Simmons Says - More calls from the Hall
As promised, I wanted to dive into the Hall of Fame candidates I’ve seen since starting coverage in 2010. This time, I want to talk about the people outside the lines – the coaches and supporters of Warren County sports.
It was harder to come up with a set of criteria for this, but if I had to use one guiding principle, it would be what coach Gooby Martin said to me during our interview last week. When we were talking about how he’ll be remembered (as an athlete or coach), he said he hoped it was a coach because he, “wanted to touch the hearts of the kids,” he had.
That’s no small feat. In this day and age, it seems like the only time we hear about coaches is when somebody is yelling for them to be fired (yes, I’m talking about Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt ---- get in line Huepel, it’ll come soon I’m sure). Even over the weekend, I’ve fielded the same version of this question time and time again, “What about your boy Popovich now?”
Gregg Popovich, architect of the Spurs dynasty that spanned nearly 20 years, is even catching fire for not being able to lead Team USA to wins. I’d say, in general, we love blaming a coaches a lot more than we like praising them.
More than a handful of coaches will tell you: Coaches lose games and players win them. It’s a tough job. When you ascend above that and touch hearts, as Gooby puts it, then you are probably Hall of Fame worthy.
Here’s a list of five people I believe have touched the hearts of local sports fans, including one who has never coached a game:
1. Franklin Fisher
I’ve been banging this drum for years. Fisher’s work with the WCHS volleyball program was a thing of beauty and, by all accounts, a labor of love. Fisher loved the game as a kid and wanted his daughters to enjoy it too, so he helped push volleyball to the forefront over two-plus decades.
I remember talking to him about how he started with schedules that may have had 10 games, but by the time he was laying the whistle down for final time back in 2013, his Lady Pioneers were playing nearly 50 games a season. They were winning the majority of those matches too.
The 2012 team was simply amazing – one of the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t think they had absolutely overwhelming talent (though Caroline McKinley did win District MVP that year), but they had 6-8 girls who worked together seamlessly. They were a perfect example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
It helped to have Fisher in the middle of everything, being the calming influence on the sideline as he had The Temptations running through his ears during action. His fire for the game – and unmistakable intensity – was never let out as misplaced rage at his team. Instead, he was able to harness his competitiveness and push it into his team.
His mark on the program is still felt today. Along with being an official for TSSAA matches now, Fisher can usually be seen at local camps and other volleyball gatherings. He also has seen two of his former players – Katie Rogers and current coach Erin Blalock – take the reins of the Lady Pioneers.
He retired with over 300 wins, a district title and legend status among the Lady Pioneers he led. I think he’s going to be a Hall of Famer someday.
2. Charles Ingalls
If you read that name and drew a complete blank, I can’t say I’m surprised. What about if I said this name --- Slim. Yes, the Warren County super fan for 30-plus years should be in the Hall of Fame. There’s an argument to be made that he should be in charge of who gets in (I’d definitely listen to what he has to say).
Pioneer players for years have heard the same rallying cry in the biggest moments of close games. When there is a timeout and the gym goes quiet, Slim would rise from his front row seat and demand that the players, “BELIEVE IN YOURSELF!” Slim is the best.
I’ve had the great pleasure to have gotten to know Slim over the years. I know his voice in an instant and I know I’m always going to be greeted with a smile and a handshake (usually, Slim has a pretty good joke saved up too). There is no way to fully add up all the miles Slim has walked over the years to see the Pioneers play. I want to see him walk up at a banquet and receive a plaque for being a Hall of Famer.
3. Todd Willmore
If there’s one person who has been at more games than me in the last decade, it’s Willmore. He’s everywhere while serving as the Warren County High School athletic director. It doesn’t matter where the game is either – if the Pioneers or Lady Pioneers are playing, you can just assume Willmore is going to be waltzing through the doors and finding a good seat near the top row.
Warren County has started hanging banners with regularity over the last decade. I’m sure Willmore would give all the credit to the great athletes we’ve had and the good coaching, he also should get some credit. He’s been on fire with coaching hires of late, leaning on alumni to build great programs (including two I’m about to name).
Even retaining him was a great choice for girls soccer. He’s built a terrific program with the Lady Pioneers, one that has won championships and churned out top talent for years. If everything goes well in 2021, the Lady Pioneers may be able to add even more banners under the direction of Willmore.
Willmore’s dedication to Warren County athletics, as a player, coach and administrator should be more than enough to get a call from the Hall.
4. Chris Sullens
5. Matt Turner
This is not recency bias. And it’s not because they are my friends (something that is pretty obvious to anybody who has listened to a WC Sports Authority podcast). Sullens and Turner absolutely will be in the Hall of Fame one day.
Both had good athletic careers locally, but it will be their coaching that will endure the test of time.
If/when Sullens decides to turn in his whistle, he’ll likely have amassed over 300 wins locally (if you include his time with Eastside, WCMS and Boyd). He’s already topped 100 wins at Warren County High School and claimed back-to-back district titles (the first won locally in over 40 years). Sullens is a three-time district coach of the year and just had a class graduate without ever going through a losing season (another first in over two decades).
As for Turner, here is list of Pioneer football coaches with more than 10 wins in the 52-year of the program:
Bobby Newby – 57 wins
Ray Barnes – 22 wins
Chris Madewell – 22 wins
Ed Cantrell – 21 wins
Pedro Paz – 17 wins
Matt Turner – 12 wins
Newby, Cantrell and Paz are already in the Hall of Fame. Madewell, for his coaching and athletic accomplishments, would have a good case. And then there is Turner, currently one of just four Warren County coaches to amass a winning record during their tenure. Any guess on who are the other three with winning records? I'll give you a hint -- it's the Hall of Famers (Newby was 57-33, Cantrell 22-11, Paz 17-11-3).
Add in Turner’s ability to put wrestlers into the state tournament year after year and I think we’re currently watching a Hall of Famer at work on the Nunley Stadium sidelines. I also think, as long as Turner hangs around (and I don’t think he’s going anywhere or anybody is looking to get rid of him), he’ll leave Warren County ranked at least second on that list. How it’s going, it may only take him two more years to ascend past two Hall of Famers.
There are plenty of other coaches/supporters that are going to get looked at in the coming years. I think the precedent is set with guys like Mike Chilcutt, the longtime band director, and Jay Walker, the Voice of the Pioneers, getting their call in the Class of 2021. People are thinking outside of the box and finding some real gems. I’ll be curious to know who people in Warren County would like to nominate – send your suggestions to email@example.com.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a GLARING oversight in yesterday’s column. Isaiah Grayson absolutely should have made the list – and probably been near the top. It was just a huge mistake on my part.
Quick breakdown of Grayson’s case:
Personal Success – Grayson is probably one of the few athletes in Warren County history with over 1,000 yards rushing in football and 1,000 points scored in basketball. He was all-region in football a few times and was all-district in basketball two years. He was a starter on two different varsity teams as a freshman.
Team success – This is probably why I just glanced over Grayson over the weekend – the Tom Moore era just puts me to sleep. Grayson never had overwhelming team success on the gridiron, even though I watched him basically single handily beat Fayetteville his senior year.
As for basketball, Grayson was on the 2017-18 team which broke through and won a region game in Warren County for the first time in 25-plus years.
Unforgettability – I’ll never forget Grayson for the night I went to Oakland and saw the Pioneers face off against the No. 1 team in the state. Most of Warren County’s team, and maybe a few coaches, looked like the last place they wanted to be was at that game. Not Grayson – he came bouncing on the field yelling and screaming. He was fired up to get a chance at the best. In that moment, he became a legend to me.
The goggles he wore are also hard to forget.
Making Warren County proud – I think Isaiah is an amazing ambassador for the Pioneers and someone I think will one day be back here coaching and helping kids grow. If anything, I think we should’ve been quicker to recognize his greatness while he was here (me included).