Cannon's Corner: Happy 'Coach's' Day

Posted 6/15/19

In my 45-plus years in and around organized sports I have seen and experienced some wonderful things, as well as some very bad ones.Fortunately, the postive has far outweighed the negative.I’m …

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Cannon's Corner: Happy 'Coach's' Day

MY FORMER head football coach at Oak Grove, Bill "Birdman" Bigham, left, was tough as nails, but cared for his boys beyond the gridiron or basketball court. Seen here with granddaughter Amelia Reuter, center, and daughter Melissa Reuter, Bigham still gets to Bradley games as much as he can.
MY FORMER head football coach at Oak Grove, Bill "Birdman" Bigham, left, was tough as nails, but cared for his boys beyond the gridiron or basketball court. Seen here with granddaughter Amelia Reuter, center, and daughter Melissa Reuter, Bigham still gets to Bradley games as much as he can.
Banner photo, JOE CANNON

In my 45-plus years in and around organized sports I have seen and experienced some wonderful things, as well as some very bad ones.

Fortunately, the postive has far outweighed the negative.

I’m covered state championship runs (thanks again Bearettes) and experienced winless seasons (I won’t name names).

Winning is always more fun, and a whole lot easier to write about, but I’ve found one thing that is far more important than the final scores.

While all successful coaches and players put in countless hours to prepare for a season, or a game, and strive to win every contest, there are those who understand victories or defeats on the field of competition aren’t the true goal of what they are doing.

Ironically, after I had  already started writing this column, I caught the movie "Coach Carter" on TV Friday evening and watched it for the first time, reinforcing my thoughts.

I was introduced to the concept I’m writing about from the beginning of my “athletic career.”

Other than a couple of summers of Boys Club T-Ball when I was too young to care about anything but hitting the ball and running somewhere on the field (not always the right direction), my first real organized team experience came at Oak Grove Elementary School.

Yes, back then we actually went to the same school for the first eight years and kindergarten wasn’t offered by the school system.

Although I wanted to play earlier, I wasn’t allowed to go out for football until my sixth-grade year and getting a chance to be a part of the Falcon gridiron squad was thrilling.

Not only were their uniforms green, the same as my favorite NFL team, the Bart Starr, Jerry Kramer-led Green Bay Packers, they also had the team name of my second-favorite pro team, the Atlanta Falcons with Tommy Nobis, Harmon Wages and “Cannonball” Butler (it should be obvious why that last guy was one of my favorites).

Playing for Oak Grove was daunting as head coach Bill “Birdman” Bigham was a very intimidating man.

He demanded everything you had in practice and during the game. If he felt like you weren’t doing your best he wasn’t afraid to let you know in words that would get my mouth washed out with soap.

Yes, thank the Lord, my parents were child abusers (sarcasm for those who don’t recognize it). They used all kinds of "mean” tactics that haven’t been allowed for years to teach me right from wrong. I even still have the little wooden paddle my mom used on the “seat of knowledge.”

“Birdman,” and his assistant T. Blair Lillard, were what you’d call “hands on coaches.” Meaning they weren’t afraid to get your attention by grabbing your facemask, tackling you and throwing a football at your fully padded body, if you were more than 10 yards away and not paying attention to what they were trying to teach you.

Coach Bigham also had a unique way of dealing with problem parents. In words he learned from sailors, he would let them know if they didn’t like the way he coached their kid, take them to play for someone else.

I know these sounds like terrible, horrible things that offend the “buttercup” mentality of today, but I can tell you as players we loved him and would have run throw a brick wall for him.

The coaches not only cared about our on the field performance, but other parts of our lives.

When I was in the seventh grade, Coach Lillard had gotten word I had started  smoking.

A chain smoker himself, he pulled me aside after practice one day and confronted me. He went through about five cigarettes while explaining how bad they were for me not, just as an athlete, but as a person.

I immediately quit cold turkey. 

During that season, Coach Bigham had gotten word, me and a few other boys were involved in something I’m ashamed of until this day. He pulled us all out of class and talked to us about what we had done and how wrong it was.

Knowing my parents and my Christian upbringing, he pulled me aside afterward and let me know he was especially disappointed in me being involved, because he knew I had been raised better.

We understood completely he was concerned with us as young men, not just as football players.

Unfortunately Coach Bigham left after my seventh-grade year, having won seven straight county championships without losing a game.

We went from a hard-nosed, Marine crew-cut authoritarian coach to a long-haired hippie Christian coach, who had just graduated from Lee College. He wanted to be our "friend."

Don't get me wrong. I liked him. When I was in fifth grade he was dating my teacher. They took me and my girlfriend, Teresa Norris, on a double-date with them one time after our class had been doing a fundrasier at her dad's gas station.

Being a young, inexperienced coach he was trying a "new approach," which let us make our decisions instead of us strictly following instruction.

For example midway through the season, after losing our third straight game, we came into the next practice and he let us chose what position we wanted to play. 

I immediately switched from being the center to tight end on offense and from being noseman to linebacker on defense. Never mind the fact I didn't have the speed for either position, it was where I felt like playing.

In the chaos of everybody switching around, we proceeded to finish out our winless campaign. However, I did get to score my only touchdown on a pass from Eugene Jones in the second of three overtimes against Michigan Avenue in the season finale.      

In my frustration from losing, I told my dad, "If he'd just cuss us once, we'd do anything for him."

It wasn't the language we missed from coaches Bigham and Lillard, it was the discipline and the knowledge they cared about us.

While times have changed (not for the better in my opinion) and methods have had to be modified as to not "offend" an athlete's, or their parent's, fragile ego, I applaud those coaches who are willing to continue to strive to help build character in the young men and women they work with.

We are very fortunate in our community to have an overwhelming majority of athletic mentors who, while they work hard to win, have a higher goal in mind.

In talking with many of our coaches, I have heard repeatedly a mindset that "sports are to teach about life." 

"I don't judge the success of my coaching by wins and loses, but by how many of my guys grow up to be good men, husbands, fathers and who are helping our society," one wise multiple state championship winning coach told me.

These men and women have taken our youth under their wings and while trying to sharpen their athletic skills, have also imparted life lessons to aid them in the most important thing — their future.

While you will always have a few "tares among the wheat," the majority of our local coaches are men and women of "faith." It is through that love, they are pouring themselves into the lives of their players.

Why else would they endure the scrutiny and turmoil of the long hours of year round conditioning and practice?

It's not for the money. If you broke down what they get paid extra to coach as well as teach, and the time it takes to do it, it would be well under the national minimum wage.

Why put up with "teenage attitude" from some players and parents? Because they can see past the present, to what that player can become in the future.

Players and parents remember there is no "i" in "team."

Coaches coach teams, not individuals. I know every parent thinks their child is the best there ever was, but I've seen thousands of kids play ball and I can assure you they're not.

The most successful players I've ever covered were ones who were more concerned with team success, not their individual stats.

The ones the college coaches are looking for will sacrifice individual glory for the betterment of the team.

Moving your child from school to school every year so they can be the star on a worse team, isn't the answer. Teach them the importance of working hard where they are and they will be better for it. 

Sorry, got on a soapbox there.

Obviously in my profession I have dealt with numerous coaches, head and assistants. Some I enjoy, others I endure.

I am happy to say the vast majority of the ones I work with today, I am proud to be associated with.

I won't start calling out names due to space constraints (which I'm already long over my limit) and fear of leaving someone out.

Truly these men and women are providing a great service to our community.

On this Father's Day, I'd like to personally thank them for helping to "parent" the "families" you call teams.

Long after the final buzzer has sounded on the high school careers of these athletes, the memories of the love and guidance you gave them will far outweigh the final won-loss records and even the Golden Balls earned. 


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