After that '71 season, however, things were never the same for Sweet in Macon. At first the Ironmen were riding high. In 1972 the school booster club financed overnight trips and the team finally got a bus driver, not to mention new, brilliant purple uniforms. Sweet was offered an assistant's job at Lakeland Junior College but declined it. There were expectations.
By most standards, Sweet met them. Over the next six years Macon would win an astounding 58 consecutive conference games and numerous district titles, though the Ironmen never got back to the state tournament. By 1976, Sweet's last year of coaching, some of the joy had gone out of the job. He had grown his Fu Manchu into a bushy beard, and his dark hair flowed past his shoulders. "Sometimes I just wish we could go back to that first year," he said at the time. "It was just 12 or 13 guys, and all we had was a bunch of baggy uniforms and a lot of fun."
The 1976 team finished 16--9, beat Taylorville to win the district and then lost to MacArthur in the sectionals, Sweet's last game. Just like that, he quit. "The parents were yelling at me too much," Sweet says. "They wanted it to be like it was. We'd always win more than we'd lose, [but] they all expected to go to state, the elusive state. ... " He trails off, looks out at the birds in the yard.
Teaching changed too. In 1994, when Macon High consolidated with Meridian, Sweet was expected to teach a standard curriculum, with an emphasis on grammar drills and test taking. No longer could he have students read Macbeth twice or could he stock the shelves with Popular Mechanics. Four years later he retired. He didn't fit in in the new world. "I was happy in the '60s and '70s," he says. "The world made sense."
Unlike many of his players, Sweet doesn't hold on to memories of that '71 season. There is only one photo of the team in his house. Sweet shows up at the annual benefit in memory of second baseman Mark Miller, who passed away from pancreatic cancer five years ago, but other than that he doesn't see "the kids," as he calls them, too often. "It was a beautiful thing that happened, but it's over," he says. Then he points to his chest. "It's in here now."
This may be true, but it's also still out there. Once in a while Sweet will head up Highway 51, headlights illuminating the new HAWKS sign outside Macon—the mascot that Meridian High adopted—until he gets to the turnoff and pulls into the P&V. He'll walk in and pick up a 12-pack, and when he gets to the counter he'll look up, past the clerk, to the part of his life that's there on the top shelf.