Wednesday, February 22, 2017

James Farrar: An inspiration for his fellow coaches

      (Note: Second part of three pieces written 4 1/2 years ago -- and updated a bit to reflect changes since then. James Farrar died a few months after these first appeared.)
    The men who coached with or against James C. Farrar have fond memories of him. And the fondest memories are that of fun.
     Jerry Burton became a legend at Northwood High School, the longtime head football coach and athletic director. But in his first stint there, he was an assistant on Farrar's staff when the school opened in the fall of 1967.
     "Best time of my life," Burton said in 2012 (he died in June 2014). "We enjoyed each other. There was no bickering. We'd gather at Coach's house after games with him and Miss Kate as hosts. We were a close staff ... and we were pretty good."
     It was Burton who helped pave the way for Coach Farrar's induction into the Northwood Hall of Fame and for the naming of the school's baseball field for him.
     "I worked under several head coaches," said Burton, "and he was the very best for discipline and organization.
      "We were prepared for anything that [opponents] could do against us. ... He was thorough in everything he did. If the kids saw defenses they hadn't seen before, we had a call, 'Ungodly.' It was a defensive set we were supposed to get in. He had a defense ready for everything."

     But it was more than the X's and O's.
     "Don't get me wrong, he knew football," Burton said. "But it was his organization and his discipline that I remember most. He had that military background, so he had these rules, and the kids had to follow them. He was hard on the kids, but they loved him. ... And he was such a unique person; he had a story for everything."
      In fact, the stories might get repetitive.
      "Grover (Colvin) started this code for the stories," Burton recalled. "Coach would start a story and Grover would call out a number [to signify which story it would be). Oh, that gave Coach Farrar the red ass."
      "I figured, we might as well number them," said Colvin, a longtime coach in Shreveport-Bossier and in 2012 a financial consultant in Fort Worth who lived in nearby Godley, Texas. "Is this story No. 8 or No. 15? We'd heard all the stories, so to save time, if we just said a number, we wouldn't have to hear them again.
      "He could tell those stories, though. You felt like you were right there with him."
      And there was one day, on a weekend, when the Northwood staff was spending extra hours doing laundry and working on tasks around the dressing room.
      "Philip Johnson was griping about having to wash the uniforms, and he kept on about it," Burton remembered. "Coach Farrar is listening and he's patting his billfold. You can see him getting irritated. And then he says, 'I'll tell you one G.D. thing. When I was at Sibley, I had to do it all -- the laundry, the equipment, line the field.' And then Philip says, 'Well, if I had to coach at Sibley, I wouldn't coach at all.' "
     Not exactly the correct reply.
     "We all just starting ducking under desks," Burton said.
     Burton also recalled a night when Northwood was playing against Bethune at State Fair Stadium. We kept running the wham play [from a Power-I formation, the fullback and wingback lead on an off-tackle run by the tailback]," he said. "We are hurting them with it, and they had a linebacker who kept moving closer and closer to the line of scrimmage, sticking it in there and he's stuffing the runs. I'm in the press box calling plays and I get Coach Farrar on the phone and say, "Let's run the wham pass,' figuring we can throw down the middle to the tight end, and the linebacker isn't going to cover him.
     "We fake the run, throw the pass, and the linebacker steps in and intercepts the ball, runs it back for a touchdown.
      "Coach Farrar gets me on the phone and says, 'Got any more ideas, Burton?'
       "And I said, 'No, sir, not tonight.' "
        At a time when game-night attire for coaches always had been coat-and-tie, Burton remembered that Farrar was the first in the area to have his staff wear coaching shirts and khaki pants.
       "He always had the kids prepared, the coaches prepared," Burton said. "I adopted a lot of what he did with my teams. Any success I had, he had a lot to do with it."
     Lynn Mitchell was also on that Northwood staff, and his recollection was that Farrar "was a special guy to be around coaching. He let you coach; he didn't look over your shoulder. You knew who the (head) coach was, but he let you coach. He expected you to do your job and coach kids the best you could."
     Mitchell remembered a game, against Leesville perhaps, when he was in charge of defense and Farrar "says to me, 'Coach, let's go man to man and send everybody we've got [after the quarterback].' So I called that defense. Well, we didn't cover a man coming out of the backfield and he runs up the middle of the field and scores an easy touchdown.
      "Coach Farrar comes up behind me and leans over my neck and says, 'Coach, I'll never say anything to you again.' "
      Mitchell said the coaching staff often had to wait a long time near the practice field while Farrar talked to the team in a meeting room. "When he got into those motivational talks, it could take a while," he said. "We would just be sitting around on the practice dummies waiting. Finally, he would bring the kids out.
     "He was some kind of fun. But discipline, he was made for that. He had signs around the dressing room, 'Discipline, hard work and sacrifice,' and he held the kids to that. ... He was well-respected by the kids. They were in awe of him, but they were not afraid. When he said something, they knew they needed to do it."
    Jimmy Orton is one of the best all-around athletes in Fair Park history -- a shortstop and leader of the 1957 state championship team coached by Milford Andrews, the first basketball player to have his jersey (No. 10) retired at Fair Park, and a standout quarterback who went on to play at Louisiana Tech before signing to play pro ball in the New York Yankees' organization. He came back to coach at Fair Park in 1964, eventually was the head football coach and just missed winning a state title in 1974.
     Orton's first association with Farrar came when the coach was player-manager of the Minden Redbirds in the Big Eight (semipro baseball) League, and Orton -- after his junior year in high school -- was the league's youngest player. He had to receive permission from the Louisiana High School Athletic Association -- and commissioner T.H. "Muddy" Waters -- to play and remain eligible for his senior year at Fair Park.
    "Coach Farrar took me under his wing," he said, "because I was so young. Most of the guys in that league were older; some had played pro ball, some were in college. It was a fast league. I learned more that year about life and baseball than I ever did."
     Orton was an assistant coach on Farrar's 1965 state championship baseball team.
     "He knows so many people, and he can tell stories on them, and they tell stories on him," Orton said in 2012. "It was great to be around him. He was so unique, and he is so unique."
     Orton said one of the secrets to Fair Park's baseball success was that Farrar "had it set up where he got his kids at 12:30 p.m. (with study hall for a fifth period and P.E. counting for sixth period), and they'd start practice soon after that, and practice until dark. He really worked them."
    He said Farrar was "especially good with catchers and pitchers. Give him any time with a catcher and if the kid had any potential, after Farrar worked with him, he was going to be a player. 
    "He had a knack for talking to the kids in a way they understood, the way he taught them. He would get on them -- if I talked to them that way, it wouldn't work -- but they loved him, loved being around him."
    Charlie Wilkinson -- "Sam" to most everyone -- was one of Coach Farrar's close friends for many years. An All-State first baseman for Fair Park before Coach came there, he got to know him in the mid-1950s when Orton played in the Big Eight league.
    Sam was a trainer/equipment manager in the Houston Astros' organization for many years, so he had an Astros tie with Coach Farrar. The friendship grew through the years and Sam helped at Northwood as a volunteer trainer.
    "He was so detailed, took care of all the details, even to the way his players wore their uniforms," Sam said in the last year of Farrar's life. "... He kept his players in line, kept them doing the right things. It was his personality. He could grind on them, but they loved him. His was always constructive criticism, trying to make his players better."   
     What he liked especially about the Northwood days was "that the whole school rallied around him, and he rallied the school. His players behaved and he supported all the programs. He had everyone involved."
    Sam says Farrar "loved watching the history channels, the shows on the military" and he loved duck hunting, and of course, telling stories. "And he had all the one-liners.
    "He's just an old warrior,' he said in 2012. "He calls me 'Big C,' and not long ago when I saw him, he said, 'Big C, I might have health problems, but they can't take away the good memories.' Great attitude, but it hurts me to see him going through this."
    Doug Robinson, the LSUS athletic director in 2012, was the head football coach and an assistant at several Shreveport public schools. In his first year as a head baseball coach, his 1970 Fair Park team surprisingly won the state championship -- continuing the tradition Farrar directed just a few years earlier. A few years later, Robinson was on Farrar's staff at Southfield.
    "He's the finest guy that ever lived," Robinson says. "... He's awesome, awesome to work for. He's fun. Those were priceless years -- four great years at Southfield. I got my ass chewed a few times by the very best.
     "He got more out of kids than anyone I know."
    There were a few times when the coaching staff clashed, and Robinson said he was the cause at least once. He was in charge of calling defenses.
    Robinson: "We were playing someone -- St. Mary's maybe -- and looking at the films, Coach Farrar said there were situations that we could drop our defensive ends off, and I said, 'That's stupid.' He came across that room and his nose is about an inch from mine and he says, "Stupid? Are you calling me stupid?' "
      Robinson said he quickly answered, "No, sir" and he then offered an explanation. But Coach Farrar wasn't buying it. "You are calling me stupid," he repeated. End of meeting for that day.
     The game was played, and Southfield won it. But afterward, Farrar said to Robinson, "You never did drop off those defensive ends, did you?" 
     "No, sir, I didn't," Robinson answered. "Never saw a situation where it would've worked."
     Postscript: "Good thing we won the game."
     But in another situation, Robinson was in the press box at Cotton Valley being harassed by a couple of men who were hanging out up there. "I thought I was going to have to start swinging," said Robinson, "and Coach Farrar sent a couple of guys up there to help out. I'm glad he did."
    Robinson says Farrar "inspired me in coaching. ... He's a wonderful man, he was a wonderful coach. Loved his kids. He wasn't going to let them get away with anything, but they all just loved him. And he was such a special man when it comes to baseball."
     Leonard Ponder went from a P.E. teacher at Oak Terrace Junior High -- I was in the first class he ever taught, at age 21 right out of Northwestern State -- to the head of the Health and P.E. department at Texas A&M, where he wound up a distinguished career in education.
    One summer in the early 1960s, he taught drivers' education, and his teaching partner was James C. Farrar. Sometimes at the end of the teaching period, they would ride together to turn in a car at the Caddo Parish School Board offices.
    "I'd be driving, and he'd be sitting in the passenger seat," Dr. Ponder remembered, "and he'd say, 'I'm gonna get home and walk through the door, and Miss Kate is going to go to the refrigerator and pull a nice, cold glass out of the freezer, and then hand me a cold beer.' Then he would describe in great detail how he would pour the cold beer into the frozen glass, and how he would drink that beer ... 'very slowly.'
    "Not only did it cool me off just listening to him, but it almost tempted me (a teetotaler) to want a beer."
     Billy Don Maples, who coached Airline's baseball teams in the 1970s: "He was a versatile coach. Not only an outstanding baseball coach, obviously, but also a very good football coach. He leaves a legacy, not only with the guys he coached, but with the teams he coached. He never put a team on the field that wasn't competitive, from Sibley on."
     Tommy Henry -- T.K. Henry -- wound up his career as the longtime commissioner of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association. He began his coaching career at Bossier High School, where he built a baseball program in the late 1960s and especially the early 1970s that rivaled Fair Park as a dynasty. The biggest difference: Two Bossier teams lost only once ... in the state championship game (1972 and '73).
     Henry will tell you that James Farrar "was kind of my idol" as a coach. "I really looked up to him."
    It was Mel Didier -- who like Farrar went from coaching in Louisiana to make an impact in the scouting/development area of pro baseball -- "who showed me what you could do coaching baseball in high school," said Henry, but it was Farrar who had a more direct influence.
    "He was so special; he had a great program, great teams," said Henry. "What he did with his pitchers ... they only pitched, didn't play a position in the field, where most teams if they weren't pitching, they were in the lineup somewhere else. He ran his teams like a pro baseball club."
    As the Bossier coach, Henry's team faced Farrar and Fair Park twice, and he admits "I was really intimidated by him." 
    In their teams' first meeting at Bossier's Walbrook Park, he remembers going over to talk to Farrar during batting practice, and "he asked me if I was pitching a right-hander or left-hander. Told him it was a right-hander (Earl Cornette)." As they were talking, an errant throw hit Farrar in the head. Down he went.
    "There was my idol lying at my feet," Henry said. "I thought, 'Well, he's not so tough after all.' "
    Bossier won that game -- Henry says it was 5-2 -- and Fair Park won the second meeting, 6-3, at Fair Park.
    "I remember he taught some baseball classes one year," said Henry, "and I made sure to go to all of them. ... He showed all of us how good baseball could be up there. It was a time when baseball wasn't as popular as it would become -- a lot of football coaches considered it a nuisance, really -- but James Farrar helped make high school baseball special and grow into what it would become.
     "He pushed baseball, made it popular, made it attractive, and he was dedicated to his sport. He was an outstanding football coach, too; he could coach anything because he was a great teacher, period."
      (Next: His players remember)


  1. From Randy Bouknight: Enjoying your series on Coach Farrar. So true the comments on the pitchers.

  2. From Jerie Shirley Black: The Farrar family and the Shirley family shared many meals together. A daughter festival ... and then came Roman.

  3. From John Williams: Loved Coach "Catfish" Farrar. I always wanted to play baseball for him, but just couldn't make the team. We had great talent at FPHS. I would watch some practices and most of the games just to hear some of the funny stuff Coach would say. I remember him hitting fly balls with a fungo (skinny bat) to the outfielders in warmups. He hit a ball that landed in front of a player. He yelled at the player: "Next time I better see grass stains on your knees or you will have fungo marks on your ass." Great man!

  4. From Winston Ebarb: I liked his comment -- "He folded up like a one-egg pudding."

  5. From Ike Futch: Coach James Farrar -- Home town, Lillie, LA. Pretty sure he had a lot to do with me being drafted by the Astros in the 1965 winter meetings. In 1962 I was playing for the Augusta Yankees and he came down to the dugout to visit with me. A truly great guy and one of the best baseball men I've ever been around, and I've been around a lot of them.

  6. From Jamie Moreland: Great stuff. I remember him well from Southfield in mid-late '70s.

  7. From Billy Don McHalffey: Great article. My dad (Bobby Ray McHalffey) told me some funny stuff about him and coach that had me in stitches.

  8. From Ben Farrar: He was my second cousin, lived next door to us in Lillie. When he was coaching at Fair Park in Shreveport and I was playing at Bernice, we played them at the Dubach tournament and beat them. James Carroll was so gracious and made such a big deal of a little school beating a big school. I never forget what a true show of sportsmanship. Wonderful man and coach.

  9. From Butch Williams: A very dear friend who I really miss. I mainly miss his stories that he never finished because he would start a new story before he finished the one he was telling.

  10. From Ed Aulds: I remember James C. He was a year or two older, but was a player on the Farmerville American Legion team which went to the state finals in 1948 or '49.