Coach Willie Tate: The loss of a mentor

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you had a teacher who inspired you to be all you could be, who pushed you further than you thought you could go.

For a lot of boys, that person was a coach rather than a classroom teacher.

For a lot of boys in the South, that person was, to be even more specific, a football coach.

For me, that person was Coach Willie Tate of Arkadelphia.

Coach Tate died Thursday at the all-too-young age of 69 following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s hard to believe he was only 17 years older. When I was a teenage boy, he might as well have been 40 years older.

You see, he was a giant of my youth, a man a whole town could look up to.

Raised in a large family in the small community of Gum Springs in Clark County, Willie Tate attended college at Arkansas AM&N (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and became a star football player.

He began his coaching career at Hope, moving later to Arkadelphia where he would spend the rest of his career, coaching first at Goza Junior High School, later at Arkadelphia High School and finally at Henderson State University.

I was lucky that Coach Tate followed us from junior high to high school, meaning I had him for four of my final five years of football. He was my head football coach in the eighth and the ninth grades.

After a 10th-grade season without him, when I was the backup center on the Arkadelphia High School team, Coach Tate moved up to the high school level as the Badger offensive line coach. I was the starting center as a junior, and he was my position coach.

My friends will tell you that all these years later, I’m constantly quoting Willie Tate.

He had that kind of effect on me.

He would warn us about “season women,” those girls who would date you during the fall if you were a football player but then drop you for a basketball player in the winter.

He would preach self-esteem and then tell us: “If you ever read that Willie Tate committed suicide, you better call the police. Somebody has murdered me and made it appear to be a suicide. I would never do that because I love Willie Tate.”

He would say, “Let me show you how to block” or “let me show you how to use a forearm,” and we would all back up. Yes, we were in full pads. Yes, he was in coaching clothes. But no one wanted to take on Coach Tate and have his massive forearm crush into the chest. This was a gifted athlete who had earned All-SWAC honors in both football and baseball at AM&N.

We loved the man, just as much as we feared him when we were on the field. Arkadelphia had experienced severe racial problems in the spring of 1972. By the fall of 1973, I was playing for Willie Tate.

He was black. I was white. It sounds trite, but color didn’t matter to any of us on that football field. He convinced us we were all Goza Junior High Beaver red and white and later Arkadelphia High School Badger red and blue.

He told us of his freshman season at AM&N when he separated a shoulder during a game, only to have the team doctor pop it into place on the sideline and tell him to get back on the field.

In excruciating pain, he decided the next morning to take advantage of the one pay phone in his dorm on the Pine Bluff campus and call his father back in Gum Springs.

“I’m coming home,” he said.

His father, with a family to feed and in need of labor on the farm, was happy to have the extra help. He replied, “Good. I’ll have the sack out for cotton picking and the billet truck filled up.”

Willie Tate decided that he wasn’t in that much pain after all. Playing football, even with a separated shoulder, beat picking cotton and working in the billet woods. He stayed in college and graduated.

I’ve written before on the Southern Fried blog about that special season of 1976, when the Badgers advanced to the state championship game, only to have the title denied inches away from victory by what my teammates and I always will believe to have been a series of bad calls.

As a junior starter on a team filled with seniors, I was determined not to disappoint Coach Tate. If you missed an assignment or happened to be called for holding, you would go 20 yards out of your way when coming off the field to avoid running directly by Coach Tate.

He wouldn’t scream at you when you came off the field following the punt or the turnover. Instead, he would put his hands on his hips and give you a stare that burned all the way through you.

It has been more than 35 years, but I can still picture that sideline stare in my mind as vividly as if it had occurred today.

Coach Tate would spend weekends in the fall watching the film of Friday’s game and grading each of his linemen. He would hand out his grades and individual comments on Monday. A positive word from Coach Tate on those sheets was enough to put an extra bounce in your step during the Monday afternoon practice.

The humidity always seemed to hang heavier than anywhere around that old practice field on Caddo Street. As the sweat poured out of us, Coach Tate would laugh and sing about “Blue Monday.”

Soon enough, though, it would be Friday night and the Badgers of 1976 would be on their way to another victory with Vernon Hutchins as the head coach and Willie Tate making sure his offensive linemen were blocking for star running back Trent Bryant.

In the state semifinal game, we took on an incredibly talented Cabot team at War Memorial Stadium. I had upper body strength in those days (I loved the bench press) and didn’t mind blocking a big noseguard. I could handle those guys. The small, quick opponents shooting gaps were the ones who bothered me.

Cabot, as it turned out, had the quickest noseguard I had ever come up against.

At halftime, as I sat in a stall in our dressing room at War Memorial Stadium, Coach Tate walked over to me and said: “If you will block your man, we will be in the state championship game.”

The second half was better than the first. We recovered a fumbled punt, drove the ball into the end zone and advanced to the title game.

The next week, I was virtually inconsolable in our Caddo Street dressing room following the battle against Mena that had occurred down the street at Henderson’s Haygood Stadium.

I was the deep snapper in addition to being the regular center. I had made a bad snap on a punt. The playing conditions on that muddy field were beyond bad, but I was blaming myself for the loss. More than anything, I believed I had let Coach Tate down.

I had my face buried in my hands when I felt that strong arm reach around me and give me a hug. It was Coach Tate. He whispered in my ear that it would be OK. He told me to take my muddy uniform off and go shower.

With the tears still coming down my cheeks, I said, “Yes sir.”

I stood up, slowly pulled off my uniform and headed to the shower. I still have the muddy mouthpiece from that game.

We lost a number of seniors to graduation. Heading into my senior season, the Arkansas Gazette featured in a Sunday edition one player from each classification. For some reason, I was the player featured from what was then Class AAA in a story by Wadie Moore Jr. I desperately wanted to live up to the hype.

Our quarterback was hurt early in the season, and the fall of 1977 was a disappointment. Yet the chance to have another practice under the guidance of Coach Tate and play another game for him kept me going.

By my freshman year at Ouachita, I was the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald and the sports director of radio stations KVRC-KDEL, covering the Badgers on a daily basis and still getting to interact with Coach Tate.

Coach Hutchins resigned at the end of the 1978 season — my first as the Badger play-by-play man — and a young guy out of UCA named John Outlaw was hired. He brought with him as defensive coordinator another young coach, Forrest City native John Thompson (now the defensive coordinator at Arkansas State under Gus Malzahn). Wisely, Outlaw decided to leave Willie Tate on the staff.

The Badgers won the state championship that first season under Outlaw in 1979 and won it again in 1987, making it to the playoffs in eight of Outlaw’s nine years as head coach. Coach Tate was with him all the way.

I taped interviews with the coaches each Thursday during football season for use on our Friday night broadcasts. Coach Tate didn’t like being interviewed and often began to stutter before crying out, “Cut! Cut!”

Coach Outlaw and Coach Thompson laughed uncontrollably in the background. Those were fun times.

In addition to being a member of the football staff, Coach Tate was the head track coach, winning three District 7AAA championships and finishing second in the Class AAA state meet eight times (he had the misfortune of coming up against the Bobby Richardson track and field dynasty at Crossett).

Coach Tate moved to Henderson as a football assistant under Coach Ken Turner in 1990. He was part of the Reddie football staff until 1999 and served as the head golf coach from 1995 until his retirement in May 2006.

Coach Tate was good at every sport he tried. He was a great softball player in the summers (while also working as a ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at DeGray Lake) and a quality golfer.

In 2010, Arkadelphia High School instituted the Willie Tate Heart of the Badger Award for the student who best exemplifies what it means to play football at the school. They couldn’t have chosen a better person to honor.

A year ago this month, I lost my dad. Just seven weeks later, on Good Friday, we lost one of my heroes, Ouachita Coach Buddy Benson. Just before Christmas, Coach Outlaw died suddenly. Now, two months after we buried John Outlaw, Willie Tate is gone. All of them played a role in making me the person I am today.

One last memory: Following that disappointing senior season in 1977, I was chosen by a Hope radio station for something called the KXAR Dream Team, which was meant to honor the top high school football players in southwest Arkansas.

Coach Tate announced that he would take me to Hope for the banquet. We rode in his Ford to Hope, just the two of us. With my football career at an end, he discussed things with me not as a player but instead as a friend.

As we made our way back up Interstate 30 that night following the banquet, it hit me somewhere around Prescott.

I was no longer being treated as a boy.

Under Willie Tate’s tutelage, I had become a man.

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