Sunday, January 8, 2017

Saying "well done" to Coach Sigler

        I want to thank Coach Orvis Sigler's daughters and his widow, Joanne, for asking me to speak at his memorial service Saturday in Shreveport.
        To be honest, I was not a close family friend or even that close to Coach Sigler. But I was a longtime admirer, I certainly appreciated what he did for athletics and other areas in Shreveport-Bossier and beyond, and perhaps because of what I wrote on the blog about him last April, I was asked to be part of the tribute to him.
         It is always an honor to be asked to do a eulogy, and it's never easy.
         I want to share a couple of thoughts by Taylor Moore, the former Shreveport Captains president and a partner in the sporting goods business with Coach Sigler.
         "Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn't like," Taylor told me Saturday before the memorial service. "Well, Orvis never met a [basketball] referee he liked."
         I remember a couple of antagonistic situations involving Centenary basketball -- and thus Coach Sigler: (1) the rivalry with Oklahoma City University teams coached by smart-aleck Abe Lemons that a couple of times erupted into free-for-alls; and (2) the refereeing of one Bill Valentine, then a controversial American League baseball umpire who also worked basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference, from which Centenary got its officials for home games.
         Saturday evening, Taylor sent me a note, saying, "I  remember Orvis telling about the days at Hirsch [Youth Center] when the player benches were on the end of the court, under the basket, and how that gave him a better opportunity to work the officials every time they passed in front of him.
        "It was a shame that Bill Valentine passed away a couple of years ago because they had some real battles. ... I am not sure both of them are in the same place for the afterlife, but if they are, I bet Valentine has already teed him up."
         Before I share my speech with readers -- it will be a recap for those who attended -- I think back to the Sigler coaching days and if you had told me then that I would be one of the people speaking at his memorial service, I would not have believed it. But repeating, it was an honor.
COACH SIGLER memorial speech – Jan. 7, 2017
      To begin, I attended Oklahoma at TCU basketball game Tuesday night. TCU has a beautiful new coliseum on the site of its old coliseum, and I was reading about the history of the old place, Daniel-Meyer Coliseum. The first game there was in 1961, and TCU beat the Centenary Gents 63-61. And I  know who the Centenary coach was that night. So it’s a small-world connection to today.
       Today we pay respect to Coach Sigler and his family, and when we talk about Coach, respect is the appropriate word.       

Coach Sigler, with daughters Sally and Susan
     I think all of us here feel as if we were blessed to have this man as part of our lives, and that Shreveport-Bossier was fortunate that he chose to make this his permanent home – and that we had him for so long.
       He already was a well-traveled coach (as many of them are) when he arrived in the spring of 1958. The man from Missouri, by way of the U.S. Navy and later the U.S. Military Academy (where he was head basketball coach for four seasons and an assistant football coach on a staff that included two legendary names, Col. Earl “Red” Blaik and Paul Dietzel), became a Shreveporter. And almost 59 years later, here we are to honor him.
         We don’t get to Shreveport-Bossier much these days, except for Holocaust Remembrance events and, unfortunately, memorial services, and that is where we saw Coach Sigler and Joanne in the past couple of years. Always good to see them, and to know that even as his physical strength declined, Coach was still super sharp. And so it was a pleasure to talk with him and then write about him on my blog last April because as I wrote, he was one of the most valuable people in Shreveport-Bossier and ­– to stretch it, Louisiana – in athletics, and in the community, over the past six decades.
          He proved to be so much more than just a very capable basketball coach.  He was a diligent, convincing recruiter, and he was as good or maybe better a promoter of the sport and of athletics than he was a coach.
          He was so wise, so knowledgeable, so well-connected in basketball and athletics all over the country, and he was a pleasant person to be around. Well, mostly pleasant. I mean, five technical fouls in one game? That will get you kicked out of 2½ games these days.
         And he was such a contributor.
         In Shreveport, you have to start with his influence in taking Centenary basketball from a strong small-college program to NCAA Division I a year after he arrived. He took the Gents to a competitive, big-time level, a challenge even though it was such a small school. He started, I believe, the first basketball camp for kids in this area. One of his biggest achievements was in 1961 helping start the state high school basketball tournament, the Top Twenty as it became known, and he was its guiding director the first several years when it became an established and popular event, which Shreveport was proud to have. It’s now about to be 57 years old and still going.
        You know, of course, about his great interest and involvement with the Independence Bowl. Others will talk about that.
        He was the Centenary athletic director who oversaw the building and opening of the Gold Dome, an impressive monument of sorts to him. You could say Robert Parish played there, but also say it is the house that Coach Orvis Sigler built.
         You think about Centenary College basketball, and that’s where so many of us first met him. It was a job that – as oldest daughter Susan told me --  Paul Dietzel recommended to him and also recommended him for it. I think you’ll agree that for the 10 seasons he coached the Gents and five more that he was the athletic director, they took on some big-name schools and helped give Shreveport a lot of big-time basketball.

     Just as with Army, it was a challenge for its coach because of limitations in size, but the Gents were competitive, they were tough, and what I remember most is they were fun to watch and to follow.
       For us kids in Shreveport-Bossier in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Centenary was our basketball team. Dad, who was a great basketball fan, and I went games at Hirsch Youth Center many times – but not often enough for me – and I listened to IZ (Irv Zeidman) doing Centenary games on radio, home and away, as often as I could. And how about those late-night TV rebroadcasts on Channel 12 in the early 1960s? Stayed up for most of those.
       Actually, as I was thinking about this, I realized I was a Centenary basketball fan before I was a fan of LSU or Louisiana Tech (but not before the Shreveport Sports and New York Yankees, thank you).
         And so I quickly want to give you some names – my Coach Sigler-era Centenary basketball favorites, and I apologize for the dozens I can’t get to: Gerald “Tooley” Martello, Jackie Crawford, Leon Shaw, Don “Dusty” Ensley, Dale Van Bibber (Dad loved him because of the Dutch name and then we got to know him when he helped Ken Ivy coach Woodlawn to a state championship), the best-known redhead in Shreveport and the only Sigler player eventually to also be the Centenary coach and athletic director – Riley Wallace, Willard “Soup” Moore, Stan McAfoos, Jerry Butcher, “The Ringgold Rifle” from my wife’s high school -- Barrie Haynie, Larry Shoemaker, Larry Ward and John Blankenship (have to mention them together), and three Shreveport-Bossier guys (Jimmy Williams from Byrd, Andy Fullerton from Fair Park, and one of Centenary’s greatest athletes, a very good basketball player but better in baseball, Cecil Upshaw of Bossier).
         And one more name: Tom Kerwin. Captain Hook. Yes, we all loved watching Robert Parish play at Centenary, but I’m telling you that watching Tom and that fabulous hook shot is one of my favorite basketball memories.
          Kerwin’s greatest game? I was there, as a freshman basketball statistician for Louisiana Tech. I can tell you that it was very hard for me personally to pull against Centenary; I really had mixed emotions for four years at Tech. But in late February 1966, near the end of Tom’s senior season, we came to Hirsch and we had a good team, an improving team. That night we “held” Kerwin to 47 points (which set the Centenary school record; Barrie had scored 46 a few games earlier). Funny thing is, we – Tech -- won the game in overtime. That’s a story in itself, and some of you remember it.
           Coach Sigler always said that was one of his most painful basketball losses. But basketball is one thing; painful losses come in life, too. And here were some great lessons Coach Sigler taught us: You keep going; you persevere.
           Job-wise, after 15 years at Centenary, it was time to move on. He did quickly, helping start a very successful sporting goods business. Later he went into specialty advertising, and he ran the Shreveport Sports Authority. He was deeply involved in the Independence Bowl. He found new worlds.

         But real losses, painful losses: A spouse of 25 years and later his only son.  And yet he found another new world, and a whole new family.      
Coach and Joanne (photo by Roger S. Braniff Sr.)
     Coach and Joanne were blessed to find   each other and marry in 1970. Two families joined into one. A good pairing, don’t you think? Yes, Coach could be just plain-spoken, exacting and tough, but Joanne was a match – that’s an understatement -- and in this community, there were outgoing and omnipresent.
        Joanne, as many of you know, took her turn in the media world, writing columns for The Shreveport Times. After 7½ years, her last column – in early December 2014 – was probably her best, about World War II servicemen and in particular about her hero, a Navy bomber pilot from Missouri named Orvis Sigler Jr.
         And from my media standpoint, here is what I liked about Coach Sigler – no matter what the subject, but especially Centenary basketball and the Independence Bowl, he was going to address it with an honest, studied evaluation. He was going to do and say what he felt was best for Centenary or Shreveport or Louisiana.  
         After I wrote my blog last year, I laughed when Missy Parker Setters, director of the Independence Bowl, said that Coach and Joanne were still part of the scene and that he was still “feisty.”
          Yes, he was. And as daughter Sally noted last week, in his final days and the final decline, Coach could still be “strong as an ox” when he wanted something.
           We think of how good a family man he was, how good a friend, how dedicated a coach, recruiter, administrator and promoter, and how big a role he played in so many ways. We thank his family for sharing him with us.
           Mostly, thank you, Coach Sigler. We respect what you gave us.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Lambright, Part XII: the final career stop

        (Part XII, last in the series)
      With his football team's great success and his reputation established, certainly there had to be coaching opportunities for Maxie Lambright to move from Louisiana Tech.
      But it never happened.
      The most likely opening that might have attracted him were at -- naturally -- Southern Mississippi. But when Coach Vann retired after the 1968 season, Maxie had been at Tech only two seasons -- with a seven-game winning streak going and great promise ahead for Bradshaw's senior season.
      The Southern Miss job went to P.W. "Bear" Underwood, part of the USM staff with Maxie until he moved to the University of Tennessee as defensive coordinator.
      After the 1974 season, Underwood left Southern Miss with a subpar record, so the job was open again. So was another one.
      E.J. Lewis recalls that while the Tech coaching staff was meeting just after the '74 season concluded, a Tech secretary knocked on the door and told Coach Lambright, "Dr. Taylor needs to see you on campus right now." Meeting adjourned.
      South Carolina officials, looking for a head football coach after Paul Dietzel -- you might've heard of him -- had resigned under fire, ending his nine-year stay there, had called Dr. Taylor asking for permission to speak to Lambright and gauge his interest in the job.
     When Maxie returned, Lewis said he asked the staff, "How many of you want to move to South Carolina?"
     "Not a hand went up," Lewis recalled. No one wanted to leave Tech at that point. And neither did Lambright.
     Nor did the Southern Miss job attract him. It went to Jim Carmody.
     "At that point in his life, we were happy and loving Ruston," recalled Linda Lambright Causey. "My Dad didn't care about making a lot of money. I think he was happy and wanted to finish his career at Tech."
     And he did.
There were plenty of trophy presentations and victory celebrations
for Coach Maxie Lambright and his Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.
     The final four Tech seasons in the Lambright era weren't quite as successful as the previous four years; hard to match a 44-4 record. Significantly, Tech jumped from Division II to Division I status in 1975, and the final four records were 8-2, 6-5, 9-1-2, 6-5.
     Only a season-closing loss to Arkansas State kept the Bulldogs from the Southland Conference title in '75, and Lambright's last two teams did win conference titles -- and thus earned the "host" role, which went to the Southland champ, in Shreveport's new Independence Bowl.
     Tech beat Louisville, coached by Lee Corso (a few years before his TV stardom), 24-14 in the '77 I-Bowl. Tech's final game under Lambright, in the '78 bowl, was a 35-13 loss to East Carolina, coached by Pat Dye.
     Then on March 1, 1979, came the announcement: Coach Lambright was retiring from Louisiana Tech. He acknowledged his health was suffering.
     "After walking the sidelines for 30 years," he is quoted as saying in the chapter on him in the late Jerry Byrd's book Football Country (published 1981), "it is time to give someone else the opportunity to have some of this joy, agony, acclaim, heartbreak and that other good stuff."
     So Maxie-like, so wry -- "that other good stuff."
     He added that "never once have I felt that a Louisiana Tech football team wasn't playing with a purpose and a will to win."
     Few could argue that.
     Although he hadn't qualified for a Louisiana school pension -- not enough years -- the powers-in-charge at Louisiana Tech made sure he had a nice sendoff package.
     (That, reportedly, included a home, prompting this quip by a then-young Ruston Daily Leader sports editor O.K. "Buddy" Davis: "It is a stay-free Maxie pad.")
     Sadly, Coach Lambright would live only 11 more months. Perhaps his demons (alcohol and too many cigarettes) contributed to the premature end of his coaching career and his life.
      Stricken by a stroke, he lingered for three days in Lincoln General hospital in Ruston and died on Jan. 28, 1980. He was 55.
    "The thing that hurt us the most," Linda Causey said, "is that when he died, I was pregnant [with the Lambrights' first grandchild.] John's dad had died a year earlier, so our kids missed out on their grandfathers."
    The Causeys' first child, a boy born that summer, is named Maxie.
    That young man, now 36, was a high school quarterback at West Monroe -- where his dad once coached -- and then at Louisiana Tech (2000-03). He spent a year as the sideline commentator on Tech's football broadcasts and now is a budding football official, working games in Conference USA (but not Tech games, naturally) with hopes of becoming an NFL official.
    Certainly Coach Lambright would have been proud.
    There are three Lambright grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
    Gerry Lambright is 90, residing in a Ruston assisted living facility. She has some good days, some not so good.
    "She was good for Maxie," one person told me, and that was a common sentiment.
     During the Lambright era at Tech, 11 players received some form of All-America recognition, and 15  players were drafted by NFL teams.
     The most prominent two are the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees: QB Terry Bradshaw and DT Fred Dean.
     The other drafted players' names are recognizable by longtime Tech fans: LB Joe Raymond Peace, RB Robert Brunet, WR Ken Liberto, WR Tommy Spinks, TE Larry Brewer, WR Roger Carr, FB Roland Harper, RB Charles "Quick Six" McDaniel, WR Pat Tilley, TE Mike Barber, WR Billy Ryckman, RB John Henry White, DB Larry Anderson.
     Tech had 10 Southland Conference "Players of the Year" from 1971 to '78, five on offense -- QB Ken Lantrip (1971), Carr (1972), QB Denny Duron (1973), McDaniel (1974) and White (1977) -- and five on defense -- Dean (1972, 1974), LB Joe McNeely (1973), Anderson (1977) and NG Ardis McCann (1978).
     Those were some of the stars, but it was a cast of a thousand players in those 12 "golden era" years.
     They will tell you, as so many associated with the program will, that the biggest star was the publicity-shy man who -- no one doubted this -- ran the program.
     Maxie Lambright did not make the final cut of coaches on the 2016 College Football Hall of Fame ballot, nor did he make the cut for 2017 (among the six, one name stands out: Steve Spurrier).
     I have been told that the College Football Hall of Fame selection for coaches requires a set minimum of 100 victories. But as I pointed out, there's 95 at Tech -- and 53 as USM's top assistant. Plus, there is the intrinsic value that this man brought to both programs. 
     Some year soon, hopefully, Lambright will be voted in. It won't be soon enough.





Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Lambright, Part XI: The ties to Southern Miss

       (Part XI)
       Tim Floyd, a basketball coach who is a basketball coach's son, is indebted to a football coach.
       Maxie Lambright, he says, "changed my life."
       Tim's photo on his bio page on the UT-El Paso men's basketball web site lists his hometown as Hattiesburg, Miss., and his college as Louisiana Tech, 1977.
       In both those places, he knew Coach Lambright -- as a family friend, the Southern Mississippi offensive backfield coach, and then at Louisiana Tech the head football coach and -- more importantly for Tim -- the athletic director.
       Lee Floyd spent 14 seasons as Southern Miss' head basketball coach, beginning in 1949 when Lambright was still playing football for the Southerners and then, after eight years out of coaching (Tim's first eight years), from 1962 to '71 -- including five years while Maxie was on the USM football staff.
       "He and [wife] Gerry were dear family friends of my mother and father," Tim said recently, recalling the Lambright-Floyd friendship. "He [Maxie] was the reason I ended up at Louisiana Tech.
       "When I was a kid 11 or 12, Coach Lambright would visit with my father; they were drinking buddies," Tim said, "and I'd listen to them talk. He [Maxie] was extremely bright. They'd talk about coaching philosophies, and he was fascinating."
       And he was inspiring (more on that in a moment).
       Lee Floyd's teams won 246 games, 98 more than they lost. He would be proud of his son, who in his 23rd season as a college head coach has led his teams to 452 victories -- 186 more than they've lost -- and eight NCAA Tournaments.
Tim Floyd: From USM to La. Tech to UTEP (and
a few basketball coaching stops in between)
      And the son was an NBA head coach for five seasons, the first four with the Chicago Bulls to start  the transition from the era of coach Phil Jackson/superstar Michael Jordan/six NBA titles.
      So Tim is the Floyd who basketball people know now. He's in his seventh season back at UTEP, the school where his father played in the early 1940s -- before the school was even known as Texas Western, the name before UTEP -- and where Tim began his fulltime coaching career as an assistant to the legendary Don Haskins in 1978.
       But he was coaching as a student assistant at Louisiana Tech in 1977 after two seasons as a reserve -- he played little -- on the Tech team. He was on scholarship ... thanks to Lambright.
       Lee Floyd was increasingly crippled by arthritis as his coaching career wound down. His teams, his players, were bulky and tough and talented -- regular opponents of Tech -- but by 1971, he no longer could coach.
       He died three years later. Tim was a walk-on basketball player at Southern Miss, but -- in an era when coaches were not being paid fortunes -- paying for his education was a challenge for Mrs. Floyd.
       Tech's basketball program was on NCAA probation (for recruiting violations while Scotty Robertson was the coach in the early 1970s), and the Tech staff, headed by Robertson's successor, Emmett Hendricks, was prohibited from recruiting off-campus. But Tim transferred to Tech.
       "Coach Lambright told Emmett he was going to put me on scholarship, and he did," Tim said.
       He mostly watched as Tech's teams competed well and his close friend, Mike McConathy, became one of the best players in Tech basketball history.
       (Floyd and McConathy would always remain close, both becoming veteran, respected college coaches. In early December, McConathy took his Northwestern State team to UTEP and left town with a victory.)
       Tim can tell stories -- and did -- about his father or Maxie making trips to New Orleans to purchase and stock up some liquid refreshments to bring back to Hattiesburg (in a "dry" county) and hide away for future use, and about the Floyds' visit to stay with the Lambrights one Friday night before a USM-at-Tech football game the next afternoon.
       "This was Halloween night, and my mother brought in a blanket with a black cat wrapped up in it," he said, with a laugh. "When Maxie walked in, she sprung that cat loose.
       "Maxie was really superstitious, so he jumped. Tech lost the game the next day. I don't think he talked to my mother for months afterward."
       (Look it up. USM handed Tech its only loss of the 1969 regular season, 24-23, on Nov. 1.)
       "It seemed like he [Lambright] always made the right decision. ... He had a great sense of humor, really dry, and he was well thought of at Southern Miss," Tim remembered.
       Coach Lambright wasn't the only one who changed Tim's life at Louisiana Tech. So did his teammates, his friends and the Tech basketball staff ... but mostly, it was Beverly.
       He began courting and then married Beverly Byrnside, whose father George was a Tech student and football/track-field athlete a decade before he returned to the university as an administrator for 37 years, the last 25 as vice-president for administrative affairs.
       The Floyds have a daughter, Shannon, and a granddaughter.
       With UTEP in Conference USA with Tech, Tim's teams now have a regular rivalry with the Bulldogs. Although he has returned to Ruston often to see family and friends, his first trip back in 21 years as an opposing coach, in 2015, was eventful. He's been known to be a bit rough on referees and in this game (a Tech victory), he was told he would be departing early -- ejected after a mad scene.
       Tim is 62 now, but Coach Lambright's words when he was a young man made an impact. 
       "I remember his speech when he retired from football; it was memorable for me," he said, "and I might use some of that when I get out [of coaching]."
       And there was a night when Maxie, at the Floyd residence, recited a few lines that made a specific impression. 
       He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool. Shun him.
       He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child. Teach him.
       He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep. Wake him.
       He who knows, and knows that he knows, is a leader. Follow him.

       -- Attributed to: Omar Khayam, 13th century philosopher
       "I went upstairs to my room and wrote that down," Tim said, "and I've kept it all these years. I have used that as a guide many times, as I evaluated players, or in any job that I've taken. It's just a guide for life."
       Back to football. Invariably, Maxie Lambright's career was tied to Southern Mississippi -- player, assistant coach, opposing coach.
       Tech had more natural longtime rivals -- Louisiana schools -- but Southern Miss and Tech have played 48 times (including every year from 1946 to 1972).
       And Southern Miss has dealt the Bulldogs a lot of grief over the years, such as end-of-the-regular season losses in 2015 and 2016. The series count: USM 33, Tech 15.
       Tech teams knew when they faced those guys in black and gold, it was going to be a physical, mental challenge.
       But Lambright's record as Tech head coach vs. his alma mater was 5-4. That had to be so satisfying for him.
       Consider this: As consistently good-to-great as Coach Joe Aillet's Tech teams were, his record vs. USM was 4-18. In a seven-year period (1952-58), Tech scored only once. And that one score came in a painful loss, 7-6 in 1955's second game -- the only Tech defeat that season.
       Just as painful was the second time Southern Miss ruined Tech's perfect record -- 1964 when the 8-0 Bulldogs lost 14-7 in Hattiesburg.
       That one was controversial; Tech's Billy Laird always was sure he had scored on QB sneaks, on third and fourth downs, near the end of the game. The obviously biased officials -- just kidding, USM folks -- didn't think so.
       Would Coach Aillet, had the TD been called, chosen to go for a two-point PAT play and the victory -- or loss? I suspect he would have. Moot point.
       It is also interesting that the only Aillet teams to post consecutive victories vs. USM were in 1959 (another 9-1 team) and 1960 -- Lambright's first two seasons as a USM assistant.
       The first time Maxie sent a Tech team against USM was a Thanksgiving Day game in Shreveport in 1967, the final game of the regular season, and it was a 58-7, seven-interception embarrassment.
       Four of those INTs -- two returned for touchdowns -- were by USM defensive back Larry Ussery, who was a Fair Park High graduate playing on his "home" field at State Fair Stadium. It was a cold, very windy day -- and there were 28,000 empty seats.
       That game in mind, it made Tech's 27-20 victory at Southern Miss in 1968 that much sweeter. The Bulldogs' victory was more one-sided than the score looks; USM scored in the final minute.
       From then, it was a "go figure" series the rest of the Lambright-Tech era:
       -- 1969: Tech was unbeaten (5-0) and powerful in Terry Bradshaw's senior season. But a middling USM team came to Ruston and, with a methodical field-long drive in the closing minutes won on a field goal, 24-23 (remember Tim Floyd's story above).
       -- 1970: Tech had lost seven games in a row, most of them close (6, 2, 3, 4 and 3 points), and USM had beaten No. 4-ranked Ole Miss and QB Archie Manning two weeks earlier. But the Bulldogs went to Hattiesburg and, somehow inspired, won easily 27-6.
       -- 1971: A Tech team that was 7-1 going in lost at home to USM, 24-20.
       -- 1975: A Tech team that was 5-0 lost at home to USM, 24-14.
       -- 1976: Tech was 4-5 going in, but won in Hattiesburg, 23-22.
       And, in what was the tiebreaker in the series during the Lambright era, Tech won 28-10 at home in 1977. Maxie had the edge on the school he loved so much. But by then, he loved Tech as much -- or more.
       (Next: The final career stop)

Monday, December 26, 2016

Lambright, Part X: Away from football, a friend, and a logo

      (Part X)
       Maxie Lambright left more than a football legacy at Louisiana Tech University. He left a logo.
       That's right -- a logo. Some people will remember this; most probably don't know.
       Coach Lambright created, designed, the ubiquitous Tech logo still in use today: The state of Louisiana, with the large "T" stretched across the top.
       You see it on brochures, web sites, billboards, hats, clothing, whatever ... it is everywhere.
       "He came out of his office one day [early in 1968] and held out this drawing [on a napkin]," remembered Mary Richardson, who became the football coaches' secretary a few months after Lambright's arrival at Tech. "I asked him what it was.
       "He told me he thought it would be good to put on the football helmets the next season."
       The powers-that-be at Tech approved of it. The head of the university's art department, Raymond Nichols, applied the colors and finishing touches. Done.
       For the first time, in the 1968 season -- a sensational season that established Lambright's Tech program as a power -- the Bulldogs wore red helmets with the "T/state" logo.
       It's been that way ever since, until Tech last season introduced white helmets with the logo.
       It was the first time since the early 1960s, through Coach Joe Aillet's final season in 1966, the Tech helmet was white with a single red stripe down the middle.
       When Lambright came in, he switched to red helmets (no logo, no stripes) for the 1967 season. Plus, the Bulldogs that year often wore plain red jerseys (no stripes) -- not a good look. The next year they went back to the traditional jerseys -- white, red or blue -- with the bold three stripes on the shoulders. Haven't changed that look since.
       Lambright in the office, no football involved, was low-key and easy to be around. And he had his set of friends, some dating to his Southern Mississippi days.
       Mary Richardson and Flo Miskelley, who was Coach Aillet's secretary/administrative assistant from August 1965 until he retired in the spring of 1970 and then took over other duties, were Lambright fans.
       "He was absolutely the best boss in the world," said Mary Richardson. "He was happy-go-lucky. Strict on the [assistant] coaches, but with me and Flo, he was absolutely wonderful."  
       And he was a good sport. There was a photo -- used by sports information director Keith Prince in the football media guides several times over the years -- with Mary and Flo on either side of Maxie in front of a chalkboard with a play design (Xs and Os) and the coach with his palms turned up and a sheepish expression -- an "I don't know" pose.
       Mary said Lambright "ran a tight ship [with the coaches]," but at times they would play tricks on him.
       "He was good at what he did, and he was the most personable and kind person."
       Flo Miskelley said Aillet "was totally different" from Lambright. "There was never anybody like Coach Aillet," she said. "He was the perfect gentleman, so intelligent. Always super nice to me."
       It was no different with Lambright. She began working closely with him when he became the athletic director following Aillet's retirement at the end of the 1969-70 school year.
       "He was wonderful," she said of Lambright. "Very kind, very intelligent."
       And he came to trust her to continue to handle the game-tickets operation -- just as she had done for Aillet. And she did until she retired after 40 years in the athletic department; all by memory and on paper; she did not use computers.
       She also became Lambright's de facto athletic director.
       "He leaned pretty heavily on me, like with the budget," she explained. "He was so preoccupied with football for so many months, so [the entire athletic department budget] was a major adjustment for him, pretty difficult.
       "He wanted to take care of football, of course, but he had to be in charge of all the other sports, too -- and women's athletics was just beginning. But he was very careful to spread the money around."
       Lambright maintained his friendships from his years in Southern Mississippi. One man was already on the Tech campus when Maxie arrived in 1967.
       Rev. William Stokes, for years director of the Wesley Foundation at Tech, was a high school friend in McComb, Miss., in the early 1940s.
       "He was a fine person; he was the best dancer," remembered Rev. Stokes. "He was in our crowd in high school."
       A cousin visiting from Maryland, and also originally from McComb, asked Rev. Stokes if he saw much of Coach Lambright at Tech.
        "No, he was at one end of the campus and I was at the other end," he said, laughing.
        Rev. Stokes remains in Ruston and -- reportedly -- is past 90. "Let's not talk about age," he said, when asked. Kidded about it, he replied -- just to be sure -- "let's not talk about age."
        Another Lambright friend he saw each year when Southern Miss and Tech played in football and, when and if, USM came to Tech for basketball was longtime USM sports information director Ace Cleveland.
        Cleveland's son, Rick, became one of Mississippi's best sports writers/columnists, and he recalled that "Maxie and my dad were great friends. I knew him well. He introduced me to martinis when I was 17 years old.
        "I had the worst hangover in history for the next day's Southern Miss-La. Tech [football] game, which USM won, ruining a perfect [Tech] season [Terry] Bradshaw's senior year (1969).
        "He was a beauty. Highly intelligent. ... He ought to be in the [College Football] Hall of Fame. Can't believe he isn't."
         (Next: Maxie and the Southern Miss ties)

         From Tech longtime Tech team photographer Tom ("Temo") Morris: Here is a near complete series of Coach Lambright's logo design used through the years by the Bulldogs, starting with the original ...
No automatic alt text available.

Willie Roaf in 1992
Coach Derek Dooley's blue-trimmed T 2007
2013 after the University eliminated the White-T
Coach Holtz's introduction of the white helmet in 2015.
Patriotic logo introduced at North Texas in 2014 and used it since at appropriate games.
At Friday's Armed Forces Bowl.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Lambright, Part IX: Maxie and the media

      (Part IX)
      He was an outstanding football coach, no question. Maxie Lambright was far from a media star, and had no desire to be.
      He was -- honestly -- predictable and careful and, well, even dull. But never, to our knowledge, unwilling or uncooperative.
      It just wasn't a priority for him, and that was fine.
      Some coaches do well with the media and enjoy the tradeoff, some offer good material -- quotes, stories, barbs -- and merely tolerate it, some can be harsh, rude, curt or short and openly detest the time and effort it requires.
      Coach Lambright understood the media's role.
      "He was a dream to work with simply because he was so cooperative and allowed me to do my job," said Keith Prince, the sports information director at Louisiana Tech for 25 years, the first 10 (1969-78) with Lambright as the football coach and, for all but one of those years, also the athletic director.
      "In all the years, he was so cooperative and, with me, so gentle. I had so much admiration for him. He gave me such strong support. ... He was always in my corner if things came up."
Keith Prince
     Reporters knew that Lambright likely would not provide great insight to postgame analysis nor engage in much casual conversation.
     "From the media standpoint, he didn't cut them short," Prince said. "It seemed to me that he had less to say when we [Tech] won [games] than when we lost. He didn't want to seem like he was gloating, and that [the team] always had something to work on. He was cautious, and he was never derogatory to other teams. He always praised them.
      "It speaks of his character, his dignity, and his respect for other people."
      Prince knew Lambright so well that he could write stories with quotes from the coach, and that Lambright, when asked, would approve of them. 
      Part of the Lambright mantra, as we recall, was that the next game on the schedule was the most important game of the season.
      Larry White was a student assistant to Prince at Tech in the early 1970s, having returned from a stint in Vietnam. He would go on to cover Tech athletics for a brief time for the Ruston Daily Leader and the Shreveport Journal, then go into sports information with the Southland Conference, LSU, SMU and, for most of his career, the University of Alabama, where he was the SID for the final years of coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's career.
      Of Lambright, White said, "I remember him being so approachable and forthright in speaking with the media (of which there weren't many). I always felt his teams reflected his personality, on and off the field. He was a hard-nosed coach whose persona off the field was totally different. He was a true gentleman."
"Freeway Dave" Nitz
       Dave Nitz became the Tech play-by-play broadcaster for football, basketball and baseball in 1974, so he had five seasons with Lambright as football coach. But Nitz also worked in the Tech athletics ticket office and in sports information for a while.
      "He gave you something to do, and he expected you to do it, but he didn't look over your shoulder, he didn't make sure you had dotted the i's and crossed the t's," Nitz said. "But if it didn't go well, he wanted to know why. ... He was like that with the coaches, too.
      "He was a guy who let you do your job. I always respect that from anyone."
      Nitz got a dose of the Lambright wit related to a softball team that Nitz managed. When he came in after one weekend game and Lambright asked how the team had fared, Nitz replied it had won big. "You must've been playing the Little Sisters of the Poor," the coach cracked.
      Media people who dealt with him or occasionally traveled with him knew they'd have to carry the conversation or deal with mostly silence.
      Nitz, still doing Tech games 42 years later (I hesitate to call "Freeway Dave" a legend, although some do), also recalled driving Lambright to El Dorado, Ark. -- a 50-mile ride from Ruston -- to do a weekly Sunday television show during football season.
      "He didn't really want to do that," Nitz said of the show. But it was part of their job. The tough part was the interview.
      Nitz, as the William & Mary broadcaster in 1969-71, often had interviewed the football coach there, the very talkative, colorful Lou Holtz (now, of course, Nitz regularly talks with the current Tech coach, the son of the father, Skip Holtz).
      "If I asked Lou two questions [for a 30-minute show]," Nitz said, "that was one question too many."
      With Lambright he might have to ask 30 questions in 15 minutes. "Lots of 10-second answers," Nitz recalled. "I had to learn what to do [to interview him]."
      Longtime Ruston Daily Leader sports editor O.K. "Buddy" Davis recalled a similar traveling experience with Lambright on a ride back to Ruston from a mid-1970s game at Lamar in Beaumont, Texas.
      Assistant coach Mickey Slaughter, Davis said, had traveled to Beaumont with Lambright, and suggested after the game, "Buddy, why don't you ride back with Maxie? You will get some great insights on the game."

     "I am not exaggerating," Buddy recalled. "I bet Maxie didn't say four words the entire way back.
     "The following week, I go over to the fieldhouse and Mickey is grinning.
     "Well, O.K., how did everything go with you and Maxie?" Slaughter asked. "Did you get some good quotes?"
     I choose not to repeat Buddy's reply. But Slaughter and defensive coach Pat Collins enjoyed the laughs.
     (Next: Away from football, a friend)



Thursday, December 22, 2016

Lambright, Part VIII: The player, the family man

      (Part VIII)
      He wasn't just a football player and a coach. Maxie Lambright was a husband and father ... and "a softie." 
      Can't imagine the players he coached at Southern Mississippi and Louisiana Tech going along with "softie." But away from the game, that's the impression he left with many people.
      Born June 28, 1924, he grew up in Magnolia, Miss., a few miles south of McComb. He was the third child in the family; he had an older brother and sister.
      He was a star athlete at McComb High School, a quarterback in football, graduating in 1942. He joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, and became a Navy pilot.
      Post-war, he first attended LSU to play football, but another talented quarterback -- Y.A. Tittle -- was on campus. Tittle would become a big name in football ... but so did the young man who soon transferred close to home, to what was then called Mississippi Southern.
QB-safety at USM
     Here is some of what Lambright's "bio" on the USM M-Club Hall of Fame says about his playing career:
      "Lambright was a very intelligent football player and was truly a 'coach' on the field for coach Reed Green during the 1946, 1947 and 1948 seasons. With Lambright at the controls, Green knew he had a player outstanding at reading the defenses and knowing what play to call.
     "As a defensive back Lambright displayed the same skills he showed at quarterback, and while playing in the secondary made numerous contributions to the Southern Miss defense.
      "In 1946, Southern Miss was trying to restart its football program after World War II, and Lambright would be one of the important cogs in the rebuilding program. While seeing time at quarterback and defensive back that season he  helped the team to a 7-3 record.
      "[In 1948] Lambright would see the most playing time of his career and turn in a dazzling performance that included three interceptions as a defensive back and 204 yards passing from his quarterback position."
      While he was a player, he met his wife Geraldine Yarborough ("Gerry"), who was working on a graduate degree at USM. They were married for 30-plus years, and had two daughters.
      Linda was 13, an eighth-grader, and Lisa was 9, in third

The Lambright family, soon after
the move to Ruston
grade, when the family moved to Ruston -- and Louisiana Tech -- in 1967.
      "My Dad was pretty quick to get mad when we didn't do right," Linda recalled, a trait with which Coach Lambright's players could identify. But then, "He would spank us, and 10 minutes later, he'd be in our room apologizing."
      And the coach imparted athletic lessons.
      "I was on a swim team," Linda said, "and he would tell me, 'Swim so hard until it hurts.' " When she won five gold medals in a meet, "I realized that's what he was talking about.
      "He was a great dad," Linda added. "He made time for us when we went up there [to the Tech football offices]. And we always had a great time on family vacations in the summer."

The "soft" side of Coach Lambright (with Linda)
     "If we begged him enough about something," Linda said, "you could see him soften up. He was a softie about giving us what we wanted."
     Coach Lambright, the softie. Try that one on his football players.
     By the time Tech football was in the midst of its "golden era" with the coach -- 44-4 in four seasons (1971-74) -- Linda Lambright was a Tech student living in a campus dorm.

      And one all-conference player, a safety, would become more than a star. He would become the Lambrights' son-in-law.
      John Causey came out of the perennial powerhouse football program at Neville High (Monroe) -- still a power -- and followed his older brothers to Tech. Tom had been an All-America, all-conference end in the late 1950s; Walter a team captain and starting defensive end on Lambright's first two teams (1967-68) and a graduate assistant coach when John came on in 1969.
      But John was a walk-on; tall and thin, he had not developed physically as quickly as his brothers. However, he said he grew 40 pounds in the next few years, and by the spring of his second year at Tech, he was beginning to make his presence felt in the secondary.
      When he intercepted three passes in the spring game, he was walking off the field afterward when coach Lambright came up and said, "John, you did a great job. You don't have to worry about a scholarship while I'm here."
      And so, with the financial aid assured, he became a starter. In 1972, he intercepted 10 passes -- four in one game at Texas-Arlington -- and that school record was more than one-third of Tech's 29-interception season, still a school record.
      Plus, there was Linda.
      Sitting around between two-a-day practices early one fall and during a card-playing session, John was looking at Tech's media guide when he noticed the Lambright family photo and remarked, "Coach's daughter is pretty cute."
      As Causey remembered it, star linebacker Joe McNeely -- a "wild man" known as much for his fighting ability as his all-over-the-field tackling and coverage -- said, "I know her. I think I can get you a date with her."
      And wide receiver Pat Tilley, who would go on to star for the NFL St. Louis Cardinals, chimed in with, "You are chicken [bleep]; you're not going to date her."
      "We were all deathly afraid of Coach Lambright," Causey remembered.
Linda and John Causey
       But date her he did. Went to her dorm to meet her, and as the relationship developed, he would go to the Lambright home often over the next 2-3 years to watch TV in their den, and have meals. 
       Mrs. Lambright treated him graciously. And -- unbelievably -- Maxie never appeared.
      "I was scared to death," John recalled of the prospect. "Thankfully I never had to see Coach Lambright." 
      It speaks to the coach's integrity that he did not let the player-coach relationship cross with the personal-life dating relationship.
      "Guys would tease me," John said, " 'It's the Blue Max (the players' nickname for the coach), you better not do anything to upset him.' " But it wasn't a problem.
      And then the day after Causey's eligibility ended -- the final game of the '74 season (11-1 record, with the loss in the national Division II semifinals) -- he was at a holiday dinner at the Lambright home ... and Coach Lambright walked into the room.
      "John, you know how to play cards?" he asked. The answer was yes, "and he took me back to his den." A different relationship began, and he became family.
      "We became good friends," John said. "He was just a regular guy, so to speak. We started talking about football; he talked a lot about philosophy, he knew I wanted to coach.
      "I think he wanted to keep the pressure off me ... and him [while John played for Tech]," he said. "It was just as awkward for the coach to have a player dating his daughter as it was for me."
      "They got to be good buddies," Linda said. "It wasn't as hard for John as he thought it might be."
      Causey joined the Tech coaching staff in 1981 as secondary coach, replacing E.J. Lewis, a holdover from the Lambright staff who stayed on for one year apiece with the next two head coaches. John was on the Tech staff for six seasons (two with Billy Brewer, four with A.L. Williams).
      One other aspect: Lambright was inducted into the USM M-Club Hall of Fame in '74. Causey knew his coach had been a fine player -- and safety -- in college, "but he never talked about that. That's the kind of guy he was. He wasn't one to talk about what he'd done.            
      "We had a great relationship," John said. "I grew to love him even more."
      (Next: Maxie and the media)