With more than 600 wins as a wrestling coach and more than 100 on the football field, John Kayajanian will be remembered as one of the most successful coaches in Orange County history.
Kayajanian was found dead Tuesday morning in his Orange County home. He was 61.
For those who played, coached or taught with him, his reserved but jovial nature and endless bank of one-liners will survive the test of time much longer than the trophies in glass cases lining the walls of the main lobby in the Hornets’ field house.
His thick Italian accent evident, Kayajanian ended football practice with, “Eat your garlic. It’s good for your heart,” his gravelly voice replacing the final syllables of garlic and heart with a growl.
He offered advice for success in football and life with “Get your head up so you can see what’s coming,” and “First and goal from the 99. One yard to go.”
“He had a funny way about him in a good way,” Orange County High School Athletic Director Marc Cole said. “He was a special guy — one of those guys who, in 30 years, you’ll be in a meeting and his name will come up. He’ll never be forgotten.”
Earning the moniker “Coach K,” Kayajanian accrued more than 600 wrestling wins, according to Cole, and stepped down as the Hornets’ head football coach with 101 victories.
“He was like my brother,” said Cole, who began coaching JV baseball at OCHS in 1984. “He loved his job and loved the people he worked with. He devoted his life to these kids.”
In February 2016, Orange County welcomed 16 teams to town for the first annual John Kayajanian Wrestling Tournament.
“I’ll never forget going to wrestling matches early in my career and seeing how he interacted with the kids,” Cole said. “He knew how to get the most out of them and build them up.”
Former OCHS standout Quintin Hunter — the Hornets’ quarterback in 2008 and ’09 — said conversations with Kayajanian were rarely bereft of laughter.
“He cared about us as people and kids first,” said Hunter, who finished his playing career at James Madison University after a brief stint at the University of Virginia. “He was a lovable guy, and even if you were having a bad day, he would have you laughing.”
Kayajanian led the Hornets’ football team to a Battlefield District championship in 1998, a Jefferson District title in 1999 and a share of the Jefferson crown in 2005.
He was an offensive assistant when current Orange County head coach Jesse Lohr took snaps as the Hornets’ quarterback in the early ’90s. Lohr’s first varsity coaching gig came in 1999 as an assistant under Kayajanian.
“He loved to come to work every day,” Lohr said. “He brought a family atmosphere to the building and he always found a way to give a kid a second chance. In today’s world, doors get slammed in a lot of kids’ faces. He always found a way to keep it open.”
Kayajanian’s influence is paying dividends for Hunter as he begins his coaching career. Hunter is in his fourth season as an assistant and recruiter at Emory & Henry College.
“He trusted what I could do and believed in me. That’s the biggest thing for young guys,” Hunter said. “He always challenged his players, but it wasn’t always X’s and O’s. Sometimes a kid just had something on his mind, and he was always there to talk.”
Lohr was with Kayajanian during the highs and the lows. He was on staff during a Jefferson District title run in 2005 and during Kayajanian’s final two seasons, in which the Hornets won a combined two games.
Still, during a ceremony honoring the coaching legend following his resignation from the football team in 2013, Coach K’s message to those in attendance wasn’t about the wins and losses. It was about the kids.
“When you win, everyone from the street cleaner to the superintendent to the principal feels good. When you lose, nobody feels good,” Kayajanian said. “Orange County is a great place to coach. We’ve been on the top, the middle and the bottom. If you put the emphasis on the kids, [OCHS] will always come back and be winning again.”
Arrangements for visitation and funeral services had not been made as of Tuesday evening. Kayajanian is survived by his wife, Lori; daughter, Karla; and sons, Johnny and Michael.