As he told a friend many years ago: “My given name is Derrick Alphonso Degraffenreid III. That’s why they call me Mutt.” A beloved member of the Western Carolina University athletics family and a history-making high school coach, Al “Mutt” Degraffenreid ’77 MAEd ’80 lost his battle with various health issues Nov. 8 at age 60.
A football player at Reynolds High School in Asheville who walked on at WCU and made the first tackle when E.J. Whitmire Stadium opened in 1974, Degraffenreid had a long career as a coach and teacher. After serving as an assistant football coach at WCU for nearly 20 years, he became the first African-American to become a head coach at a Western North Carolina high school when he took over the football program at Cherokee High in 1999. He also served as athletic director at North Buncombe High and Smoky Mountain.
And beyond all his accomplishments was a nice, affable man who always greeted friends with a slightly bowed head and a smile that started shyly but quickly grew into a wide grin. “It was amazing. I never heard a bad word about Mutt from anyone. Just a great human being,” said longtime friend Steve White ’67, WCU’s Catamount athletics official historian and former sports information director.
White recalled the day Degraffenreid walked onto the football team in 1972. “The coaches were talking about the players who tried out, and they would only keep a few,” White said. “(Defensive coordinator) Don Denning MAEd ’70 said, ‘I really like that kid they call “Mutt.” He’s got a great head for the game, he’s quick, and he hits hard. I think this kid can help us.’ (Coach Bob) Waters said, ‘He’s what, 5-3 or 5-4? Can he even see?’ Because Mutt wore these thick glasses. But they kept him, and he turned into a player.”
After graduation, Degraffenreid became a graduate assistant and then assistant coach, working until 1996 under Waters, Dale Strahm and his close friend Steve Hodgin MAEd ’83. “Mutt was the guy coach Waters really relied on as a sounding board for all the players,” White said. “If there was any trouble in the dorms, coach Waters would send Mutt to take care of it, and he would. He was a great coach and recruiter, and he really had a knack for finding players, especially defensive backs and wide receivers.”
Skooter McCoy ’99 was one of those local athletes recruited by Degraffenreid to play at WCU. “I met Coach Mutt in 1989 when I was in seventh grade. It was my first summer football camp at WCU. He would take the younger kids and sneak them off to the creek to cool off during the hot afternoon practices. He called those guys ‘Mutt’s tadpoles,’” said McCoy, who succeeded Degraffenreid as coach at Cherokee in 2005.
“He taught me so much, (including) the level of impact we have as coaches on our players’ lives. … It’s about caring and compassion for every player and a genuine interest in making them a better player and a better person,” he said. “I will miss him dearly, and we have lost one of the special ones in the fraternity of coaching.”
Degraffenreid, who was inducted into the WCU Athletics Hall of Fame last year, was proud of the fact that he was the first African-American high school coach in WNC. “I didn’t know I was the first when I was hired at Cherokee,” Degraffenreid said in an August interview. “But I am proud of the fact and disappointed that there haven’t been any more after me (Hendersonville’s Eric Gash became the second black head coach this season). If I’m part of history, then I’m happy about that. I’ve been fortunate to be around athletics and work with young people most of my life, and I hope I made a difference. Because all those players sure made a difference in me,” he said.
He is survived by his wife, Pam Degraffenreid ’80, who has been a staff member at WCU for more than 20 years. The couple has two children, Cetera, who played collegiate women’s basketball at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Al, who is enrolled at WCU.
Reprinted in edited format with permission of the Asheville Citizen-Times.