Thank-you Billy Watkins, Jack Carlisle

Clarion-Ledger writer Billy Watkins, like Coach Jack Carlisle, is a Mississippi treasure. Can’t tell you how many times I have picked up the newspaper, read something Billy wrote and immediately have thought, “Boy, I wish I had written that.”

 

Billy penned the following story on Jack for Sunday’s Ledger. Because of space constrictions, some of it hit the cutting room floor. What follows, thanks to Billy and his editors, is the entire version.

 

— Rick Cleveland

 

By Billy Watkins

bwatkins@clarionledger.com

They trailed 40-0 at halftime, and inside the dressing room the bruised and bloodied players were stretched out on the floor and on benches. A few of them started changing into their street clothes. No way, the players said, were they going back out for the second half.

Coach Jack Mason Carlisle, in his first season as head coach at Jackson Prep at the time, stood before them and delivered one of the best pep talks of his life.

“You don’t want to be known as a bunch of quitters,” he told them. “I’m telling you, this next half can be different. You’ve just got to go out and believe. Those guys over in that other dressing room are a bunch of loud-mouthed rinky dinks, and I want y’all to hit ’em in the mouth a few times. If you do that, the final score can be respectable. What do y’all say?”

A voice came from a far corner. “I ain’t scared of ’em,” said one of the seniors.

“Me, neither,” said another.

Before long, the players were yelling and pounding the walls, and they burst from the dressing room toward the field, Carlisle leading the way.

He eventually peeled off and headed across the field to his own sideline, to his own team that wound up beating the players he had inspired with his halftime sermon 66-0.

“Our stands were filled, and I couldn’t have them leaving at halftime. But it didn’t work out quite like I thought it would that last half,” says Carlisle, sitting in his Brandon home. “I played every player I had, but I realized later our junior high probably could’ve beaten them.”

Following that game in 1971, the visiting team boarded its bobtailed school bus and headed back to England, Ark.. “They didn’t shower, didn’t change clothes,” Carlisle says. “The coach got the $3,000 guarantee we’d promised them, and they took off.”

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That is just one of hundreds of stories from Carlisle’s legendary coaching career that spanned 60 years. He retired following the 2011 season after serving as special teams coordinator at Louisiana College in Alexandria.

Carlisle, 83, will be the subject of a roast Tuesday night at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in Jackson. He warns those former players who are scheduled to share stories about him that “I do speak last.”

“I assure you,” laughs Tim Ellis, a former Ole Miss quarterback, “I will prepare with that in mind.”

Carlisle, who grew up in Amory, had a high school coaching record of 262-70-17 and was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. His teams were tough and detail-oriented and rarely beat themselves.

But there is also a Forrest Gump quality about the man, his path intersecting with people and events that only the universe can explain.

For instance: In 1954 as coach of Lula-Rich High, he had only 10 players show up for a game at Oakland, a tiny town near Batesville. The car carrying the left side of his line and one of his best running backs had broken down halfway there.

He told his 80-pound manager to dress out.

“His mother was a teacher, and she babied that boy to death,” Carlisle says. “She was at the game, and I assured her I’d put him way away from the action and that nothing would happen to him, that he wouldn’t get hit.

“We always carried an extra helmet and jersey or two, but he couldn’t find one to fit him. I can still see him, the earholes of the helmet resting down on his shoulder pads.

“Well, sure enough, the other team gets down on about our 10-yard line, and I put him as far back in the end zone as I can, back by the goal post. One of their boys broke through the line and when he ran into the end zone, he just went and ran right over my manager. All I could see was his helmet flying one way and him flying another. His mother came and got him, and that was the end of football for him. We finished the game playing 10 players each.”

That manager was Thomas Harris, author ofSilence of the Lambs.

In 1970, Carlisle built the Jackson Prep football field, the same one the Patriots play on today. He disked up what was raw pasture using an old Farmall tractor, then had an engineer come out and set the corners of the field.

In 1977, Carlisle was the Ole Miss assistant coach who pleaded with head coach Ken Cooper to insert third-string quarterback Tim Ellis in the game at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson against Notre Dame, with the heavily-favored Irish leading 13-10 with 4:53 remaining. Cooper said no. Carlisle wouldn’t back off. He knew Ellis was the Rebels’ best passer.

Cooper finally gave in, and Ellis tossed the winning touchdown pass to James Storey with 1 minute, 44 seconds left. The loss would be the only blemish on Notre Dame’s schedule on its way to a national championship.

And in 1992, Carlisle led Madison-Ridgeland Academy — a school that had experienced one winning season before his arrival in 1983 —- to the AAA Mississippi Private School Association state title. MRA whipped Prep, the program Carlisle had started from scratch, by two touchdowns in the championship game on the field he had built two decades earlier.

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He grew up hard.

His father, Herbert, worked as a railroad engineer. He took pneumonia at age 37 and died. Carlisle, the second-oldest of four children, was eight. His mother, Estelle, bought a farm near Amory next to his grandparents, and they raised cotton and “just about everything we ate,” he says.

He fell in love with football at an early age. “My daddy and oldest brother were both baseball fans, but I was always getting up football games and listening to the New York Giants on the radio,” he says. “And I didn’t mind getting skinned up. In my tender years, I could stand a good bit of pain.”

He was a 125-pound, three-year starter for Amory High at running back and helped bring home the Little 10 Conference title his senior season.

Carlisle hoped to play junior college ball. But shortly after graduating in 1947, he was riding his motorcycle and pulled out in front of an 18-wheeler. They hit head-on, and the truck ran over Carlisle’s right leg. All but six inches had to be amputated. He was hospitalized for six months.

“I couldn’t play football anymore, and I was mad about that,” he says. “So I had pretty much made up my mind I wanted to coach, but I kept thinking ‘Who is going to hire a one-legged football coach?’ But I was doggone determined to make it happen.”

He attended East Mississippi Junior College for a year, then decided to try and get a job at the garment plant in Nettleton where his mother worked. Though he failed to get the job, the trip changed his life. He met Jean, his wife of 63 years. They have four children, 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

After another semester at EMJC, he enrolled at Mississippi State in 1951 when Jean got a job on campus. He graduated from State in 1952, and had already learned that at least one school would hire a one-legged coach: Ethel High School, which hadn’t produced a winning record in more than a decade. Carlisle, who received a temporary teaching license in order to take the job, led Ethel to a 6-3 record.

He soon became known as a coach who could win where others had failed. His three teams a Lula-Rich, which had eliminated the football program before his arrival, went 2-6, 6-2-2 and 7-3.

He left Lula-Rich for Nettleton, where no one could recall the school’s last winning record. In his second and third seasons, Nettleton won the Tombigbee Conference. Nettleton’s home turf is now known as Jack Carlisle Field.

His legend grew, especially when he arrived at Jackson Murrah. In 11 seasons, his teams won the city of Jackson championship eight times and shared it twice more. He won the 1965 Big Eight Conference title, then considered the state championship. His track squads also won eight city of Jackson titles and at one time Murrah held every state record in the running events.

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Skip Jernigan, an attorney in Jackson, played for Carlisle at Murrah in the mid-1960s. He later played guard on the offenses quarterbacked by Archie Manning at Ole Miss.

“Coach Carlisle could push you further than you ever thought you could go,” he says.

Before every season, Carlisle would load the Murrah players on a bus and take them to Camp Mondamin in Simpson County.

“They locked the gates after we drove in, and for the next seven days we ate, slept, showered and breathed football,” says Jernigan, who will emcee the Hall of Fame roast. “We slept in these old cabins that were unmercifully hot. It was brutal. One night, he would take the team to the movie, and the whole town of Mendenhall would turn out to see us. But during that week we bonded as a team. And when we came back to Jackson, he had separated the sheep from the goats and knew who he could count on. And we were tough as whip leather.”

Looking back, Jernigan is amazed by Carlisle’s attention to detail.

“We all had the same blazers with the Murrah emblem on them for travel,” he says. “When we walked onto the field pregame, every player had to have his helmet on and their chinstrap unbuckled and hanging from the left side.”

Carlisle’s playbook was several inches thick, but his players often wondered why.

“We only ran about six plays,” Jernigan says. “But we could run them in our sleep.”

Ellis, a Jackson resident, says the same was true at Ole Miss. “I remember days when we ran the same play over and over until we were sick of it. But there was a method to the madness. We’d run 16 Lead 20 straight times every day in practice. But when it came time for a game, we knew how to run it against every front, every blitz, anything a defense could throw at us.”

And there was one other ingredient to Carlisle’s success: “An unbelievable fear of losing and making him mad,” Jernigan says. “I was scared to death of him until my senior year, when I became a captain. I saw the man, who didn’t weigh more than 135 pounds, pick up a 225-pound lineman one day at practice and hold him in the air while he chewed him out. That’ll get your attention. That’ll drive you to do everything in your power to win.”

 

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