My junior year in high school, Paul Neal’s retirement as principal caused a domino effect as my football and baseball coach, Bennett Gunter was named principal and his assistant coach, Randolph Potts, became head football and baseball coach. Two more hats to add to an already crowded resume. He was already the basketball coach, as in girl’s and boys’ basketball coach. Oh, he taught science and physical education too.
This was fifty years ago when coaching staffs were just a bit smaller than they are now. We had two football coaches…total. I coached high school football for twenty-nine years and even our junior varsity staffs had more coaches by then.
Coach Potts passed away this weekend which is causing me to reflect on the strange and wonderful relationships between coaches and their players. I feel honored to have been on both sides of the equation and honored to have been coached by Coach Potts.
Coaching and the game of football have changed drastically since the late summers of 1966 and 1967. For thirty-three years, through many of those changes, football was an integral part of my life either playing or coaching it. I had many coaches and mentors who helped teach me a philosophy of coaching. As I think back, Randy Potts gave me my first building block.
I was not totally unfamiliar with the new head coach. He had been a fixture since my first season as an aspiring player and my position coach those previous years. I remember a tall man with a blond flat top, a prominent nose, and a cheek stretched wide with a “chaw” of tobacco. A blue wool baseball cap with a gold IL on the front. A gray tee shirt over khaki pants, rolled up to show white socks and black coach’s shoes…oh, my god, he was my coaching fashion icon too.
I was a terrible athlete, an even worse football player, and fortunate to play on a team with a small number of players. It gave me a chance to play and I had the opportunity to display my ineptness on many occasions. One example stands out more than others and drew the deserved wrath of Coach Potts. At home against Pageland, I met soon to be South Carolina standout Al Usher on the five-yard line with time running out in the first half. I brought him down ten yards later in the middle of the end zone. I’m glad halftime was just seconds away, had Coach Potts had any more time to percolate over my effort he might have killed me. Instead, I got my ears pinned back, shoulder pads pounded, a spray of tobacco juice and a face full tobacco breath to go with it. No, he was not happy. Years later, as I began my own coaching career, I would understand.
The following year, also against Pageland, we played in a miserable, torrential, game long downpour. We moved the ball up and down the field but managed to only put a touchdown on the scoreboard. We missed the extra point. Backed up, late in the game I snapped the ball over my punter’s head for a safety. Pageland scored after the ensuing free kick and despite missing their extra point try, I was lower than whale poop. We lost eight to six. It is the only game score I can recall.
I have clear remembrances of sitting in the visiting dressing room, uniform running in water, afraid to look at any teammate eyeball to eyeball. I wanted to cry but back then real men never cried. No one said they blamed me which wasn’t the problem, I blamed me.
Coach Potts ambled over and sat down, creating one of those defining moments in a young man’s life. He said, “Son, don’t blame yourself. If we had done the things we were supposed to do, that snap wouldn’t have mattered. Tomorrow the sun will shine…if it quits raining.” This time he patted me on the shoulder pads. It did quit raining.
I referred to the moment as defining because as I began my teaching and coaching career, his statement helped guide me. A game may hinge on one play but if everyone does their job, no one play should matter. If it does, it’s everyone’s fault, a team sport. I had a couple of occasions to pass his statement on to needy players.
Some twenty-five years later I got to tell him what his warmhearted and compassionate comment meant to me. For some forgotten reason, he was in Greenville and asked if he could stop by my office at Greenville High. I was in the middle of finding out I was not football head coaching material and he was trying to sell life insurance, but we were able to spend some quality time together. I didn’t buy any insurance, but I do remember telling him what the effect of his words was and how they helped shape who I was. Today I am thankful I had that opportunity.
Rest in Peace Coach Potts and thanks. The former player whose error kept us out of the state championship thanks you too. He just didn’t know it was you.
Don Miller’s author’s site may be found at https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B018IT38GM?redirectedFromKindleDbs=true