Spotlight on Sports: Tom Calvin was a great coach and a great man

Spotlight on Sports is a column written by Coach Earl Lewis.

How do I describe Coach Tom Calvin completely and accurately so that you, the readers of this column, will understand who he really was?  That’s the question I’ve been asking myself since I heard that he had passed away Tuesday.  His death was not unexpected, because he had battled serious health issues for several months.  Realistically we all knew it was coming and that he was headed for a better place, but we are never really ready to give up a friend and loved one.

This is a man who I could literally write a book about, so how do I say what needs to be said in a relatively small space?  Of course, the most obvious thing would be to tell you what a great football coach he was, and he certainly played that role perfectly for many years.  He started his coaching career at Baldwin County High School the year he finished school at the University of Alabama. He had been drafted by the Pittsburg Steelers but was offered a non-guaranteed contract which he turned down.  Instead he became the Head Football Coach in Bay Minette in 1951 where he compiled a 7-2-1 record.  Before the school year ended, Art Rooney, the Steelers owner, called with a guaranteed contract of $8,000.00. He joined the Steelers in the fall of 1952 as a running back, kick returner, punter, and sometime defensive back. He stayed in the NFL for the ’52, ’53, ’54, and ’55 seasons, before coming to Sylacauga as the Head Coach in the fall of 1956.

Photo Courtesy Alabama High School Football Historical Society

At SHS he established a large part of a legacy that recognized him as one of the greatest high school coaches in Alabama history.  He directed the Aggies to 12 Talladega County Championships; three mythical State Championships as selected by the Birmingham News (1957, 1960, 1961); one State Championship (1969) in Sylacauga’s first appearance in the playoff system; and a State Runner-up finish in the 1970 playoffs.  Those are just the best of many outstanding seasons at Sylacauga High.  While at Sylacauga, he was named State Coach of the Year three times; and a Birmingham News poll named him the State’s Best High School while he was at Austin High in the 1980’s.

After moving to Decatur’s Austin High School, he turned a mediocre program around and led them to a Class 6-A playoff Runner-up finish with a 13-1 record in 1983.  The Black Bears next best season in the Calvin era was 10-2 in 1982.  They were in the playoffs five times during his Decatur career.  They lost to Murphy 7-0 in the 1983 State Championship game in a rainstorm.

Coach Calvin tutored countless numbers of All State players, and sent almost 50 of his athletes to the college ranks.  Also, at least 10 of his former athletes joined the coaching profession.

My first encounter with Coach Calvin involves a story that I’ve told many times.  My uncle and aunt from Nashville picked me up when I was 10 years old and carried me to Mobile to see Alabama play Vanderbilt in Ladd Stadium. One of the main highlights of the trip was getting to see a Sylacauga boy, Joe Compton, who was every local kid’s hero, play fullback for the Crimson Tide.  Well, Joe didn’t play a single play, but a player named Tom Calvin, who I had never heard of, played the whole game at fullback.  Consequently, I didn’t like Calvin much because he had played ahead of my hero.  I found out later that Joe was injured, or both fullbacks would have probably played.

Ironically, six years later here comes Tom Calvin (and his wife Lenette) to Sylacauga, and I worked for him as a lifeguard at the old Municipal Pool. Then about 10 years later I joined his Aggie coaching staff, and we became friends for life.

There are dozens of stories about Tom Calvin that will be told in the next few days, many of them funny, but I am going to save those for another time. In fact, I may devote a full column to Tom Calvin stories sometime soon, but it will be hard to accurately present them without everyone having been there to witness them in person.

Instead of the story telling right now, I want to relate to you some things about his life and what kind of a man he was. He was born in Athens, Alabama, on June 13, 1926.  He and Mrs. Calvin celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary just a few weeks ago.

He was a football star at Athens High School and turned that into a scholarship at the University of Alabama where he was an outstanding running back from 1948 through 1950 on teams coached by Red Drew. He led the team in rushing in 1949, and at one time he had the longest kick off return in Bama history – 88 yards. Between high school graduation and his time at Alabama, he spent time in the U.S. Army as World War II was coming to a close.

As a coach, he was the hardest working and most dedicated high school coach that I’ve ever known.  Not long ago, I counted the number of coaches that I worked with during my years on the Aggie staff and came up with 37 different men (including assistants and head coaches), many of them very good coaches. However, Coach Calvin stands alone at the top.  He was completely dedicated to his profession.

He was a Christian and a man of complete honesty and integrity, and he demanded that his players live to those same standards. He was a disciplinarian and a motivator.  He was tough when he needed to be, but could be compassionate when the time was right.

I feel blessed for the time that I spent with him (three or four years in the summer recreation programs and 12 years on the coaching staff).  He was a mentor to me, and I learned from him a large portion of the football skills and schemes that I used as a coach.  He never quit learning himself.  He always went to every coaching clinic available and always came back with something new. Some people thought that he was not very flexible, and he did have some core ideas that he would not change, but he was always willing to try something new – a new drill, a new play, or a new defense.

Maybe the main compliment that I can give to him is to say that he (along with Mrs. Calvin) impacted more lives than anyone who ever passed through Sylacauga.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women in this world who learned how to compete on playing fields, but even more importantly they learned many life lessons because of exposure to the Calvins as they worked to make this world a better place.

In closing, I want to publicly thank Coach Calvin for trusting me enough to allow me to realize a boyhood dream of being a coach at Sylacauga High School. They don’t make them like Tom Calvin any more.

Rest in peace Coach!