When Bobby Jackson, who played quarterback on Bear Bryant's first Alabama team, in 1958, was inducted into the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame three years ago, it was unexpectedly one of the proudest moments of my life. I didn't know Jackson, but as he began his acceptance speech, he saw his high school basketball coach in the audience and asked him to stand up.
So my father, Herman Maisel, stood up. My dad coached his last game on March 10, 1956, the night that his team, Murphy High of Mobile, won the state AA championship. A few weeks later, shortly after the Second Guessers Club, the school booster group, awarded him $500 and a set of golf clubs for winning the title, my father quit. He was 30 and tired of trying to eke out a living for his wife and two children from an average annual salary of $3,400. I was born four years later, in 1960, and knew my father primarily as a real estate developer. He occasionally told me stories of his coaching days: how he was convinced the anti-Semitism endemic to the Deep South cost him one job; how my sister Kathy, then a toddler, ran across the court to see him—in the middle of a game; and how Ronnie (Bubba) Cochran, his star player, led the Panthers in their dramatic drive to the state title and then all but disappeared.
Though it had been his dream to coach, Daddy never spoke of those years wistfully. A couple of basketball trophies sat on a high shelf in our den, but there were no related photographs on the walls, and the box of newspaper clippings in which he was identified as "the canny Blue and Gold cage chieftain" rarely left the cabinets in the den. As a teenager infatuated with the idea of being the son of a canny cage chieftain, I asked him why he quit. He studied me for a second and said, "Either I could coach or you could eat."
That throwaway explanation stuck with me. I always believed there had been something magical about his career. My father coached his alma mater to the first state basketball title won by a Mobile high school since the tournament began in 1921. Not until 1986 would a school from the city win another state championship. That's why Jackson's recognition of my father touched me. It made me proud, of course, but it also made me curious. Daddy is 74 and in good physical and mental condition, yet time is passing. I decided to find out what kind of coach he had been and why he was so successful. What I discovered was a group of men in their 60s who speak of my father with a reverence that I thought was characteristic of only me and my siblings.
"Your dad meant a lot to me," says Bill Smith, the captain of two of my father's teams, who went on to a 35-year career as a high school coach and educator. "I've never had the chance to tell him that."
In four seasons at Murphy, my father had a record of 91-14 (.867). The Panthers went to the state tournament three times, reaching the semifinals on his first try, in 1953, and winning it all on his last. Nothing in his career before Murphy indicated that he would win that much. As a graduate student in physical education at Alabama, he coached the 1950-51 freshman team. The Baby Tide, as the headlines referred to the squad, finished 3-9. The way my father ran his practices impressed both varsity coach Floyd Burdette and athletic director Hank Crisp, but the losing caused Daddy to second-guess himself. "I thought, I just can't do this; I guess I'd better find something else to do," he says, "until I realized toward the end of the season the team didn't have any talent."
When the coaching job at Scottsboro High, in northeastern Alabama, opened up, my father wanted it so badly that he took a bus 150 miles from Tuscaloosa to interview for it. "I talked to Coach Burdette," the Scottsboro High principal told my father, "and he thinks you're going to be a good coach and I ought to hire you. We've got some other people to interview. You're going to get a good chance to get this job. By the way, what church will you be attending?"
"I won't be attending church," my father said. "I'm Jewish."
The principal, taken aback, said, "We don't have any Jewish churches in Scottsboro."
That, given the prejudices of the day in small-town Alabama, was that. Daddy returned home to Mobile and, with my mother pregnant, got a job tracking down deadbeats for a finance company. In the summer of 1952 he interviewed for the Murphy job, and with a recommendation from Crisp, the Alabama AD, he got it. Murphy athletic director and football coach Bill Sharpe didn't flinch when he learned my father was Jewish. Flinch? Sharpe's eyes brightened. "You're Jewish?" he said. "I'm going to let you buy uniforms! You can do a helluva lot better job buying than I can."