Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Legend Leaves Us

Even if you're a football fan, you probably never heard of Walter Kilzer outside of West Tennessee. When you think of great coaches, you might think of Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Don Shula, Bear Byrant, Joe Paterno, etc. His 44-year coaching record was just above .500, but I would have given anything to have played for him. Countless parents savored the chance for their sons to play for Coach Kilzer at Trenton, TN's Peabody High School and later at Old Hickory Academy (now University School of Jackson) in Jackson, TN. Back in the 1970s, at Peabody High, he was my coach....although he never coached me. I was too small and slow to make the team, but I still cheered them on, every Friday night, where he directed The Golden Tide, along with his many "assistant coaches" in the stands. No doubt, if he'd had less players like me, he'd have had a better won-loss record, but whatever he had, he got the best out of them, and on those years he was blessed with some athletic talent, they really shined. By that time, I was in the band, where I was still small and slow! In his later years at Peabody, he was probably not as appreciated as much as he had been earlier, and then was again later when he laid the foundation for a highly sucessful program at Jackson. I'll always remember Milan High School's legendary coach, John Tucker (a distant cousin of mine...believe it or not) going on and on about Kilzer, who he felt was one of the greatest coaches in the history of Tennessee High School Football, even though it was Tucker who got the better of Kilzer, more often than not. No doubt Kilzer's best teams at Trenton were in the 40s, 50s and even 60s in the heyday of the old Big 10 Conference in West Tennessee, but one constant remained throughout his 30 year tenure there: the way he taught his kids to carry themselves when they took the pads off and moved on from high school, and into the real world.

He certainly had the early pedigree, starting at Vanderbilt, before transferring to Georgia Tech, where he played with and under a couple of legends: Frank Broyles, and head coach Bobby Dodd. For a while, he and Broyles held the record for the longest pass play from scrimmage in the Southeastern Conference, back when GT was in the SEC. He was on Bobby Dodd's first team at Georgia Tech. He thought so much of Coach Dodd, he named his first son "Bobby Dodd." No one ever called him Bobby. It was always Bobby Dodd. He held a reverence for Coach Dodd and I discovered many years later, just how deep that reverence ran.

I never heard him cuss. I think the strongest expletive out of his mouth I ever heard was "Dad June It." I never heard anyone say a bad word about him, only glowing words of admiration. Even when he got onto his kids, it was in such a loving, encouraging way.

Years later, in 1993, I was sent by WPSD to cover the Peach Bowl in Atlanta where Kentucky was taking on Clemson. I spent the week around Kentucky Coach Bill Curry and his team, including on the sideline during the game. They were undoubtedly the most intelligent, well-behaved, mature college football team I have ever been around. I knew Curry had been on one of Coach Dodd's last teams at Georgia Tech, so I watched him closely and how he handled himself, and his team. I never heard him cuss, and even when he got onto his players, it was in such a loving, encouraging way.

The following year, I drove home to see my old alma mater, Peabody play a football game one Friday night, when I spied Coach Kilzer up in the stands. I had to talk to him. Even though it had been almost 20 years, he called me by my name and flashed that wide smile which always lit up the room. I said "Hey coach! I want to tell you something! I went to the Peach Bowl last year and watched Coach Curry coach his team, and the most amazing thing was, I could really tell that you and Coach Curry were coached by the same man!"

He stopped for a moment. Then I began to see tears welling up in his eyes. At that point, it dawned on me just how much he had loved Coach Dodd.

I realized just how important a football coach can be in shaping a young man's life, teaching him values which he would carry throughout his entire life. I realized that a won-loss record on the field wasn't nearly as important as a coach's record in turning out quality people. In that aspect, Kilzer's record might be unequaled, as is Coach Curry's, or Coach Dodd's. Even so, when he had the athletes, he would beat you, and sometimes if his athletes were not quite as good as your's. He had a good chance of beating you anyway! They had their priorities right......and they still would, long after the game was over. There are a lot of coaches with better won-loss records, who will never be half the coach that Coach Kilzer was.


Paul B. Tucker said...

Thanks Lew for a wonderful blog. It brought back many fond memories of days gone by. You hit the nail on the head when you inferred that my dad had great admiration for Coach Kilzer. As far as I ever knew, everyone viewed Coach Kilzer that same way.

Since we are 'distant cousins' you may help me with some information from our Wade/Jetton connection. My grandmother was Sara Wade from Trenton TN. I have always been under the impression if my my memory serves me well that her father may have owned a bottling company in Trenton that perhaps produced an "orange" drink. Have you ever heard of this or know any information about it.

And by the way, I still miss seeing you doing the weather for WPSD.

Paul Tucker

Russ said...


Thanks so much for posting this tribute. I had the great privilege of playing for Coach Kilzer both in junior high and then again in high school at OHA, and he was a dear, wonderful man and a big inspiration to me. He certainly helped shape me in my formative years, and I'd have given anything to have seen him again in recent years before he passed away.

Russ Robbins
OHA Class of '86