March 31, 2009

 

Players, coaches remember Gene Cox

By Steve Ellis, Jim Lamar and David Saez
DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITERS

In the next few days, the words of Sam Childers will be echoed by dozens and dozens of former players who played for Gene Cox.

Those players will share stories about how Cox pushed and prodded and poked every day on the practice field. They will talk about the giant-sized role one football coach — a man who stood no taller than 5-foot-8 — played in their lives.

And as they remember their coach who died Monday night at approximately 8:30 p.m., their words will sound pretty similar to how Childers talked about Cox.

“You don’t realize what he did for you in molding you as a person and as an athlete until you are away from there,” said Childers, a 1978 graduate of Leon and now a successful Tallahassee businessman. “He got the most out of his players and in turn that helped you in the long run.”

Childers, like more than 100 former players who played for Cox, signed a college scholarship after graduating from Leon. He was one of six Cox-coached players on Bobby Bowden’s 1979 team at Florida State that posted an 11-0 regular season. Included in that group were quarterbacks Wally Woodham and Jimmy Jordan.

“Everything I became as a football player I owed to him,” Woodham said. “The big thing with Coach Cox was the way he maximized your talent, your God-given talent. He was a coach that was a little bit advanced in coaching. He was so serious about and so intense that when you came to college at FSU, that it was really easier than what we were used to at Leon — the intensity of the workout and at practice.

“And you knew how to win.”

Cox took great pride in sending his former players to FSU, his own alma mater where he played for Tom Nugent. But it wasn’t just FSU that benefited from Cox’s players.

“Gene was one of a kind and he did a great job in this community for a lot of years,” former FSU assistant coach Jim Gladden said. “He molded and mentored a lot of lives and made a difference in a lot of lives. I know he meant an awful lot to my son John.

“He sent a lot of good players everywhere. Tony Lomack to Florida, Tony Robinson to Tennessee, Yancey Sutton, Brad Culpepper to Florida, just so many of them. When you got a player from Gene Cox, you knew you had a player who could work. He taught them to be dependable.”

It wasn’t just the players who got the message.

Jim Sauls, who played for and coached for Cox at Leon, still cherishes a letter Cox wrote in 1991. It was sent to Sauls’ father — and it was delivered after Sauls led Leon to the state championship game two years after he replaced Cox as the Lions’ coach.

“There is no way I’ll ever get rid of that letter,” Sauls said. “He talked about not only the success of the program but his relationship to our family. It meant the world to me.

“Coach Cox was tough. He worked you hard, But he had a great appreciation for your work ethic and he let you know that. There are people all over this community who can thank who they are right now for him.”

One of those men is Ricky Bell, who now oversees the athletic programs for Leon County Schools. Bell spent 10 years as an assistant coach with Cox at Leon.

“He treated his coaches much like he treated his players,” Bell said. “Most coaches would let you coach. Gene Cox made you coach. He demanded that you coach your best. He kept that pressure on you to always be your best. I didn’t play for him, but I think he treated his players the same way. He didn’t let you play. He made you play and he made you play hard. That’s the difference.”

That toughness showed through in dozens of his players, including brothers Tanner and Darrin Holloman who starred at Leon in the early 1980s and later played at FSU.

“He was a tough football coach. He taught you mental toughness,” Darrin Holloman said. “He taught you leadership. He taught you character. He taught you class. While football was what Coach Cox was known for, while he was coaching you football, he was teaching you the game of life.”

Those lessons will be shared by his former players this week as Cox is remembered for his role in Tallahassee’s football history.

A former Leon teammate had asked Billy Sexton if he would mind getting Cox to sign the book Cox had penned on Leon High. It was the last time Sexton, who went from Leon to Alabama and then Florida State, talked to his mentor and friend.

“A great coach. He had a lot of great teams,” said Sexton, who played for him and coached with him before becoming an assistant at Florida State. “He was really a great man. It’s just a sad day.

“(Leon) was so much a part of his life and he was so much a part of its life.”

Cox’s impact went far beyond Leon. A pipeline of pass-savvy and disciplined players matriculated from Leon to Florida State and helped new FSU coach Bobby Bowden quickly rebuild his program.

Included in that group of Cox-coached players who went to FSU were quarterbacks Woodham, Jordan and Blair Williams as well as Kurt Unglaub, Childers, the Hollomans, Ivory Joe Hunter, Mike Shumann and Detroit Reynolds.

But before Bowden began benefiting from his players, he knew plenty about Cox.

“The first encounter with Gene Cox was when I became the head football coach at South Georgia College in 1955,” Bowden said. “Gene Cox had graduated the year before and all I ever heard about was how great a player Gene Cox was.

“And when I got to Florida State, I became pretty close to him. We lived off his players when I first came here, Wally and Jimmy and many others. He produced a lot of great players. He is really an icon here, no doubt about it.

“He came from the old school. It was blocking and tackling and toughness. And he probably was one of the first guys to use the passing attack like he did in high school.”