by Aaron Burns

DENVER – The only job Mike Byus ever wanted, from the time he grew up in Madison, W.Va., to the time he rose to prep football prominence, was to be a coach.

“It’s all I ever cared about doing,” said Byus, East Lincoln High’s football coach.

“When I was a kid, I was outside playing all the time. We didn’t have iPads or Xboxes and we didn’t stay inside. It didn’t matter what season it was or what the temperature was, we were always active.”

So active that Byus’ childhood home in Madison didn’t have grass in the front yard. Too many games of football, wiffle ball and baseball ruined the lawn.

But those games, mostly played against kids years older than him, provided the foundation for Byus’ love of sports and competition.

“They helped me out a lot (later on in life),” he said.

Byus, 51, had coached in a state championship game before the Mustangs’ 2012 season began. That time he didn’t win. East Lincoln’s 2008 team lost 24-7 in the state final to Reidsville High.

“It was nice getting to a state championship, but the feeling I got after the game when we lost, compared to when we won, was so different,” Byus said.

Sixteen games. Sixteen wins. East Lincoln’s 2012 season was football perfection.

Byus’ players covered him with a bucket of ice water moments after the Mustangs beat Tarboro High 24-20 on Dec. 1 for the Class 2A state title.

He then breathed a sigh of relief and broke into a grin. Byus admits he doesn’t smile a lot. He’s got a dry sense of humor, which East Lincoln quarterback Garrett Young said defines him as much as coaching does.

He’s not afraid to joke with his players, but Young said Byus’ method of balancing seriousness with humor makes him relate easily.

“He’d kid with us all the time,” Young, the school’s all-time leading passer, said.

“Every time I’d throw a good pass, somebody would tell me, ‘Good ball,’ and coach Byus would say, ‘Yeah, it is a good ball. It saved me $5.’”

Laughing wasn’t the only thing Byus did when the clock hit zero against Tarboro. Twenty-two years as head prep football coach doesn’t prepare you for the onslaught of emotions that come with winning a state championship.

“I was laughing and crying. I didn’t know what to do,” Byus said. “I was like (famed North Carolina State basketball coach) Jim Valvano, just running around looking for someone to hug.”

Chances are, whomever Byus chose turned out to be someone whose life he had positively impacted.

“Everybody in his family was at the game,” former East Lincoln assistant athletics director and current golf coach Chip Ashley said.

“It was just a great, satisfactory moment. What made it more satisfying for me was that everybody in his family got to see the game. I was so happy for him that his family could share that moment with him.”

None of it would’ve happened if Byus had taken a coaching job at Newton-Conover High before the season began. The Red Devils went all-out in April and May in an attempt to land Byus, who began coaching at East Lincoln in 2005.

Byus did his due diligence. He listened to what Newton-Conover’s brain trust said, but he knew where he was needed most and where he was the happiest: East Lincoln.

“The biggest reason I wanted to stay was the overall feeling my family has for this community,” he said. “We feel so at home with the community and the kids.”

It wasn’t the first time Byus had a plum job offer since he took over the Mustangs. Four years ago, Byus had a chance to coach at another successful program, Anson County High.

That offer came with a $10,000 increase in pay. It didn’t matter. Byus declined, deciding to stick with his Mustangs.

And because of that decision, he has a state championship. But don’t expect him to toot his own horn. It’s not his style.

“I tell people this about coach Byus: There’s nobody better on Friday nights,” Ashley said. “He’ll say it’s his assistants and he’ll take no credit. That’s one of the things I love about coach Byus. He’s very humble. He’s loyal.”

Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce President Ken Kindley, who met Byus early in his tenure at East Lincoln, agreed.

“He’ll give credit where credit is due,” Kindley said. “But he needs all the credit right now. He has certainly built a program (at East Lincoln). They’re always competitive.”

The Mustangs were more than competitive in 2012. They were dominant, winning eight games by at least 20 points. Of course, it was the last one that mattered most. As coach, Byus knew how to motivate players, attack defenses and score points, but the feeling of winning a state title was new to him.

“You just can’t top that,” Byus said. “How can you top that?”