GAITHERSBURG – For longtime Gaithersburg High School Head Coach Kreg Kephart, coaching was never just about the game of football.
Behind the Friday night games, the long hours spent drawing up plays and watching film, there were opportunities to teach high school boys the importance of character, discipline and education. Instead of being just a figurehead who roamed the sidelines, Kephart was determined to teach these student-athletes how to become young men. He believed in teachable moments, instead of giving up on a kid who had made some mistakes.
That determination translated to longevity and on-field success; in his 36 years of coaching at Gaithersburg, 19 of those as a head coach, Kephart led the Trojans to an undefeated season and 4A state championship in 2000, as well as several regional titles.
Kephart credits his players and their talent for earning those championships, but Kephart’s accolades also speak for themselves: DePauw University Hall of Fame in 2007; Redskins High School Coach of the Week in 2010 and the Gaithersburg Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.
On April 11, Kephart announced his retirement. The decision wasn’t an easy one. Kephart is receiving radiation treatment for a tumor in his throat and while the prognosis is positive, his family was concerned with how the stress of another season would affect his health. Still, the thought of Gaithersburg’s upcoming class of players made Kephart think twice about stepping away.
“Having young men with talent that understand the importance of being coached and allowing themselves to listen and take advice and to establish priorities and to work together as a team…that’s one of the reasons why I went back and forth before I decided to retire,” said Kephart. “We’ve got a great group of kids in these next two or three classes at Gaithersburg, and whoever takes over is going to have some kids that can win some ball games and hopefully they’re going to be able to fulfill their potential.”
His knack for helping players achieve their potential helped make Kephart one of the cornerstones of Montgomery County football for over three decades. Through the years, nearly 100 of Kephart’s players went on to play football at the college level. One of those players was former Gaithersburg quarterback Zack Fetters, who graduated in 2011 and achieved Maryland High School Player of the Year honors before going on to play college ball at William and Mary.
Fetters said that many of the lessons he learned from Kephart have followed him into adulthood, especially since Fetters himself was a coach for several years. Kephart was even present at his former quarterback’s wedding in 2018.
Fetters, who spent his freshman year at Good Counsel before transferring to Gaithersburg for his next three years of high school, recalled how Kephart’s influence proved to be invaluable during those transformative years.
“He really did push me to work as hard as I could both on and off the field, but he also helped me as a young man to figure out how to walk through the world and hold on to what is right and to push yourself higher and expect more from yourself; he really helped transform how I see the world,” said Fetters.
Fetters’s relationship with Kephart started out with a heavy dose of tough love. When Fetters first stepped onto Gaithersburg’s field, he had a chip on his shoulder and assumed that he would automatically be given the starting quarterback position as a sophomore.
Kephart, however, had other plans. While Fetters did eventually become the starter, Kephart made it clear that the title would be earned instead of given.
“I will always remember going into those first workouts, where he would just look at me and say, ‘This is not private school. This is a different world.’ He called me ‘rookie’ for a while,” said Fetters. “He made me understand that I was going to get there and work hard. Those are some of my favorite memories of him just telling me ‘Look son, we’re not handing you anything here.’”
Despite their initial introduction and a couple of transitional years with a 5-5 and a 6-4 record respectively, Fetters helped Kephart formulate a different playing style that capitalized on the specific skills of that 2010 team. The new game plan paid off, and the Trojans would go on to seize a regional championship in Fetters’ senior year.
The 2010 season remains one of Kephart’s favorite memories of his career; other memorable moments include coaching his son Dalton for four years, particularly during Kephart’s final playoff appearance against Northwest in a losing effort in 2013.
Current Magruder Head Coach Ray Fowle knew of Kephart when he played in high school at Magruder. Kephart had recommended Fowle to college recruiters during his senior year despite the fact that Fowle wasn’t a Gaithersburg student.
When Fowle was promoted to head coach at his alma mater in 2014, his Colonels lost against Kephart’s Trojans in his first year at the helm of the Magruder program.
“They had just beat us at Gaithersburg, and I go across the field and he shook my hand and said, ‘You’re four games into this, but it’s a world of a difference that you’ve made so far,’” said Fowle. “Just to have someone with his history being able to say that to me as a first-year head coach meant a lot.”
Both Fetters and Fowle said that Kephart’s legacy at Gaithersburg and in Montgomery County will be as a coach who taught the value of hard work and who did things the “right way.”
“He produced young men who know how to hold their head high and fight for what’s right, off the field and on the field,” said Fetters. “He told me early on to have a cool head and a hot heart and I would go far.”
“He speaks his mind, and he’s someone whose opinion matters in the county,” said Fowle. “A lot of the guys in Montgomery County, a lot of the head coaches and assistants are Montgomery County guys, and they all knew Kep one way or another, whether they coached with him or against him, played against him or for him.”
For Kephart, though, it was the kids that made his coaching career meaningful.
“The kids are the reason that I did this and the kids are the reason I would continue to do it if I were to come back,” said Kephart. “Just the day-to-day interaction, and watching them grow and develop. Giving them appreciation for the importance of education, of having positive character, knowing right from wrong, making proper decisions, everything, from being a player to just being a citizen.”
While Kephart is not entirely eliminating the possibility of coming out of retirement for a return to coaching in the distant future, for now his focus is on his health and spending time with his family.
The announcement of his retirement brought with it a sense of relief of the many head coaching responsibilities that Kephart has carried for decades. A position as an assistant coach is attractive, but it would have to be the right situation.
“Never say never. If the situation is right and everything around it is right, (an assistant coaching position) would definitely be a possibility,” said Kephart. “I’m going to sit back. I’ve been doing this for 36 years, and I haven’t had a Friday off or a weekend off in 36 years. I think I’m going to see what that’s about.”