Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Few have won as much, or as long, as "Corky"

      At every stop in my career, there have been outstanding coaches/people, most of them in Louisiana, where I spent 30 years.
      I've written about some in the past year, and I will again. But today's focus is on the Jacksonville, Fla., area, where I encountered some remarkable coaches in seven years there.
     That was in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and Charles "Corky" Rogers was already well on his way to being a legendary coach.
     There's no doubt now.
     After 41 seasons as a head football coach -- the first 17 (1972-88) at his alma mater, Lee High School, the last 24 at the prestigious Bolles School, Corky's teams have won 423 games, 73 of them in the playoffs, and 10 state titles. All are Florida state records.
      He might hold another -- more dubious -- record. Last January, Corky thought he was going to have shoulder surgery. Instead, tests showed heart problems. The result: Blockage in seven arteries, and immediate septuple heart bypass surgery. Septuple -- look that one up.
      He was 68 then. He wasn't just worried about his future as a football coach; he was worried about his future, period.
      But he made it back, with hard work -- the kind he's always demanded from his players and coaches, and himself. The kind it took when, in 1988, his left leg was badly damaged in a hit-and-run accident with a drunk driver. He coached that season on crutches and endured a dozen surgeries for the injuries. 
Corky Rogers (Kelly Jordan photo,
Florida Times-Union)
      It's obvious from photos I've seen in doing Internet research that he's a lot slimmer than in recent years, and it's obvious from what Bolles did this past season that he hasn't lost his touch as a coach.
      Because the Bulldogs made it back, too -- to a state championship game. For the 13th time since Corky became their coach.
      They didn't win the Florida Class 4A title last month, losing to Miami Washington 35-7 in a rematch of the 2011 state final when Bolles rallied for a 33-25 victory. It was only the third time a Rogers-coached Bolles team had lost in the championship game.
      Will Corky, who turned 69 on Dec. 19, be back for another try? I'm a long way away, and I haven't been in Jacksonville in 18 years, so I don't have that answer. But I would bet he hasn't lost his competitive urge.
      I first met Corky Rogers in the fall of 1988, not long after I became prep sports editor of the Florida Times-Union. It was clear that he was an outgoing, personable, media-savvy coach totally invested in his school -- really his school -- his program, his staff and his kids.     
      In the early 1960s, he had been a star football and baseball player for Lee -- one of Jacksonville's three old-line public high schools for whites (with Jackson and Landon). He was a key player when Lee won a 1960 Florida state football championship and a 1961 state baseball title.
      From 1963 to '66, he played wide receiver and cornerback for Georgia Tech under famed coach Bobby Dodd, winding up his college career in the Gator Bowl at home in Jacksonville. He was good enough to get a shot at making the Baltimore Colts.
      He had come back to Lee to coach, taking over as head coach in 1972 at age 28. He had taken the Rebels to 10 consecutive state playoff appearances, with his best teams in the mid-1980s featuring future Florida State/Green Bay Packers stars LeRoy Butler and Edgar Bennett.
       And then, after my first football season in Jacksonville, Corky shook up the prep world there. 
       He made a move from the public school system to the private-school world -- to Bolles, the best-known and arguably most celebrated of some classy private schools in town.
       Plus, he took an assistant coach (Wayne Belger, who had been his first QB at Lee ) with him.
       Perhaps you could term it a controversial move. There was concern that Bolles would "recruit" kids; perhaps it always had. Certainly, private schools search the area for potential students who can enroll as early as kindergarten or grade school.
       Bolles, founded in 1933 as a boys all-military school, had evolved as a coeducational school, with boarding students and top-notch facilities -- certainly the best football facility among Jacksonville high schools. Its nice main campus, on San Jose Boulevard near the St. Johns River heading into downtown, and most everything about the school had the auru of "upper class."
       In athletics, it was known mostly for state-championship level teams in basketball and baseball (Chipper Jones was MLB's No. 1 draft choice out of there in 1990) and especially swimming (a dozen Olympic stars). But football had been only so-so ... until Corky arrived.
       Didn't take him long to build a great program. He brought in a staff that has been stable for most of his 24 years there and athletes from all over, many going on to play college ball and several in the NFL.
        In all his time at Bolles, Rogers' teams have missed the state playoffs once (1992).
        He's always used the simple but tricky Wing-T offense, teaching it with precision and unyielding repitition. He's been a hard-driving, intense perfectionist, but also an approachable, affable guy away from the field. Seeing the available interviews and videos on the Internet, and remembering my talks with him some 20 years ago, he's always believed nothing substitutes for hard work -- like his idol, his father, taught him.
        Back to his record, the 423 victories. It's tied for fifth-most among high school football coaches all-time. Interestingly, the four guys ahead of him -- one of them is John T. Curtis Jr. of Louisiana's John Curtis School (in the New Orleans suburbs) -- and one guy tied with Corky are active coaches. 
        I didn't have anything to do with the other guys. But I do know this about Corky Rogers. He's remarkable.        

1 comment:

  1. From Jimmy Russell: Good story about Corky Rogers. He is obviously is a man who was where he wanted to be and was happy in what he was doing. I hope he keeps coaching and winning. He also probably knows who he really is. Some of our coaches in the coaching world think they are someone they are not. It usually catches up with them a little later.