Stevens: Football coach Jack Holley had an impact on lives

tstevens@newsobserver.com May 22, 2013 

Count me among those who learned from Jack Holley.

The long-time football coach in Southeastern North Carolina never had me in a classroom or on a practice field, but Holley, who died Monday, didn’t need that forum to teach.

He was a three sport star at New Hanover, where he played for coach Leon Brogden. Among Holley’s teammates was future NFL most valuable player and N.C. State quarterback star Roman Gabriel.

I once called Holley to get comments about coach Brogden and innocently asked what he had learned from “Leon.”

“Who?” Holley replied.

“Leon. Leon Brogden.”

“Oh. I never heard anyone call coach Brogden, Leon before,” he almost spit into the telephone.

The respect he showed Brogden, one of greatest high school coaches ever in North Carolina, was due Jack Holley, too.

Coach Holley had a career football coaching record of 412-96-9, the most high school football coaching wins in the state. To almost match it, a coach would have to average 10 wins a year for the next 41 years.

Holley’s almost maniacal enthusiasm for football at Guilford College is legendary. If ever there was a person born to play a game where determination, desire, self-sacrifice, and most of all, toughness was a prerequisite, it was Jack Holley. He named his only son Battle.

Holley, who was 74, coached at Tabor City High in Columbus County, at Hallsboro, West Columbus, South Columbus and Wallace-Rose Hill. He led five teams into the state finals.

But he never sought attention for himself.

That was OK because I always had the feeling that media was more nuisance than necessity to him.

Twenty-some years ago, David Justice, who has covered high school sports in North Carolina for 40 years, approached Holley after a win, and asked to speak to him. Holley stared and there was a noticeable unease until Smithfield-Selma coach Jack Gaster told Holley that David was “one of the good reporters.”

Holley must have been told that about me, too, because he was always kind and thoughtful to me, although he was never one to let a less than articulate question go unchallenged. Immediately after a Wallace-Rose Hill loss in a state championship game, a reporter asked what it felt like. Coach Holley replied, “It feels like your ___ have been ripped out. Now put that in your paper.”

To those who didn’t know him well, Holley was intimidating. Veteran reporter A.J. Carr wrote Holley, “was built like an offensive lineman. His hair is cropped short, and his speech is spiced with slang and humor.” Holley lifted weights with his players and the weight room was filled with the music his players liked, even though Holley privately described some of the music by referencing to a cow pen.

Coach Holley was a great believer in physical toughness and other coaches credited him with being among the most mentally and physically tough person they knew. He once coached in his underwear on one of the coldest days of the year when players whined about it being cold.

He was a master of motivation, illustrating being as tough as a junk yard dog by ripping off his shirt, dropping to all fours and howling. Displeased with the hitting in practice, Holley sent his players out to the next practice without pads.

More than one banged up player was admonished to, “Rub some dirt on (it) and do it again.”

But his players loved him. Roger Gore of Cary remembered Holley singing “Wabash Cannonball” and players wondering whether it was going to be a hard practice or a harder practice. “Hearing him sing gave you an idea of what kind of mood he was in,” Gore recalled. “Thinking of it gives me chills.”

Gore said Holley changed lives. Gore ran track with Holley as coach for one season and was on the Tabor City junior varsity one year while Holley was the varsity coach.

“He shaped my life like few others,” Gore said. “That is amazing since I haven’t seen or spoken to him in 40 years. It wasn’t that we had a problem, but I still remembered what he taught me. I use it every day

“I remember him standing on the blocking sled, screaming as loudly as he could, motivating you to give every ounce you had to our goals. Coach Holley was a force of nature. He might have been a wild man, but he had a heart of his boys. It always was about motivating us to do our best.”

Gore still refers to Holley as Coach.

“I got to know him when I was 14 years old,” Gore said. “I was very lucky.”

Perhaps the impact Coach Holley had on his players is best illustrated by the location of his funeral services on Friday. They will be held at the Thell B. Overman Field, Legion Stadium at Wallace-Rose Hill High School.

No where else is big enough.

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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