Friday, December 16, 2016

One Louisiana Tech legend followed another

      (First of a series)
      For 26 seasons (1940-66), Louisiana Tech had a College Football Hall of Fame head coach.
      For the next 12 seasons (1967-78), the Bulldogs were led by a coach who should be in the College Football Hall of Fame.
      One legend followed by another: Joe Aillet, Maxie Lambright.
      So for 38 seasons, Louisiana Tech football had ability, stability, leadership, respect and a winning tradition. These were men the players, the people on campus and in town, and the alumni could count on.
       The university's football stadium is named for Aillet, who had the long-range vision for the facility. The Tech recreational center is named for Lambright.
       Coach Aillet was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989 -- 23 years after he coached his final game, 19 after his final year as athletic director. 
Maxie Lambright
(his Louisiana Tech Athletics
Hall of Fame photo)
        It has been 38 years since Coach Lambright coached his final game. But, for an inexplicable reason, he was never even nominated for the College Football Hall of Fame until 2015.
        Perhaps only a dozen years as a college head coach is not enough of a qualification for those who vote on this honor. But what a 12 years it was.
        Seven conference titles, in a 10-year period. Three national championships in NCAA Division II -- two awarded by poll voters, one won officially (on the field). Two Independence Bowl (Division I) appearances. A final record of 95-36-2 (.722). 
        And, over four seasons (1971-74), the "golden era" of Tech football -- an overall 44-4 record, one "perfect" season, a 23-game winning streak, a 37-1 stretch, four conference titles, the national titles.
        (Plus, before he came to Tech, Lambright for eight years was the offensive backfield coach at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi. Those were all winning seasons, with one national small-college championship team.)
        As consistent a winner as Coach Aillet's teams were -- 21 winning seasons, 12 conference titles -- there was never a "perfect" season (three near-misses, 9-1 records) and never a national poll or a playoff at Tech's level of play (NCAA small-college).
         But that certainly is no criticism of "The Smooth Man." Dating to the 1930s as a high school coach and advocate for athletics in Louisiana, he had an impeccable reputation. And Tech's record under him -- 152-85-8 (.637) -- included 12 conference championships.
         He was a big winner, a tough act to follow. But the man who followed him at La. Tech, a controversial choice for the job early in 1967 (but through no fault of his own), proved he was up to it. He, too, was a big winner.
          Aillet and Lambright: different men, different styles. But also much in common.
          Joe Aillet was, most everyone agreed, a brilliant man, one of the smartest on the Tech campus, a professorial type -- if he had chosen, he could have taught English, or chemistry, or psychology, or engineering. But he chose to teach athletics, especially football and golf.
           He was a coach who stressed the student part of student-athlete, and he was a disciplinarian, in a quiet way.
           He was a compelling and popular public speaker  when time permitted (in the football off-season), one of Tech's top spokesmen.
           Soft-spoken but his Cajun upbringing not all that evident as he spoke, he rarely raised his voice -- even in football practices, meetings or in game situations.
           He knew practically all there was to know about football techniques, strategy, trends. His Tech teams often were among the first college teams to change offensive formations, for instance the pro-style passing game in the early 1960s.
           He had a large loyal following of Tech people -- especially his former players but also among the university  administrators, faculty and staff.
           His coaching staff, the athletic staff, had stability -- offensive line/track and field coach Jim Mize was with him    for 25 years (the last four when Aillet remained as athletic director), ends coach Huey Williamson for 16 years, defensive coach George Doherty for 10, and defensive backs coach E.J. Lewis for four.
           Plus, Cecil Crowley -- who dated to Haynesville High days with Coach Aillet -- was on the football staff and head basketball coach for 16 years, then basketball-only for another nine, and Berry Hinton was the baseball coach for 23 years and also the Tech alumni director.
           And, although Tech was not a "major" school, Coach Aillet was well-known among coaches nationally -- and had been for three decades.
           Few people knew who Maxie Lambright was when Tech president Dr. F. Jay Taylor -- with the athletic council's approval -- named him to succeed Aillet. It was a surprise to many who thought Doherty was the heir apparent.
           Lambright had spent 14 coaching years in Mississippi, but had made a previous coaching stop in Louisiana, three years (1956-58) as head coach at Bolton (Alexandria) High School. This is where he first encountered a young quarterback named Mickey Slaughter.
           At that time, Dr. Taylor had been across the Red River in neighboring Pineville as a dean at Louisiana College. Maybe they had met, maybe not. But Dr. Taylor likely took  notice of the success Lambright's teams had at Bolton. 
           Temperament-wise, Lambright away from football mostly was cool, calm, calculating and caring -- like Aillet. He was that way at times, too, in football, but -- unlike Aillet -- he often was intense.
           That's a nice way to put it. As one person told me, "He had a hair-trigger temper. He could rage."
           This is a repetitive point made in the interviews in which Coach Lambright was the subject.
           His assistant coaches and his players, simply put, feared him. Perhaps he wasn't as well liked as Aillet, but -- no question -- he was just as respected.
            And here's what he had in common with Coach Aillet:     
            (1) A stable coaching staff -- one much younger and more aggressive than the previous one. The staff he assembled was, most everyone agrees, one of the real keys to the program's success in the Lambright era.
            Four coaches -- Slaughter, Lewis, Pat Collins and Pat "Gravy" Patterson -- were with Lambright for all 12 years. Wallace Martin, who replaced Jimmy Mize in 1971,  was with him for eight years. All but Lewis were Tech graduates and ex-players. And his assistants were as loyal to him as he was to them.
             "He was a great guy. He was like a second father to me," said Collins. "I was very close to him, on and off the field. He didn't make mistakes. If he did, I don't remember them."
            "He let everyone do his job," said Martin. "He was extremely fair and very understanding. I thoroughly enjoyed coaching for him."
            "With all the [coaching staff] egos sitting around the table, it took a man like Maxie Lambright to hold it together," said Lewis, now 88 and living in Ruston. "He had his finger on everything." 
             (2) He was, as various people described him, "highly intelligent" with a "terrific memory" and more talents, more history, than most people would have realized.
A young Maxie Lambright, Navy pilot
             He had been a Navy pilot in World War II (as had Dr. Taylor); like Coach Aillet could -- and would -- quote classic literature, such as segments from Shakespeare -- Lambright would recite poetry; he could entertain his coaches by playing the piano.
               "He amazed you all the time with the things he could do," Collins said.
              (3) There was no doubt about his football intellect.
              It was a Southern Mississippi person who put it best. Vic Purvis was perhaps Lambright's best quarterback there, playing in 1963-65, a much better runner -- in an option-based offense -- than passer. He thought he had learned a lot of football from the backfield coach; he knew it after he went to the Boston Patriots in 1966.
             "There was no one up there in his league," Purvis said. "The way he saw the game, the way he taught it, the way he analyzed it. The thought process of the game. He knew what plays would work, and he was always thinking 2-3 plays ahead. 
             "He could see the entire alignment, what everyone did -- the quarterback, the backs, the offensive line. And he could do the same with the defense.
            "He was the most amazing coach. I've never seen anyone who could do what he could do."
             (Sounds much like his ex-players and coaches would have said about Coach Aillet.)
             But one of the differences between Aillet and Lambright was the public persona.
             Where Aillet was comfortable and visible and accessible to the outside world -- the campus personalities, fans, media -- Lambright was reserved. 
              Meeting boosters, raising funds were not as crucial to athletic programs in those days because the state of Louisiana supplied much of the funds not raised through ticket sales. Lambright, while certainly not incapable of speech-making, didn't relish it.
             "I don't think he cared that much about being part of the community," said Keith Prince, Tech's sports information director for the last 10 years of the Lambright era. "I think his mindset was, 'I'm coaching football; this is my deal, this is who I am.' I think others, like Dr. Taylor, wanted him to be more involved with the public."
             Prince, though, was very much a Lambright fan (as pointed out in a later chapter). 
             "He was a marvelous coach," Prince said. "He took care of the details. He let his coaches coach, but he had the final word."
             "I wouldn't say he was shy," Collins said, "but he was very modest. We were very blessed to have known him and coached with him. I loved and worshipped the guy. He wasn't a guy, though; he was a man's man."
            (Next, Part II: The coaching road, through USM)


  1. From Dr. Les Guice: What a great story. Thank you for documenting such a special part of Tech's history and Tech's people.

  2. From James Cottrell: Outstanding writing. Captured everything my dad said about Aillet.

  3. From Bud Dean: Very good. Did you know he could play the juice harp?

    1. I did know that; Pat Collins had mentioned it. ... I had no clue what a juice harp is. Looked it up, and here's what I found: It is one of the world's oldest musical instruments. (From the freedictionary) A small musical instrument consisting of a lyre-shaped metal frame that is held between the teeth and a projecting steel tongue that is plucked to produce a soft twanging sound. (from Wikipedia) The Jew's harp is also known as the jaw harp, mouth harp, Ozark harp or juice harp.

  4. From Rick Cleveland: Wonderful, reads like a fine book. I am going to send it to Archie [Manning] and talk to him about pushing Maxie for the [College Football] Hall of Fame.

  5. From Maxie Hays: I love your blog on Maxie Lambright.
    When Coach Mize retired, Maxie Lambright and Tech gave me a complimentary interview for the track job. Because of what the great kids I had at Mansfield did for my track record, what the great kids I had at Cedar Creek did for my track record and my helping Coach Mize in some ways with the Tech track program, O.K. "Buddy" Davis gave me some good ink regarding being a candidate for the Tech track job. Anyway, Coach Lambright honored me with an interview. He and Mr. [Robert] Snyder interviewed me.
    It was a wonderful hour spent talking to two wonderful Tech gentlemen. Mr. Snyder did the complementary talking regarding my experience as a high school track coach on my resume and Coach Lambright asked the coaching, recruiting, etc, etc, questions regarding being the head track coach at Tech. His questions were thorough and well thought out regarding what a good track coach should be like. One of the best conversations regarding coaching track that I ever had with anyone during my career. One of the most enjoyable hours that I ever spent talking track.