For two summers, the 1994 graduate of Sullivan North High School worked as landscape foreman at Evergreen Garden Center and Landscape Company in Kingsport, where last year he helped put up an irrigation system on one of the owner's properties.
Earlier this spring, that experience came in handy, very handy indeed, when Coakley found himself challenged to assemble an irrigation system at a national competition featuring students from 39 top university landscape management and horticulture programs.
The nursery and landscape management major at Tennessee Technological University joined with fellow Tennessee Tech student Paul Flanders of Murfreesboro for the event, which was one of a number of contests at the annual careers day program presented in Dallas, Texas, by the Associated Landscape Contractors of America.
Their challenge? To assemble and test an irrigation system suitable for a planting bed, complete with control valves, irrigation nozzles, automatic controllers and other pertinent hardware.
"I remember listening to the sponsor from Hunter as she gave directions on how she wanted certain aspects of the set up to be. I looked at Paul and said, 'I think this is going to be hard,'" Coakley said.
The competition featured a student team from each of the 39 universities present and it challenged Coakley to combine his experience in running lines with Flanders' skill with nozzles and control systems.
Together they started out slow, but they picked up speed as they worked, ultimately managing to come from behind about 20 teams to finish fifth or sixth in completing and testing their system. But speed was only one factor of the judging, so the results remained in suspense until the next day.
At the awards ceremony, Coakley said he listened as the third and second place teams were announced and thought to himself how "cool" it would be if Tennessee Tech were named as top winner. But when he heard the university's name, Coakley said he couldn't believe his ears.
"I jumped up and turned to look at Paul and he looked at me like, 'Did they just say Tech?' It took us a minute, then we were all just having a good time."
In other events at the intercollegiate competition, Tennessee Tech students placed seventh in arboriculture, ninth in construction estimating and 10th in interior landscape design. Not bad at all, according to Edgar Davis, for what was only the university's second time at the competition. Davis, a horticulturist with Tennessee Tech's School of Agriculture, and Douglas Airhart, professor of horticulture, coached the students.
Coakley is a 1994 graduate of Sullivan North and son of Mark and Crystal Hawn of Kingsport. He is a member of Tennessee Tech's Plant and Soil Science Club and is co-owner of a small landscaping company he started last year called Land Crafters Landscaping. Following graduation, he plans to own his own landscaping company.