in the house a lot,” Branch said.

But things are looking up at Darden and around the county when it comes to athletic participation. Branch is already looking forward to the 2024-25 school year.

“The kids are starting to come back out. The kids are starting to really get involved,” he said.

Matthews, Branch saluted as Tillman Coaches of the Year - Restoration NewsMedia (3)


For Matthews, the 2023-24 school year might be the pinnacle of his career coaching girls and boys tennis at Fike in terms of team success. The Demons won their third straight 3-A Quad County Conference championship in unbeaten fashion in the fall with the girls and the boys in the spring. The girls finished 21-2 overall and reached the quarterfinals of the NCHSAA 3-A dual-team playoffs. Senior twin sisters Caroline and Kathryn Adkins were the state 3-A doubles runner-up a year after winning the state title as juniors.

Not to be outdone, Matthews’ boys team finished 20-2 and lost in the state 3-A championship to Belmont South Point by the narrowest of margins. Senior Snyder Pearson and younger brother, freshman Collins Pearson, also took second in the NCHSAA 3-A doubles tournament.

“Jimmy would have appreciated the year we had this year,” Matthews said of Tillman, while noting the difficulty in synching both Fike teams to great heights. “Only in rare circ*mstances I think maybe 2010 or ‘11, the girls and boys were having a kind of parallel season.”

The fact that Matthews has enjoyed 26 years as a successful tennis coach is amazing in itself. The son of the beloved late Wilson golf pro Emmett Matthews, Matthews followed in his father’s footsteps and became a PGA professional after working for 4-H for a few years following his graduation from N.C. State in 1976. He was first the assistant pro at Willow Springs Country Club and then head professional at the club his father once ran.

But then Matthews took a job with Maxfli, selling golf products before bouncing through a series of jobs in the 1990s. He decided to give teaching and coaching a shot in 1998, but tennis wasn’t his idea.

“Jimmy actually was the one who put me on tennis,” Matthews said, before explaining his level of involvement in the sport by the fall of 1998: “I had played tennis recreationally and I took it as a course, but as far as being able to straighten out somebody’s shots or anything like that, it wasn’t gonna happen.”

Matthews, Branch saluted as Tillman Coaches of the Year - Restoration NewsMedia (4)

Matthews, who has also coached girls basketball at Fike, credited the late John Gay, Fike’s AD at the time, for breaking down the job for him.

“John quickly said, ‘I had a tennis pro last year, and I wasn’t happy with him,” Matthews recalled. “He said, ‘I’m looking for somebody that can motivate them, keep them organized and get them to the matches on time, and stay with them and supervise them.’

“And I said, ‘I can do that.’”

Matthews has continued to do it, coaching the girls every season since. He didn’t coach the boys team for two seasons, 2019 and 2020, after retiring as a teacher. He coached the Elm City Middle boys club team in 2019 and for a few matches in 2020 until COVID ended the season abruptly. Through it all, Matthews has been there like a father figure (now a grandfather) with a gentle word of advice or an occasional wisecrack for the generations of players who have come through Fike.

“I’ve always tried to treat the kids as my family and wanted them to look at me more than just a tennis coach,” he said.

Matthews, Branch saluted as Tillman Coaches of the Year - Restoration NewsMedia (2024)
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