Special night, special man

Orley Hood

The boys got together Tuesday night — his boys — to give the old guy grief.

The yelling and hollering, the twisting of the face masks, the attention to detail that marked so vividly a 60-year career trying to grind concentration and dedication into locker rooms filled with kids.

It was Jack Carlisle Night at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, the first of many annual roasts to come of Mississippi Hall of Fame greats. And it was wonderful. The Murrah years. Jackson Prep. Ole Miss. East Tennessee State. MRA.

His guys showed up en masse, some old, many older than old, filled with memories and laughter — and terror, more than one roaster said.

Happy Jack is the guy whose track teams at Murrah didn’t lose a meet for seven straight seasons, whose football teams won umpteen championships, who went to the wall that autumn afternoon in 1977 at Memorial Stadium to get Ken Cooper to put in substitute quarterback Tim Ellis, who immediately led Ole Miss on a game-winning drive against Notre Dame, which won the national title that year.

“He told me if I threw an interception that we’d both be fired,” Tim said. Carlisle wasn’t kidding. But Tim Ellis’ coach believed in him 100 percent.

There was one story after another, all the Carlisle eras overlapped into one, the MRA guys with the Prep guys with the Murrah guys with the Ole Miss guys, everybody nodding in recognition at every story. That’s because the players may have changed, the schools may have changed, but Jack Carlisle never did, not for a second.

 

The big room at the museum was packed, across Lakeland Drive and down Riverside from the Belhaven neighborhood where so many Carlisle boys went to elementary school at Power, junior high at Bailey and high school at Murrah, all within walking distance of every house in the neighborhood. Small world? The principal at Murrah, Howard Cleland, became president of Belhaven College. The basketball coach at Murrah, Charlie Rugg, became the basketball coach at Belhaven (and a Hall of Fame inductee). And Cleland’s secretary at Belhaven? Jean Carlisle, Jack’s wife. On and on the connections go, all tied to the skinny coach with the limp and the hard, gleaming eyes.

Most everyone I’ve ever interviewed who was successful in life could harken back to that one teacher, that one influence, who was tougher on them than — at the time — they thought anyone had the right to be. Years later they look back on that relentless sternness, that endless drive for perfection, that refusal to settle for second best, that overwhelming desire for their students and their players, to reach a level of excellence that the kids never dreamed they could achieve, how the character traits from the classroom and playing fields carried over into career and family life.

On Tuesday night the focus, the respect, the love, the admiration and — oh yeah — the memories of real fear, came pouring back, from the boys to their coach.

It wasn’t great. It was grand.

 

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