Tuesday, July 31, 2012

One coach tops them all

     My favorite coach, and one of my favorite people, is a gentleman -- a gentle man -- named Lee Hedges.
     People who know me well, know that A.L. Williams, Jerry Adams and James C. Farrar rank near the top of my coaching list. But those three men will tell you that Lee Hedges also is at the top of their list.
       No high school football coach in Shreveport-Bossier ever won more games. Few in Louisiana, in fact, have a better won-loss record. But it's not wins and losses that define Coach Hedges; it's  respect.
       I have three football coaching favorites: Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys), Joe Aillet (Louisiana Tech) and Lee Hedges. All of them have stadiums named for them. All of them were soft-spoken, low-key, brilliant strategists, superbly organized, born leaders.
      Two words is really all I need: Class act.
Lee Hedges, with quarterback Terry Bradshaw
at Woodlawn, 1965
     Coach Hedges obviously wasn't as high-profile as Landry and Aillet, but his coaching life lasted roughly as long and he had the same remarkable influence on the people whose lives he touched.
        He is almost 83 now, and life isn't as easy these days. He can't get around as well anymore; nothing debilitating, just the pains and aches and hardships that come with advancing age.
         But the honors -- well-deserved -- keep coming for him. On Saturday, he will be inducted into the Ark-La-Tex Sports Museum of Champions. Three years ago, he went into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
        He's been in my Hall of Fame for 50 years.
         I went from being a manager on his Woodlawn High football teams to a sports writer covering his teams, including the 1973 Captain Shreve team that gave him his only state championship.
          I always knew, as did everyone around him, that he was going to run a first-class program, that he was going to put what was best for his kids and the good of his school above anything personal.
         He is one of the most modest people I know, considering his success. And one of the most respected.
          "I don't know of a coach who is more respected than Lee Hedges, " A.L. Williams told a reporter a couple of years ago. "You always knew his teams would do things the right way because that's what he expected of them, and everyone around him wanted to please him so much.
          "People wanted Lee to coach their kids because they respected him so much."
          A.L. was part of Coach Hedges' staff when Woodlawn opened, a staff many regard as one of the best ever in North Louisiana high school football, a staff totally dedicated and focused. A.L. would succeed him as head coach after the 1965 season, then coach against him when Coach Hedges -- after one year on Coach Aillet's staff at Louisiana Tech -- started the program at Captain Shreve when it opened in 1967.
           Jerry Adams was also on that Woodlawn staff and also would end up coaching against Coach Hedges. Same for Billy Joe Adcox.
           "Lee was the shepherd, and we were his flock," Coach Adams has told me often. "Everything we did, all our success, was because of him. He set it all up for us."
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         A quick summary of Lee Hedges' football coaching record: 27 seasons as a head coach, beginning at age 26 at Byrd in 1956 after only one year as an assistant; a 216-92-9 record (.698), only three losing seasons (two of them in first years at Woodlawn and Shreve); 11 district titles; 19 playoff years; three state finalists, two other times in the semifinals.
        With a few breaks here and there, he could have won five state titles. His teams lost some heartbreakers deep in the playoffs.
        His tennis teams at Captain Shreve -- and he was as good a tennis instructor as he was a football coach -- won 15 state championships.
        But, again, it's not the numbers. It was the method.
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         I remember him saying often that coaching simply boiled down to this -- teaching. He was on the field to teach the game, to teach his players to be in the right spots, to play the right way.
         He was as diligent a teacher of football as he was of math in the classroom, which he did for decades in high school and adult education, and on the tennis court for thousands of kids, young and old, through his late 70s at Pierremont Oaks Tennis Club.
         Think Landry and Aillet. He didn't scream; he wasn't emotional. His practices, his meetings, were business-like. In all the years, I only saw him raise his voice a couple of times. When that happened, the practice field got real quiet. Conversely, when something really excited him, the most animated he might get was to greet someone with "attababy, attaboy." Practices were tough, but there was a degree of fun there, too.
Lee Hedges, as an LSU running back,
early 1950s
          He wasn't a disciplinarian; he let his assistants take care of much of that. But when he had to discipline a player, or dismiss one, he did. It wasn't something he enjoyed. He rarely cut anyone from the program.
           But he didn't have many problem kids, nor did they need much motivation. They wanted to play for him because they knew how much winning and playing well meant to him.
           He loved the running game, loved the old-school physical style of football way he had learned  when he was a star running back at Fair Park and LSU in the late 1940s/1950s. The people who saw him then, or knew of him, said he was just as respected and as much of a leader as he would be as a coach.
           But at Woodlawn and then at Captain Shreve, he opened up his offense to an extent few coaches did, and had some of the greatest passers and receivers in the state in the 1960s and '70s. He was a masterful teacher of quarterbacks, including the young, raw Terry Bradshaw.
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       From a media standpoint, he was a delight. He almost always had time, even when he was deep into film study, looking for ways to exploit defenses or ways to stop the other team. He'd stop the projector for a few minutes, and give you exactly what you needed for your story.
        He wasn't expansive with his answers; there wasn't a lot of bull. He knew what you wanted and he answered honestly and earnestly. His comments were succinct but exact.
        He was quiet and more reserved after losses -- he was a tough loser -- but he didn't deal in excuses. If there was something that displeased him, he would say, "Don't put this in there." But he was quiet after victories, too, not boastful. Injuries to players -- his and the other team's -- concerned him a great deal, win or lose.
        Mostly I loved going in and just talking with him. It was even better when he wasn't focused on a game, when he had time just to chat. Reserved as he is, Lee Hedges is an engaging people person.
        I can tell you this: After almost every game when I covered his team, he would say: "Give the kids a good writeup. They deserve it."
         A week ago when I told him I was going to write this piece, he said, "Oh, I don't know. I'm history. I'm done; I'm just a piece of history now."
          I can't look at it that way. Lee Hedges is a coach for forever, a coach for the ages.
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       For two stories on Lee Hedges' Hall of Fame career and honors, please see:

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