Saturday, December 17, 2016

Lambright, Part II: The coaching road, through USM

       (Part II of a series)
       Until he became the head football coach at Louisiana Tech University in 1967, Maxie Lambright -- as a young coach -- was very much the "hands-on" type.
       It was that way his first nine years as a high school coach and the next eight years as the offensive backfield coach -- and much more -- at the University of Southern Mississippi.
       That would change somewhat when he became a college head coach, at Louisiana Tech. He would trust and give more responsibility to the coaching staff he put together that stayed mostly intact for 12 years.
       But not entirely. Sometimes the "hands-on" prerogative would return, and everyone would be reminded -- although they always knew -- who was in charge.
       One thing never changed. Throughout his 29-year coaching career, he was a winner.
Maxie and Gerry Lambright: Their journey
covered several football stops over 29 years.
       The journey, with his new wife Gerry, began in 1950 for five years as an assistant at Mississippi schools, Greenwood and Greenville. With small coaching staffs, he had to learn to coach the entire game, not just the backs.
       It was the same in his first head coaching job, 1955 at Winona, Miss., where his team went 10-1 and won the Delta Valley Conference championship.
      He came to Louisiana as a head coach in 1956 for a three-year stay at Bolton High (Alexandria) -- and a 22-7-1 record, with at least seven victories each year.
      That was in a tough district that included perennial powers Sulphur and Lake Charles High. In 1958, when Mickey Slaughter (soon headed for Louisiana Tech) was the senior quarterback, the Bears went to Lake Charles and beat the state champions-to-be (Tommy Mason, future Tulane and NFL star, was their best  running back). 
      It was an era of power football, run-oriented offenses, with passing mostly on a "need" basis and simple one- or two-receiver options. Lambright's philosophy fit that era, and he knew he could teach the basics of blocking and tackling.
      And it was much the same when he moved to college coaching in 1959 at his school, Southern Miss. Lambright was a proponent of the running game, and USM had an option-type offense with strong, physical teams.
      Head coach  Thad "Pie" Vann, in the 10 years before Lambright joined his staff, had one of the nation's best small-college programs, with winning teams each year (except a 5-5 record in his second season). That included seasons of 10-2, 9-2, 9-1, 7-2-1, 8-3 and the 9-0 small-college national championship team of 1958.
      Maxie moved in -- and took over the offense.

      To suggest that Lambright was the "brains" of the USM program from 1959 to 1966 is, said the 1963-65 quarterback star Vic Purvis, "a gross understatement."
      A small high school star QB who came to USM after a tryout with Lambright and a one-year scholarship, Purvis said, "The best thing Coach Vann ever did was hire a guy named Maxie Lambright and turned it over to him."
      Purvis convinced the coach he was going to grow -- and he did. But he showed enough skills, smarts and speed in fall drills as a freshman to quickly be offered a full scholarship. By his third year (after freshman ball and a redshirt year), he recalls being the team's fastest player -- and its option-running starting QB.
      Which meant plenty of meetings with Coach Lambright, including the Sunday day-after-a-game film reviews and later "sessions on the [next] game plans. I dreaded those," Purvis said. "He'd give you down-and-distance situations, and then say, 'Give me a play, quick.' You'd better have the right answers."
      (That's reminiscent of what former Tech quarterbacks Jimmy Orton and Billy Laird, both from Shreveport and both outstanding coaches after their playing careers, recalled about QB meetings with Tech coach Joe Aillet.)
      Purvis recalled being in Lambright's office one football game week when the coach was working on the offensive game plan. After they talked, Lambright said, "All right, you need to get out of here; I have to work on the defensive game plan."
      Purvis was confused. "You do the defensive game plan?" he asked. "Purvis, when you run the offense," Lambright answered, "don't you think you also need to know what the defense is doing? We might have had a defensive coordinator, but Maxie was drawing up the plans."
      On the practice field, though, he saw some scenes he would remember -- Lambright scolding (or worse) offending players. After one particular mad scene, not involving him, Purvis stopped by the office for a meeting.
      "What did you think of my performance?" Lambright asked. Purvis said he could only shrug, afraid to give the wrong reply.
      "I'm a very patient man," Maxie told him. "I will take all the time to explain [to players] what we do and why we do it. But I can't stand players making the same mistakes again. Either way, if they don't understand me or they deliberately defy me, I can't stand it."
      The players and coaches in future years at Louisiana Tech would understand that.
     With Lambright on the USM staff, the Southerners had eight winning seasons -- a 53-23-1 total record -- and the 1962 team (9-1, following an 8-2 season) was declared the small-college national champion.  
     It might not be coincidental that when Lambright moved to Tech, USM had a 6-3 record in 1967, then only one winning season (6-5 in 1971) over the next five seasons.
Vic Purvis
       "Pie" Vann was as highly respected as Coach Aillet at Tech -- their teams faced each other for 18 consecutive years -- and Purvis said Coach Vann was "a father figure. He made football a serious business for us. He taught us to work hard, to be disciplined, and he was a great diplomat." (Again, reminiscent of Tech people's view of Aillet.)
       Lambright, he said, "wasn't beloved. There were times when he scared you, and he was never your best friend."
       But then there was the day when Purvis threw a last-minute TD pass to beat Memphis State and "he kissed me on the cheek."
      Purvis, who had a brief pro football career and then returned to a successful business career in the Hattiesburg area, for 41 years was the analyst on USM football radio broadcasts, retiring at the end of the 2014 season after doing 471 games.
      "I admired him," he said. "I believe if his health hadn't given out, he would have been known nationally as a college legend. I've never known anyone as smart as he was."
      As it was, Lambright certainly would become known as a Louisiana Tech legend.
     (Next: He "let his coaches coach" at Tech)



  1. From Doug Boulware: Very nice article on Coach Lambright. I really loved that man and it was sad to see him fall ill. ... Hindsight is 20/20 but I will always believe Coach Pat Collins should have been his successor.

  2. From Joe Harris: A good man, had several nice conversations with him.