‘Black Coach’ revisited: Before ‘Remember the Titans’

“Black Coach”; by Pat Jordan; 1971; The Cornwall Press, Inc.; 248 pages.

Late summer was dissolving into early fall the first time I walked into Burlington Memorial Stadium to watch a high school football game involving Walter Williams High School. The year was 1985. I began working as a sports writer for the Burlington Times-News in late November of 1984. The high school football campaigns for all of Alamance County’s high schools were over by then. That in and of itself was unusual. Teams from the area traditionally competed for state high school football championships into early December.

That was also true of Walter Williams High School, especially true.

The history of football success at Williams was well known to anyone from the Piedmont who followed sports at all. From 1979 to ’82 the team had a 43-game winning streak and back-to-back state titles in 1980 and 1981. The coach then was Pete Stout, who left in 1983. He was replaced by Williams alumnus Sam Story, a former coach at Southern Alamance who was on the staff at Duke University when Red Wilson was the head coach there. Story’s first season at Williams was a tough one, below the expectations of Williams fans, barely around .500 or the break-even point. Story was already under pressure as the 1985 season opened. In those days, the coach at Williams was always under intense scrutiny and expectations were high that year, too. It was the Notre Dame of high school football in the area with superior size, talent and facilities. A coach at Bartlett Yancey High School in rural Caswell County didn’t see his conference foe as a high school at all. He called it “the University of Williams.”

I learned quickly that people took the team, its players and coaches very seriously in those days.

I walked into this spacious but aging city stadium – a site large enough for a small college team (and indeed was where Elon College played its home games until 2001) – and climbed the ladder to the massive press box. There were enclosures on either end – one for the radio broadcasters and P.A. announcer, the other for the newspaper writers. Those sites were divided by a wide breezeway where TV video crews and school officials perched. Among the latter stood an older African-American man who looked out onto the field where players from both teams were warming up, one foot atop the short concrete wall. He turned in my direction, sent me to the area for newspaper reporters and offered me a Coca-Cola then returned his gaze to the field.

“So coach, how are they gonna do this year?” I heard someone ask him as I walked away.

“I think they have a chance to be pretty good, if they can get their heads on straight,” Jerome Evans answered quietly, then looked toward the field again.

Who is that guy? I wondered to myself and made a note to ask when I returned to the office.

It’s an interesting story.

JEROME EVANS is one of the forgotten figures in Burlington history. I suspect that was by his own design. I began to learn about it in bits and pieces that September night in 1985 after the Friday night writing and production deadline for Saturday’s newspaper wrapped. One of my colleagues in sports told me the general outline but I would later learn there was much more to the story of Jerome Evans, the one-time football coach at Walter Williams High School who was an assistant principal in 1985.

Only a few years before, Evans was once such a prominent sports and cultural figure in the South that he was the subject of a story in Sports Illustrated and a book by the same author, a then 29-year-old by the name of Pat Jordan. Jordan, who would go on to become one of the best sports writers in the nation and author of 11 books, spent 10 weeks in Burlington so he could chronicle Evans’ first season as the head football coach at Walter Williams High School. The reason was simple. In 1970, Jerome Evans became the first African-American man to be a head coach at a predominantly white high school in the entire South. He beat Herman Boone, the coach played by Dentzel Washington in the film “Remember the Titans,” by one year.

Evans two players

Jerome Evans with Larry Matkins, left, and D. Coleman in a photo published in the Williams High yearbook, the Doe-Wah Jack.

And like Boone, who became head coach at another Williams High School – T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Virginia – Jerome Evans moved into the job under circumstances that roiled an already divided community trying to adjust to changing society, a long-needed emergence of civil rights for African-American residents and integration of local schools.

It was a tough time, a perilous time.

That’s where Jordan’s book, “Black Coach,” begins. It was a book I wanted to read starting that Friday night in 1985, but I never recall seeing a copy, even at the annual Friends of the Library Used Book Sale in Burlington. I didn’t stop looking — until very recently. I mentioned my interest in the book on social media and my friend Kim Steele made her copy available to me. It’s a quick read at just under 250 pages but a troubling one — as promised way back in 1985.

Jordan placed Burlington and its citizens in the national funhouse mirror and the reflection wasn’t flattering at all.

STARTING WITH that night in 1985, I became well aware of Jordan’s portrayal of Burlington in “Black Coach.” White residents in 1970, including some of the white players, used the n-word with a casual indifference most say Mr., Mrs. or Ms. today. As a young white man from Connecticut, I doubt Jordan had similar exposure to the epithet before arriving in Burlington. I also doubt as a young white male that he had to prompt Burlington’s white residents into using the word in otherwise polite conversation either. Burlington residents provided it freely and without pause in reference to Evans or black African-American residents in East Burlington in general. It was startlingly casual. As a child of 1960s and ‘70s North Carolina I am more than familiar with the way things were said back then, as if it were normal part of speech in white communities, something accepted by whites without challenge or any second-guessing at all. Jordan encountered it in stores, among other coaches, boosters, teachers, and, yes, journalists. The language in “Black Coach” is the first jarring thing about it.

It was a way of life then, but still woefully wrong and a cultural shame. It’s appalling and hateful when read in the context of today. But I’m certain it was an accurate reflection of 1970s Burlington. It was also accurate, sadly so, of the strong feelings of racism brought to the surface by integration across the South, not just in Burlington. Communities from Virginia to Arkansas to Kentucky and Tennessee were torn apart by long-standing racial inequality, separation and division.

In Burlington other factors were also in play. Brank Proffitt, the superintendent of Burlington City Schools,  pushed for integration before the matter became federally enforced and wanted to end a vast educational inequity he saw between the segregated schools in the city. Jordan-Sellers, the black high school, was rife with problems of almost every description, a situation that existed because white administrators of the city schools simply had no interest in solving them. Proffitt found conditions at Jordan-Sellers disgraceful and made it his mission to not only put the house in order there (he hired J.A. “John” Freeman, who became a towering figure in city and county education for three decades). The school board at his behest created new school district attendance lines starting with the construction of a new high school — Cummings — in the eastern part of Burlington not far from Jordan-Sellers. Freeman, an African-American, was installed as the principal at the new integrated high school.

Evans Brank Proffitt

Burlington City Schools Superintendent Brank Proffitt in a photo published in the Williams High 1970 yearbook, the Doe-Wah Jack.

How integration might work was a consuming issue for school officials, students and parents affiliated with Williams and the former Jordan-Sellers high schools. C.A. Frye, a tough-talking and acting white coach headed the Williams program while the more mild-mannered and measured Evans was the coach at Jordan-Sellers. The two coaches were sharp contrasts in personalities. Frye could be charismatic yet caustic — from the old Frank Kush school of obscenity-laced tirades — and tended to blur the line between sound coaching principles and verbal or mental abuse. Evans was more of a low-key manager of personalities whose principles were built upon teaching. Frye had limited success at Williams during the 1960s but the 1970 team was touted to be among the most talented in school history.  The roster included Tommy Spoon, who went on to become a standout at then-Elon College. Williams boosters and players thought it would be their year to compete for a state title. Most believed an integrated team only improved those chances and that Frye would remain as head coach. Evans would be his assistant or become the coach at Cummings.

But Proffitt saw 1970 as an opportunity too. According to Jordan, Proffitt had several conflicts with the highly tempermental Frye, who ran afoul of parents or people in the community on occasion. Proffitt elected to make Evans the head coach — a move that led Frye to leave Williams for Gibsonville High School. The switch sent Williams boosters, fans and its white players into an uproar.

Thus, Jordan sets the narrative stage for what turns out to be a tumultuous but surprisingly successful season for the Williams High Bulldogs.

IN READING “Black Coach” so many years later, I’m struck first by how many people I know in it. I mentioned Tommy Spoon, a senior in 1970 who went to coach as an assistant at Southern Alamance and Williams before sadly passing away from a heart attack at the age of 45. He’s one of the noteworthy athletes in Alamance County history and a giant in softball. His son Brandon later starred at Williams and the University of North Carolina before playing one year in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills. Dwight Hall was also a player on that Williams team. Dwight was a sports writer for the Burlington Daily Times-News when I met him — and subsequently replaced him there in 1984. Dwight left journalism to get into the insurance business but he stayed close to football. He worked as a statistician for Cummings High School during their glory years from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s. After I left sports reporting, we walked the sidelines of Cavaliers games together. Dwight gets a mention in “Black Coach” because of a practice moment. Dwight, an offensive lineman, apparently lunges offside, drawing a whistle from Evans and an admonishment: “No, no, no Dwight Hall, you gotta wait, boy. Awright, let’s try it again now. Here we go.”

Gordon Isley served as an assistant football coach under both C.A. Frye and Jerome Evans and notably remained in order to be head coach of a talented basketball team that included future UNC and NBA player Geoff Crompton. Mr. Isley was the principal at Southern Alamance when I was a sports writer in the 1980s. Another member of the Williams staff that year was local coaching legend Art Claar (name misspelled in the book as Clarr).

Louie Jones, a Times-News fixture in the printing department until his retirement, operated the chains at Williams home games for decades and was interviewed by Jordan, regrettably. His words were indicative for a man of his time but still troubling nonetheless. And my old sports editor Bill Hunter got only a casual mention in Jordan’s narrative, famously described as a “thin man with a rubbery smile.” Jordan notes that Hunter had been critical of the Williams team and Evans coaching but cites no examples from newspaper stories about the season and the story is sorely lacking quotes from Hunter himself — a critical omission. I’m unsure if Bill didn’t cooperate or if Jordan didn’t pursue his opinions aggressively enough. Either way, accounts from newspaper stories would make up for an overall lack of detail about what happened at Williams games. Based on what was published in “Black Coach,” Jordan attended a handful of games that season.

Those are but two of the nagging flaws in Jordan’s first book. While he successfully interviews white Burlington players, parents, boosters and residents, he speaks to very few black players, parents and residents. In fact, he has quotes from almost none. This missing perspective creates an enormous gap in Jordan’s storytelling, a lack of detail that can’t be overcome with Jordan’s colorful descriptions of  what his interview subjects look like. These passages are often more distraction that improvements to the narrative.

Evans himself offered Jordan only moments of his time, which seems normal for a coach operating under trying circumstances who didn’t wish to stand in the spotlight. He tells Jordan point blank that he never had interest in being a civil rights leader or taking a place in white culture. This notion is also endorsed by Evans’ friend J.A. Freeman who believed Evans highest priority was being respected as a good football coach on any level.

Evans was well aware of the opposition he faced to his hiring as the coach at Williams. Boosters, in fact, organized a reinstate Frye rally and were openly critical of the hiring. Through his demeanor and success, Evans eventually won over many of those same critics — some grudgingly so. The head of the Williams boosters wrote a positve letter about the 1970 season published in the Williams yearbook, the Doe Wah Jack.

Evans boosters note

Evans in 1970 guided Williams to its best record in 10 years, an 8-2 mark marred by a loss to Greensboro Dudley High School that cost Williams the conference title. The defeat kept the team from making the playoffs in an era when only the league champion advanced to the postseason.

But even a successful first season failed to dull a sharp edge that enveloped the school, the team and the city. The fall of 1970 was an exhausting emotional milieu the stoic Evans had to try and navigate not just as a football coach, but as an assistant principal who had to balance the needs and interests of two distinct and separate communities while making decisions that would test the patience of Solomon. The most troubling and heartbreaking sections of “Black Coach” record the fissure among black and white teammates sometimes divided by racially charged events on campus, testing the balance of loyalties for the players to either team or race. Often Evans was the rule-making force at the center of both the damage and the healing.

The white players are clearly conflicted. Many liked their new coach well enough but could never get close to penetrating the wall Evans built for himself nor could the young players chip away at their own racial issues forcefully enough to forge a true bond between player and coach. An event late in the season when a handful of the white players, stoked by a few beers, drove to Gibsonville to visit Frye is filled with the kind of racist patter and attitude that is now looked upon with scorn. The exchange spoke volumes about the wide chasm at Williams even as a winning season was coming to a close. The guilt and remorse expressed by the players afterward offered some hope for a better future in terms of racial attitudes in Burlington while also revealing just what kind of toll the season had taken on the emotions of these confused teenagers.

Better days did eventually arrive in terms of racial harmony, but recent events indicate the past never completely goes away either. Evans, in retrospect, understood this better than any other person, including Jordan himself.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in “Black Coach” is in the Epilogue. Evans promises to take the young author to a college football game at North Carolina Central University in Durham, one of several historically black colleges in North Carolina and Evans’ alma mater. Evans leads Jordan into a stadium of 10,000 people where Jordan is the only white face. Jordan painstakingly recounts how he feels when Evans leaves him alone for a time or how cautious he was when walking across the crowded bleachers to their seats. It’s a revealing personal journey for Jordan, this act of learning what it’s like to worry about how every move he made might be perceived. It was the best way for Jordan to understand what Jerome Evans faced in the fall of 1970 and each day thereafter.

Evans understood this all too well.

Evans team photo

Epilogue

Toward the end of “Black Coach” Jerome Evans tells Pat Jordan: “I’m satisfied with the way things are. More than satisfied. I’ve reached my goal in life. I’ll coach five more years and then quit.. I don’t want to go any higher than I am. I’ll let the (David) Maynards and Jim Robinsons become the leaders of my people. They’d like that. I lived in the black world for so long I had no desire to leave it. Then they closed Sellers and I had to. Everything that happened this year was new to me. But now that I’m here, dealing with whites, I don’t care if they like me or not. I don’t even want them to like me. I’d be content if they just acknowledged me as a good coach and a man.”

Eventually, Jerome Evans would get that acknowledgement. True to his word, he left the coaching job at Williams in the mid-1970s, laying the groundwork for Pete Stout to arrive and take the program to its greatest run of successes. He was right about other things, too. David Maynard, for example, was elected to Burlington’s City Council, the first African-American to do so. When coach Maynard passed away a few years ago, one of the people who attended his funeral was T.C. Williams coach Herman Boone.

And on that long ago football Friday night in 1985 when I first met Jerome Evans, he predicted the football team that year had the chance to be very good, “If they get their heads on straight.” The 1985 Bulldogs won the state 3A title that December.

Evans remained a fixture at Williams as assistant principal where teachers revered him a “stabilizing force.” He was called “coach” until the day he retired in 1992 at age 62. My longtime friend and former colleague Thomas Monigan was a sports writer at the Burlington Times-News when Jerome Evans retired and wrote a column that included this paragraph.

Color became a major issue surrounding Evans’ arrival at Williams from Jordan Sellers. All he ever wanted to do was coach, and he did it. He walked on the razor’s edge, and if there are any scars still left, he doesn’t even mention them.

Three years later, Jerome Evans passed away at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 16, 1995, at Alamance Regional Medical Center after an illness of several days. He was 65.

I looked in the Burlington Times-News archives for a story written about Jerome Evans upon his death but only found an obituary and this letter to the editor written by Barry Hodge. The headline was: “Evans made a difference in the lives he touched.”

A friend, a fellow teacher, coach — but most of all a brother. Although his skin was a different color and we were raised in different parts of the state, God allowed our paths to meet in 1970 when he became head coach at Williams High School. Jerome Evans was a man who had a dream, and his dream was to touch people through his God-given abilities of teaching, coaching, and caring for young people.

Jerry, (he told me his friends called him “Jerry”) was a man who accepted a position in 1969 that wasn’t easy because it was in opposition to the majority of the white population Burlington. He only believed he could make a difference in our community and as time has shown, he did.

At his funeral on Saturday, Aug. 19, I reflected on his life. As I looked around, there wasn’t a color barrier but a spirit of peace and unity. We were honoring a man whom we all loved and respected, because he had touched each of us through his caring and concern for his fellow man.

Why are we here on this earth? We must all answer this question. I believe it is to make a difference for the betterment of mankind. God has given us all abilities and I feel I could speak for Jerry by saying, “that it matters not what our color, our race, our neighborhood, or social status, but our heart and out attitude toward others.” I thank God for allowing our paths to cross because through him, I’m a stronger and better person. Jerry, I love you and you made a difference in my life.

A coach could ask for nothing more.

 

 

9 thoughts on “‘Black Coach’ revisited: Before ‘Remember the Titans’

  1. Nice reflection on a tough time at WHS. I was there and worked with Coach Evans as a student trainer. He was not a saint of race relations, he was focused on football. He was one of many good coaches at WHS during that period, who influenced my life in a positive way.

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    • I agree. Mostly he kept things under control and didn’t react to things. He kept the focus on being a coach. Probably the best course all things considered. Thanks so much for reading it and responding.

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    • I played for coach Evans. The same years his son was a quarterback. My father whom I just lost liked Evans. They worked together keeping a lot of us white boys in school. I have nothing but respect and only remember looking up to him. I was truly moved when I heard he had passed. I’m ashamed I did not even know until some years later. God bless us all. Those were good years.

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  2. I remember reading Black Coach when I was a student at Williams in the early 1980’s. Like every student I knew, I adored Coach Evans. Interestingly enough my father did the opposite — he was the first white teacher at Jordan Sellars High School in the 1960’s (1963 or 1964, I think) and perhaps the first white teacher at an all-black high school in North Carolina.

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  3. I graduated from Williams in 1971. Stressful times, but I learned a lot. I am a better person because I was there during those tumultuous times. I believe that students of both races began to see each other as people….not just black or white. At least, that’s what happened to me.

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    • I was only 10 when schools integrated in my county — in the fifth grade. At my age I was only old enough to understand that adults were freaked out. But what I found when school started was that everything turned out just fine for the kids, who came together naturally. I suspect things were much more tense at the high school.

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  4. Thank you for writing this. I am the daughter of Jerome Evans. I was a young girl during that time but I can remember quite a bit of what happened back then. It was when I first began to understand and experience racism. I agree that my father was not “a saint of race relations.” But he was close. He was not a fan of this book and disagreed with much of Mr. Jordan’s depiction of what happened that year. I can tell you that my father refused to discuss many of the horrible things that were done and said to him and our family. He thought that would only cause more division and dissension. While he chose to concentrate on coaching, he dealt with a lot more than that book could ever describe. I didn’t understand then why my father didn’t speak out more about the injustices he endured but I understand now. I can tell you that he retired because it hurt him to see his players suffer from bad calls from officials that were directed at him. Ultimately, my father was able to be accepted and respected by black and white students, teachers, and parents. His funeral was held in the auditorium of Williams High School and was well attended by a diverse crowd. I will always remember how many people told me how my dad positively influenced their lives. I miss him dearly. Thank you again for your thoughts.

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    • Thanks so much for your thoughts Ms. Johnson. I would agree with him about the book and I can’t imagine how bad it had to be. I wish he had shared more. I will always remember his kindness to me. Again, thanks.

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