Since hearing the news about the death of my old friend Billy Cole on Friday evening, I’ve spent a lot of time filing through about 35 years of memories. From high school to college and then back home, where he was a coach and I was a sports writer, I can’t think of anything about our hundreds of conversations that doesn’t make me smile now.
Actually, most of the time I was laughing. Billy always made me laugh, and he had the same effect on a lot of people. In fact, I can’t think of anyone I knew who didn’t like him.
It was hard just a few seconds ago even mentioning the word “death” in the same sentence as Billy Cole. It’s the only memory I have associated with Billy that wasn’t happy.
From the time I met him in algebra in 1979 to a Facebook note I received from him last Sunday, Billy always seemed to find something positive. He had a great sense of humor and often made himself the butt of his jokes. He was also very good at making me the target, but he never once did it in a way that didn’t also make me laugh.
Billy and I knew each other in high school and ran into each other every so often at Eastern, but we grew a lot closer when he joined the coaching staff at Evarts High School a couple of years after I had become sports editor at the Enterprise. He was an assistant with Ron Johnson and then with Bill Musick when Evarts began a run that was one of the best in school history, with a region championship in 1990 and then a Mr. Football award for star running back Scott Russell a year later. I was lucky enough to present the award to Russell that memorable day at Evarts High School, and I still have a photo of Billy congratulating Scotty with a tear in his eye. Russell was the best player Billy ever coached, beginning in junior high school, and probably no one besides Scott’s parents were prouder of him that day.
We talked two or three times a week during football season once he became head coach at Evarts. When I wasn’t sure if was phrasing something right where the X’s and O’s of football were concerned, I’d call Billy to make sure. I would usually thank him for saving me from looking dumb, and he would remind me that I still accomplished that every so often.
Very few of my assignments at the Enterprise were as much fun as picking our all-county football team every November, usually with dinner at the Western Sizzlin. Billy knew all the newspaper rules on how many photos would fit across the top of a sports page in the old days and would cackle when a new coach asked why we couldn’t change the number of special award winners from six to seven or eight.
Only J.B. Donahue probably remembers how Billy could make something like that funny. J.B., Billy and Jackie Cornett were the only people who still called me “Poison Pen,” from time to time, the nickname former Cawood coach Jim Cullivan gave me years ago.
Cullivan, who led Cawood to numerous district and sub-district titles, including an unbeaten regular season during Billy’s senior season of 1981, was a frequent topic of our discussions, as was Charlie Hunter, the legendary Evarts coach who was the head coach at Evarts in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and came back to serve as an assistant about the same time Billy started coaching.
After he left coaching, Billy came out to the Enterprise office to talk to me about writing for the newspaper. Billy was a voracious reader who was also a very good writer and a historian, much to the surprise of many people who just knew Billy as a coach. Not many people looked more like an old-school football coach than Billy Cole, which meant some were surprised that he was such an eloquent writer. It was a running joke through the years, especially when I admitted my first impression of him was surprise that he was so much better at algebra than I was. Ovie Canady, a former player of Billy’s who is now a veteran coach himself, told me once that he also ran across a few people who wondered if his old coach was really that good of a writer. Of course, he knew how smart his coach was and followed Billy’s lead as a coach and teacher.
Many of our conversations involved football and sports in general, but Billy also liked to talk about movies and music, along with history and politics. Most of our talks, now that I think about it, included at least one or two references to his wife, Lisa, and children. Billy was proud of his football teams, but even more proud of his children and their accomplishments, first with academics and then sports or music. He always said they got most of their brains from their mom, but I always had the impression that Billy didn’t make it an option if they worked hard in the classroom.
He invited me to watch a football scrimmage with him this summer involving Lincoln County, where his son, Josh, was defensive coordinator, the same job Billy held during the glory years at Evarts. He said he turned around at a practice when someone hollered for “coach Cole,” before realizing they were wanting Josh.
Billy sent me a note about a Freddie Maggard story I wrote in August, telling me how much he enjoyed it and that he had passed it on to his son to verify all his stories about how great the athletes and coaches were when we were growing up in the 1980s. He added that it may have been the best story I had written, suggesting that I could be like fine wine, getting better with age, an example of how Billy could give you a compliment while providing a reminder that you’re getting older.
Our last lengthy conversation was this summer at Camp Blanton during the James A. Cawood 1980s reunion. Billy had asked about going the previous summer, but I was out of town. I brought it up this year and he said Lisa had talked about going with him, but he’d ask if she really wanted to go or was just keeping him company since she was a Cumberland graduate. She gave her approval “as long as I didn’t keep him out too late.”
It was one of the best afternoons I’ve had in years. Billy sat at the Class of 81 table with me, Dianna Blanton Tipton, Alice Saylor and Tim Gooden. Even though he was a member of the Class of 82, he pointed out he was actually older than all of us. Being the football star he was, he spent an extra year in middle school at Wallins.
I wish more of his friends were there that day, even though I’m sure he talked to them since then. I think about Bucky Burkhart, who played with Billy at Wallins and Cawood and coached together at Evarts. There were many others, including Kenny Howard and Mike Buell, both members of the 1982 class at JACHS. The last time I saw Billy I think he was sitting with Buell at a Harlan County football game. I thought about going over to say hello, but I always have so much to do to get ready to cover a high school football game. I wish now I had taken a few minutes, but I’m glad we at least had that day in July.
We talked about high school and all the years since then. There were a lot of good memories and a lot of laughter, and the laughter, as the song says, is what we’ll remember.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134