Great Coaches, Great Lessons

Coaching is a term reserved usually for sports. Personal coaching is a term used in business. Yet what you learn in sports coaching applies to learning how to work as a team and transfers to your executive life and career. I have known several great sports coaches who excelled at teaching life lessons.

Howard “Doc” Ayers was head coach of the Cedartown Bulldogs in 1958. I played guard on the team. Coach Ayers was a great motivator, and his halftime speeches were legendary. One of the great life lessons he taught was that if you keep a great attitude, you can never lose … though in a football game you might run out of time. Ayers went on to win a state championship for Cedartown and later became freshman football coach for the University of Georgia. He retired to Cedartown and lives a comfortable life there today.

My line coach at Cedartown was Bill Keller, who taught me to fire off the ball, and “hit ’em, before they hit you.” This is not a bad business practice. Keller went on to become head football and basketball coach in Rockmart, then later became principal. He passed away in 1959.

During those years the schools in our town were not integrated. The black high school, the Cedar Hill Fighting Panthers, had an incredible football team. Coached by Escue Rogers, they once held the record for most points scored in a single season.

At their games, we noticed older white men sitting in the stands. I asked one of them where he was from, and he said he was a scout for the University of Michigan. He was recruiting black players to go up North, because they could not get scholarships to Southern schools.

Escue Rogers’ teams were so good, some local teams refused to play them. They had to play larger schools such as Carver in Atlanta and Lucy Laney High in Augusta. During his 24-year tenure, Rogers won a record 85 championships and trophies in football, basketball and track. Sadly, there was never any recognition of Rogers or Cedar Hill in the local newspaper, The Cedartown Standard. Times changed, and Cedartown and Cedar Hill merged in the mid-’60s.

In 1968, Rogers, who believed in academic as well as sports achievement, received a plaque from the Georgia Teachers Association for promoting quality education. He sent a lot of young African-American students off to college and later to successful business careers. He died in 1978, and in 1996, his name was placed on Cedartown High School’s “Wall of Honor” in recognition of outstanding leadership, athletic achievement and community contribution.

In 1968, I started my first newspaper job on The Valdosta Daily Times. I was privileged to attend the same church as Valdosta Wildcat Football Coach Wright Bazemore, well known for winning 268 games, 14 state titles and three national titles.

Two things were not generally known about this great coach. One was that he had deep religious beliefs, although he kept them to himself. He was a gruff, tough old-fashioned kind of coach and did not wear his religion on his sleeve.

The other fact not generally known was that one year when the school’s basketball coach suddenly retired, Bazemore took over. The next year he took a group of kids who had not been very successful in the past and won the state championship. He proved that the key to being a successful coach – or business leader – is to be able to take people with average talent and motivate them to reach superior heights. Coach Bazemore died in 1999, and is still considered by many as the greatest high school football coach in Georgia history.

Other great coaches I have played for and covered in my career include Jim Doss of the Darlington Tigers and Dalton High Catamounts Coach Bill Chappell, who won 300 games during his football tenure.

The University of Georgia’s Coach Vince Dooley was a great friend and mentor to thousands of young people during the time he served as head football coach, and then athletic director, for the most successful programs in the history of the university. Dooley has shown that even in retirement, you can achieve bigger and better goals.

Vince has been fighting cancer. Let’s hope his winning attitude will see him through with flying colors.

Coaches cannot guarantee their students great achievement or success. But they can show them the way. These are some of the best.

Categories: Neely Young