In my 68 years on earth, I have never been in the same room with as many of my personal heroes as I was on Saturday. The life of Harold Wilkes, who single-handedly forged our Chattanooga Mocs into a national sports prominence that is unknown to any other university UTC’s size, was celebrated Saturday at the First Cumberland church and, boy, did the family ever show up. Oh my mercy. And oh what blessing for those of us who have loved “Coach” and his boys.
Understand, I am the luckiest in the crowd. I had the cat’s eye seat because, unlike the Robbs’ brothers – Bill and ‘Stosh,’ -- the ever-dazzling quarterback Mickey Brokas, or Ed Taliaferro, Harold’s teammate on the 1958 team that whipped Tennessee, I was one of few that wasn’t a four-year scholarship player. No, far better, I was one of the story-tellers for all 30 years where the unassuming and ever-humble Harold created the magic. As I scanned the crowd yesterday, it wasn’t lost on me as I glanced at each pew, I could identify three or more wonderful success stories seated in every one. Again, never have as many beloved characters been in the same room and each because of just one man. One man alone. Harold Wilkes.
Ronnie Wade mastered a nigh-impossible task when he magnificently colored the millions of memories Wilkes generated as a player, as an assistant coach, then head coach and also the athletic director. Earlier in the week Ronnie and I had visited several times and he had better tales than I did. Still, he asked me if I could share a funny story or a special incident during the 30 years I stood beneath the shadow of Harold Wilkes and I told him I’d be happy to oblige. But, first, he’d have to give me the exact day he had in mind.
I am serious. I was there from Harold’s first team that darn near went undefeated (9-1 in 1969) to enabling Ron Shumate to win the NCAA D-2 title in 1977. I thought Coach Wilkes was going to kiss Wayne Golden! Remember Mack McCarthy’s basketball miracle into the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen 20 years later? Wilkes’ handprint was all over it. I watched the Moc wrestling team become a national power under Jim Morgan and the tennis teams that Tommy Bartlett built that absolutely scared the voodoo out of every opponent. They all had two things in common: Blue & gold uniforms. And Harold Wilkes.
Two hundred years ago, the Cherokee who roamed our woods were fond of saying, “Good men must die but death cannot erase their names.” No one will ever forget the impact Harold Wilkes had on our city, our university, our sports teams and – most especially – the one-to-one touch that positively affected so many lives, and if I dare say, my own. Not so long ago, when he was in ICU following a horrendous car crash, I looked him in the eye, and said, “I love you, coach.” He nodded, and, holding his daughter Paula’s hand, said, “I love you too … we’ve had a good time … always remember it.” Glory.
In an age where statues are scoffed and misunderstood, there should be a huge one of Harold Wilkes on campus. What he gave to the university was exactly that -- huge. But what Coach Wilkes gave to hundreds who buckled the chinstraps under a Mocs helmet, and endured those grass drills in 100-degree heat, was even larger. It’s called becoming a winner -- not just in football, but in life for the long haul. Wilkes was a genius at it.
It took me over 20 years to break the code, to figure it out how tiny Chattanooga emerged while similar universities did not. So it gets down to this: Of all the people I have known in my life, Harold could take a scared and terribly homesick freshman football player, already overlooked by the big schools and most coming to Chattanooga from meager beginnings, and build that boy into one of the finest human beings ever to walk on earth. I have watched it happen hundreds of times, I promise. Just yesterday the church bulged with them.
So after a quarter of a century it finally made sense – if Wilkes could do it with kids, he could spin the same magic with many Chattanooga teams as an AD by enabling the underdog teams to believe in themselves. “It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight …” as they would say in his small hometown of Valley Head, Ala., “… it’s the size of the fight in the dog!”
That was Wilkes’ mantra. The best story? Impossible for even the Supreme Court to decide. But a little-known dilly was how embarrassed Harold was when he was named as the head coach. He was the easy choice as successor to legendary Scrappy Moore after the 1968 season. For him it was humbling – sure -- but suddenly there was more; this was hardly the game plan... The 1968 season was a tough year and, while UC won two of the last three, a loss to Furman in the final game caused a losing season – five wins against six losses.
For a couple of years everyone knew that Harold was the heir-apparent to Scrappy. Right after the 1967 season, Wilkes began carefully stacking the deck for Scrappy to have an unbelievable team in 1969. Harold would take over in 1970. Wilkes and assistant Andy Nardo hid players, got post-grad deals from some high school athletes, traded scheduled games … the works. Such an orchestrated plan should have earned an Oscar but ... whoa, there was a slip-up. (I’ll say!)
Somebody failed to spread the message. Quite abruptly -- the UC Foundation daddies decided Scrappy – who been at UC since 1931 – should stay as athletic director but that Harold should go ahead and take the coaching reins. Wilkes, in Alabama plain-talk “liked to have died.” He was so ever-loyal to Scrappy, but he could not refuse to take the job, not even on a short reach. Harold would have given his right leg to see Scrappy roar off a winner but suddenly his fate is, “Fish or cut bait.”
That 1969 team was probably UC’s best ever. Are you kidding me? Roger Catarino throwing to the awesome Angelo Napolitano – the “Cat-Nap” slayed many a defense. Co-captain Bucky Wolford was a bona fide Little All-American – there has never been a better all-purpose back in the world -- and with Robert Smith ever steady, teams were unable to contain the UC offense.
Incidentally, everywhere I looked at Harold’s funeral on Saturday I couldn’t help seeing Bucky everywhere. Wolford died some months ago after a prolonged issue with prostate cancer but it would be a coin toss between Bucky and Joe Lee Dunn (who now lives in Columbus, Ga.) who was the most beloved Moc by their teammates. For what it’s worth, Bucky and Joe Lee have spent a lifetime adoring one another. Neither could give a rip who is most popular and, for the record, each would vote for the other. Why? That’s what Harold taught. That is what Harold believed. And that is what Harold demanded. Any questions?
Bucky, you may know, started out as a freshman defensive back at Jacksonville State but was unhappy and switched to Chattanooga. I know because the Chattanooga assistants let slip Bucky grew up in a house that had dirt floors. Maybe that’s why there has never been a player with as much “want to” as Bucky Wolford. And why “Harold Wilkes became a second father to me,” Wolford often said.
One more aside: When the ’69 Mocs took on Jax State, Bucky had such a bitter taste in his mouth for JSU that he rushed for 118 yards that afternoon, caught four passes for another 64 yards, returned three kickoffs for another 107 (including a 57-yard sprint) and scored a touchdown. (Note to all: It wasn’t smart to taunt Bucky Wolford.) Suffice it to say, Wolford’s teammates thrived in his performance.
The ’69 bunch was legendary – Jim Hennessey, Henry Chandler’s fabled jersey swap, Johnny Bonner’s punts going over the moon and Jim Cooper’s toe amazing. There was Alan Farrell, Buford Self, Richard Manning, Joe Cardwell and the most promising player on the field – Phil “Tarzan” Payne -- later to become a quadriplegic after a tragic diving accident at Lula Lake on Lookout Mountain that shook the entire city to its core.
Of course, a nine-game victory made the fans think such a feat is easy and, in retrospect, Harold would have been better beginning in 1970 but, back then, Wilkes would tolerate no second guessing. Once, late one night on a road trip, he confided he had so hoped for Scrappy to go out with a bang and, in a way, that tells you more of who Harold Wilkes was – who cares who gets the credit after the hay is in the barn?
Geez, what blessed memories yesterday…
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SNAPSHOT NO. 1 – Moments before the service began, there were several empty seats in the row ahead of me and a lady with snow-white hair approached to take her seat. It was the wonderful Mary Tinkler, an educator Harold hired and worked a full 30 years tutoring all of the university’s male and female athletes. Today she is 84 years old and is absolutely beautiful. She also downplays Wilkes’ belief: “She’s graduated more students than the university!”
SNAPSHOT NO. 2 – I had planned to sit by myself so I could watch and take notes. But then I came across Paul Payne, who had worked in my sports department years ago, and along comes James Beach and his wife Christie. Beach worked closely alongside me for years. Next is Mark McCarter, who I hired while he was still a student at Brainerd High, and who’s had a colossal career. He is now living in Huntsville. Up comes Ron Bush, still on the Times Free Press staff who I hired a half-hundred years ago when he was with the UTC student paper, The Echo. Then there is Mark Wiedmer, who I hired as a kid right out of college, who today is one of the most brilliant sports columnists in the South.
I mention this for two reasons. Guys in my sports department adored UTC coaches and athletes just as much as I did. I love that. Secondly, I realized what Coach Wilkes may have felt if he could have been there with his boys. You have no idea how close I came to busting my buttons sitting with mine.