Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The toughest/best coaches in Jacksonville

      A few weeks ago, I wrote about the most memorable high school coach of my time in the Jacksonville, Fla., area (Iate '80s/early '90s), and I promised to revisit some of the other top coaches there.
      Other than Corky Rogers, the football coach who most made an impression on me was Bob Withrow, perhaps the most rock-hard coach I've encountered.
      Withrow was an offensive lineman at East Carolina in the late 1960s; in fact, when we first began talking after I came to the Florida Times-Union during the 1988 football season, he remembered playing against Louisiana Tech a couple of times.
      We (I was the student sports information assistant/statistician) played East Carolina in 1968; in fact, it the first game at the new Joe Aillet Stadium, and the Tech quarterback in our 35-7 victory was Terry Bradshaw.
      Bradshaw also led the Bulldogs to a 24-6 win at East Carolina in 1969, the last year that Withrow was part of the run-heavy old single-wing offense used by Pirates coach Clarence Stankovich, who was regarded as one of the nation's top mid-major coaches in the 1960s.
      I remember Withrow well because (1) he was a good source, a knowledgable guy to talk to about football in the Jacksonville area and (2) his coaching philosophy.
      He believed in having his players go full speed, full contact ... every day, every drill of the season (and probably off-season). He pushed them to the limit to play physically.
      It's rare, it's not how I believe it should be, but it worked for Withrow and his kids. 
      He had three separate stints at Sandalwood. He took the Saints to the state semifinals before I came to Florida, then got out of coaching after a conflict with a new school principal; then came back after that principal left, took charge again of a program that had diminished greatly, and in only two years had his team back in the the state semifinals.
      I noted from Internet research that he came back to Sandalwood for a third stint in 2008, but he's since retired.       

      I think of Fred Pickard, a Florida State star running back of the late 1950s who was a college head coach (UT-Martin and then  head coach for 21 years at Terry Parker High, and Jerry Disch, the longtime coach at Forest and Englewood and when I was at the Times-Union, the very cooperative and helpful athletic director for Duval County schools.
        Freddie Stephens, whose Raines teams beat a lot of folks in my time there; Joe Montgomery, who had dominant teams at Lake City Columbia, then went to Gaffney, S.C., and Rock Hill, S.C., and had some big winners; and the late Bob Williams, a veteran who knew what he was doing at my son's high school, Orange Park, at the end of a long, successful career.
        There was Dan Disch, the young coach at Ed White High on Jacksonville's West side, son of Coach Jerry. Dan's Commanders teams were competitive and fun to watch, not big winners, but you knew the coach had something going for him. He went from Ed White to the University of Florida staff with Ron Zook, moved to Illinois with Zooker, then joined Larry Fedora's staff at Southern Mississippi as defensive coordinator/secondary coach, and now is in the same roles under Fedora at North Carolina. I'm not surprised.
       Baseball gave us Howard May at Terry Parker and Bob West at Bishop Kenny, Jack Spencer at Englewood -- all big winners.
      In track, it was James Day of Raines, who introduced Bob Hayes to the world, and Paul Nowicki of Wolfson. Swimming was future University of Florida and U.S. team coach Gregg Troy, then at Bolles School.

Bernard Wilkes
 (photo from fhsaa.org) 
       In basketball, Buddy Ward was a classy state championship coach at Bolles, and Al Austin was the dominant girls coach/athletic director at Ribault, who had eight state-title teams.
        But the most memorable basketball coach was Bernard Wilkes, the barrel-chested, deep-voiced showman whose Ribault boys teams were almost always the best in the area in the 1980s/early 1990s.
        Although I wasn't covering games -- I was the prep sports editor in charge of young people who did cover and wrote about the events -- I met Bernard a few times and watched his teams play a couple of times. His kids played hard for him.
        He'd put on a show, as longtime Times-Union columnist Gene Frenette wrote -- inevitably whipping off his coat in dramatic fashion and urging on his kids in, let's say boisterous ways.
       Loved to talk to Bernard on the phone when he'd call in games, or just to chat, because it was always great to hear him laugh. He was a jovial character, a big, friendly teddy bear.
      And I loved to kid him that I was his good-luck charm. Here's why.
      When I arrived in Jacksonville before the 1988-89 basketball season, Bernard had taken his Ribault Trojans to the state tournament seven times, and he had no state championships.
       By the time I left in October 1995, Bernard and Ribault had four state championships.
I reminded him of that whenever we talked.
       The Trojans won in 1989, '90, '94 and '95 -- but none before and none after I was there, although they made the state semifinals 16 times (they finished second four times).
        He was at Ribault for 30 seasons and 758 victories -- the most by any Florida high-school coach at the end of his career -- and 21 district championships. And it was against strong competition, but Wilkes taught pressure defense and up-tempo play as well as anyone.
        Sadly, he passed away suddenly March 5, 2006, at age 57, a victim of diabetes and heart disease. And the guy had a big heart. Gene Frenette wrote a beautiful piece on him the day after he died. It's worth re-reading.


1 comment:

  1. From Mike Richey: Good piece, Nico. I hope some of those guys get a chance to read it. ... James Day was one of my favorites. The first time I went out to see him at Raines I was struck by how much the school reminded me of Neville (Monroe). I don't know that I saw any other public schools that had as much student body spirit but I certainly didn't get around to all of them. And, of course, coach Day was just a class act. I think the principal was Jimmy Johnson, who had been either football or basketball coach. He was also a nice guy who later won a couple of terms on the school board. Both of those guys were all about the kids.