May. 04, 2013 @ 10:36 PM

It was the best-kept secret in town for the better part of a month.

Northern High football coach Gary Merrill, the last link to the program’s storied past, had resigned and been replaced by his 27-year-old defensive coordinator, R.J. Wilson.

The news broke close to midnight Saturday when Wilson forwarded a voice mail attachment to an email announcing the change.

Wilson said Saturday that keeping the change under the radar — and his own promotion to the top job — were in keeping with the program’s goals.

“Having a smooth transition was important for a program that’s on its fourth head coach since 2007,” Wilson said. “You look at the teams in the county that have been the most successful — Hillside and Southern — and they’ve had the same coaches (Hillside’s Antonio King and Southern’s Adrian Jones).

Wilson was asked if Merrill had explained why he was leaving and Wilson said he would prefer that Merrill answered that question himself. Neither the school nor Merrill released a statement on the background of the resignation and attempts to reach Merrill and Northern athletic director Alan “Boo” Rigsbee were unsuccessful Saturday.

Wilson laughed when asked how Merrill’s departure had remained so secret.

“He’d been contemplating it for a while, but wasn’t sure — he made the decision sometime around Easter-time,” Wilson said. “Some other coaches around the area had an idea what was going on, but I honestly don’t know how it never got out.”

Wilson, who doubles as Northern’s track coach, said he’d met with Northern’s players on Thursday night and that he hasn’t made any decisions on his future coaching staff.

He said the success of the program’s defense over the past several seasons had something to do with his promotion as much as the program’s desire for continuity. Wilson has run the defense since 2010 and Merrill has orchestrated the offense since his arrival prior to the 2011 season. Wilson said much of what fans are used to seeing of the Knights during the Merrill regime — solid defense, ball-control offense and a focus on avoiding turnovers — would be on his agenda moving forward, although he might look to balance the running and passing games a little more.

“The basic philosophy will be the same,” Wilson said.

He said he intends to continue working mostly with the defense.

Merrill was on his second tour at the Northern helm when he resigned.

He was the top aide (1982 to 1993) to state 4-A title-winning Northern coach Ken Browning in 1993 and took the head coaching reins from 1994-2003 after Browning moved on to coach at North Carolina.

Merrill, 102-21 in his first stint with the Knights, left Northern in 2004 after the death of his wife in a car accident. He returned to coaching in 2006, taking on the challenge of starting a football program at the then-new Panther Creek High School in Cary. He left there for a one-year stint at Roxboro Person in 2008 before retiring.

He ended his retirement and returned to Northern before the 2011 season and posted a 4-6-1 record (4-2 PAC-6) including a first-round state playoff loss.

The program he took over in 2011 was a far cry from the one he took over in 1994. The Knights hadn’t posted a winning season since 2004 (8-5), although they did break even at 6-6 in 2005.

Since then, the numbers had been 1-10 (2006), 3-8 (2007), 5-8 (2008), 0-11 (2009) and 5-7 (2010).

The 2011 team was a young one, and Merrill knew he was in for a teaching year from the get-go.

The team opened with three straight non-conference losses but did some growing in a loss at powerful Wake Forest-Rolesville, giving players the idea that winning was possible.

They then went 4-0-1 — the tie was a lightning-shortened game at Apex, the wins all in conference play — before closing the regular season with losses to the No. 1 and 2 teams in the PAC-6, Hillside and Southern.

Injuries to key juniors Charah Wheeler, the 2011 starting quarterback, and Kylyn Flemming, the starting tailback, and the shift of junior receiver Brandon Brown to quarterback disrupted the offense in the final two weeks of the regular season. On top of that, star defensive end Caleb Hawkins, now at Western Carolina, missed all but the first minute of the Southern loss with a neck injury.

In 2012, things got brighter for Merrill and the Knights as they came close to finishing in a three-way tie for the conference title before losing their regular-season finale at home to ultimate outright champion Hillside 24-14.

Northern finished the regular season at 6-4, 4-2 PAC-6 and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in November 42-14 at Fayetteville’s E.E. Smith High School.

Wilson credited Merrill with reviving the program.

“It was important for him to come back and set a foundation,” Wilson said. “He did that.”

NOTES — Wilson, 28, is a native of Fayetteville. He played at Westover High School under coaches Fred Dunston and George Coltharp. He matriculated at UNC Chapel Hill where he played club football and began coaching youth football in Carrboro. He graduatedd from UNC in 2007 and joined the Northern staff of former coach Paul Rodio that year.