Valdosta has more
players dressed for this game than even try out for most high school teams. But
they don't look like supermen. Though it has less than half the manpower,
today's opponent, Camden County High, has players who look just as big and
strong as any from Valdosta.
As he wonders how
to account for the Wildcats' remarkable success, the visitor finds rational
analysis difficult and falls back, comfortably, on a football cliché: Football
is a coach's game.
inevitably rest on the Promethean shoulders of a coaching giant, past or
present, living or dead. A Bryant, a Robinson, a Hayes, a Wilkinson, a Paterno.
In Valdosta, his name is Wright Bazemore.
Baze, as he is
often called, was raised in Fitzgerald, Ga., "about 50, 60 miles up the
road," he says, and was a five-letter man in high school and a three-letter
man at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., where he discovered he had a mind for
football. "I knew more football when I got there than the coach did,"
he says. It was almost ordained that he go into coaching after graduation. In
his first season as head coach at Valdosta, in 1941, he went 9-2.
Then came Pearl
Harbor, and Bazemore spent three years in the North Atlantic, on the bridge of
a destroyer escort, convoying merchantmen. In 1947 he returned to Valdosta and
taught algebra and geometry in addition to coaching state championship teams in
football, basketball, tennis and golf. "We should have won baseball,
too," he says, 40 years later, in a voice that makes it plain that the loss
in the south Georgia playoffs is still a burr in his memory.
After 1947 it was
just more of the same, year after year. In his 28 seasons as football coach,
the Wildcats won the state championship 14 times. From '60 to '62, which most
people consider his best years, Bazemore's teams won 36 straight games, three
consecutive state championships and the first of Valdosta's fabled national
Five players on
that team went to Georgia Tech, still a power in those days, and it wasn't
until late in the season of their sophomore year at Tech that they played in a
losing football game. "They were stunned," says Bill Curry, a native of
College Park, Ga., who played on that Georgia Tech team and is now coach at
Alabama. "You expect disappointment after you lose a game, but in this
case, it was more like disbelief."
"You just grew
up wanting to play for Coach Bazemore," says Bud Hatcher, who did. He
caught the pass that beat LaGrange in the 1960 regional championship game,
thereby giving the Wildcats a chance to play for the first of those three state
titles in a row. Hatcher now has a steel warehouse in Valdosta and served the
last two years as president of the fanatically active Touchdown Club.
"There wasn't anything you wouldn't do if Coach Bazemore told you to do
it," he says. "I think most of us were more afraid of him than we were
of our own fathers, and in those days, that was something."
But the fathers
and mothers of Valdosta were Bazemore's greatest allies in motivating the sons
to play good football. They backed him, all the way. Bazemore made his players
work, and when they didn't do something right, he would keep them out on the
practice field until they did. "I'd tell them, 'Boys, I can stay here all
night. I got no place to go.' Then I'd turn on the lights and tell them to do
it again," he says.
turned on the lights and we didn't come home for supper, our mamas would start
coming along after a while with sandwiches," says Hatcher. "Sometimes
we'd be out there till 10 or 11 o'clock."