Monday, December 3, 2012

Valdosta meant lots of W's ... and LD

     On one of my infrequent trips to the nearby Barnes & Noble -- it's like a second home -- I picked up a new sports book, Must Win. It's a behind-the-scenes look at Valdosta (Ga.) High School's 2010 football season, in particular, and the story of Valdosta football in general.
      If you're not familiar with "Titletown USA" -- as ESPN named it in 1988 -- consider this: No high school football team in the country has won more games.
No greater tradition than Valdosta High School.
      I can name a dozen programs with great traditions, and numerous state championships. In my opinion, none of them top Valdosta.
      The book, by Drew Jubera, might be -- as I read in one review -- much like Friday Night Lights, the book that chronicled a season with the powerful Odessa (Texas) Permian program and turned into a movie and a television series.
      But Must Win is of interest to me because of one guy -- Lawrence Dennis. I began reading the book and couldn't help but think of him repeatedly.
      I've seen several games at Valdosta -- 12 miles above the Georgia/Florida state line  and about 120 miles from Jacksonville. All of us who worked at the Florida Times-Union through the 1980s and '90s lived almost every day with Valdosta. Larry was the reason.
       In just about every conversation with Larry, or LD as we called him, he talked about Valdosta High football. Whether we liked it or not. And there were no short conversations with Larry.
       He wrote about high school football in South Georgia for about 25 years, but mostly about Valdosta because (1) that was the love of his sportswriting life and (2) all the Wildcats did was win.
        Some quick numbers: 876 total victories (876-209-34 record), 23 undefeated seasons since 1919, 23 state championships (the first in 1940, the last in 1998), 41 region championships, six national championships (1962, '69, '71, '84, '86, '92), two legendary coaches (Wright Bazemore, Nick Hyder).
       Larry was one of those great characters you meet in 45 years of sports journalism. He was big, he was loud, he was gruff, he was -- well -- profane, he liked his drinks, he liked his work, and he complained (the nice way to say it) about a lot.
       I swear, Larry was the role model for Archie Bunker.
        If you had suggested to Larry that he was the epitome of a redneck, he would've said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Damn right, pal, and proud of it."
       But he was a smart guy, an expert on boating -- which he covered for the Times-Union all those years -- and many other subjects. He was a student of military history, especially World War II and even more so the Civil War. The Rebel flag flying from his sailboat was a clue whose side he favored in that one.
        But he was really an expert on Valdosta football. He didn't have to look up much on that and what he couldn't remember, he'd ask his friends Sandy Atkins and Scott Alderman, the chief historians for the Wildcats (see the web site
         Larry more than wrote about the Wildcats, though. He was a star tackle for the Valdosta teams  in 1961 and '62. In fact, in Larry's three years in high school, Valdosta's record was 36-0-0 ... three Georgia state championships. He was good enough to earn a football scholarship to the University of Alabama.
         So Larry played for two coaches he revered, Bazemore and Paul "Bear" Bryant. Don't think he ever got in a game at Alabama, but he was in the program for a while, got his degree in journalism from Alabama, and thought nothing in the world was better than Valdosta or Alabama.
        (He would have snorted at my recent idea that Bill Snyder at Kansas State has done the greatest college football coaching job ever. "Pal," he would've said, "you're full of it." He wouldn't have used "it.")
         Larry was as legendary to us as the two coaches who built the Valdosta dynasty -- Bazemore and Hyder -- were to him. In fact, he wrote the words "the legendary Wright Bazemore" so often that the guys in the office simply shortened it to TLWB when talking about the man.
         We lost Larry in 2003 at age 59, kidney and liver problems taking him down after years of warnings from his doctors. He was a guy with a big heart who would do anything for anyone if he could -- even after he suggested he wouldn't.
         But he was a piece of work. He had been the prep sports editor when I came to the Times-Union midway in the 1988 football season, so I succeeded him in that role. Working with him in the office was unique.
          Larry had some expressions I've never heard before (and don't want to spell out). They were, uh, politically incorrect. He had a name for his second ex-wife that wasn't exactly endearing.
          He called parttimers "googins." We think he made that up. Looking it up, it is a fishing term and has nothing to do with parttimers. Again, I'd never heard that before, and only once since -- in The Dallas Morning News sports department some 15 years later.
        LD and I first crossed paths in the early 1970s when he was a sportswriter at the Monroe (La.) Morning World and I was in Shreveport. I'm sure he told me about Valdosta then, too, especially after Bazemore -- 14 state titles in 28 years, 11 undefeated seasons, three one-loss seasons, 268-51-7 record (83.2 percent) -- had retired after coaching a 1971 team considered one of Georgia's greatest ever, if not the best.  
       Shortly after Larry came to the Times-Union, he got one big scoop. Having covered the Clemson-Ohio State game in the 1978 Gator Bowl, he had a connection in the Ohio State athletic department. Larry was  at the team hotel the next morning and was the first to find out that Woody Hayes -- having shoved a Clemson player and swung at him on the sideline late in the game -- had been fired. Yes, the legendary Woody Hayes, who routinely abused the media and anyone who hissed him off.
        Here's what Mike Richey, our mutual good friend and sports editor in Monroe and then Jacksonville, remembers LD writing in a column: "Woody Hayes was a festering malignancy on the face of college football ..."  
        Larry loved to write about the 'Cats and TLWB and the "ghosts at Cleveland Field" helping Valdosta pull out another win. Maybe he called the stadium "Death Valley," too, although I know a couple of teams headed for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl that have their own Death Valleys.
        When I went with him as he covered Valdosta games in 1994-95, he seemed to know everyone that was anyone with the Valdosta program, and they knew him. He was treated as royalty.
         Although LD considered Bazemore -- by then wheelchair-bound and speechless after a stroke -- the greatest high school coach ever, he thought Nick Hyder was in the same class. Having dealt with Coach Hyder on the phone and meeting him at those games, I, too, thought he was classy.
         Hyder was known as a devout Christian, a life philosopher and spellbinding speaker with his players. He came in from Rome, Ga., after the coach who succeeded Bazemore was fired following 9-1 and 8-2 seasons -- yes, expectations were high in Valdosta. Hyder's first team went 3-7, but 10-2 in '75 kept him around and soon he was winning big.  In 22 years, he went 249-36-2 (87.1 percent, better than Bazemore).  That included six undefeated teams, six one-loss teams, seven state champions.            
          In the first five seasons I was at the Times-Union, Valdosta (and Hyder) went 64-3-1. Think Larry wasn't proud?
          Sadly, Hyder died of a heart attack in the school cafeteria in 1996, at age 61. His public funeral was held at Cleveland Field, with the home-side stands filled and his coffin placed at midfield. His gravesite includes a huge memorial wall. Bazemore, who died in 1998, had a more low-key funeral and has a more simple burial plot.
            The tradition, and the expectations, continue at Valdosta High. The Wildcats are still winning (7-4 this season), but changing demographics and less enrollment have made the program just ordinary these days.
            Its crosstown rival Lowndes, the county school, has won four state titles and another South Georgia school, Camden County (St. Marys), has won three since Valdosta's last title in '98.
            LD wouldn't like this much. But he'd think the ghosts are still rattling around at what is now, appropriately, called Bazemore-Hyder Stadium. He'd want to read this book, and he would have liked it. Plus, history buff that he was, he'd have found something to correct.
Link to the story in The New York Times from which the author developed his book ...
Links to stories on the two Valdosta coaching giants ...


  1. Nice job coach. You did Larry proud.

  2. From Sandy Alderman: Really enjoyed your column … you captured “Jawbone” very well. Of course there was a lot you couldn’t include. And as we know, mere words on a screen could never convey the animated, supreme irascibility that “LD” spewed forth. I had the same challenge when I wrote and spoke his eulogy at his service in Valdosta. Good for me though … everybody there knew him personally so they could read between the lines. Those were some good old days when Sandy and I had the pleasure of getting phone calls late at night from Mr. Gruff with no “Hello” but instead simply “Well [bleep], Scott …”. But to know Larry was to love him, and as you wrote, we all know he had a big heart, although not for all members of the human species. There were so many favorite stories with Larry … but they all boiled down to his incredible ability to know who he could like and trust, and when he did, the laughter and conversation were endless. I really miss that ole ... But like you, I imagine he could not have handled our changing world since he died. ... You pegged him right when you said he was the role model for Archie Bunker.