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.

25 Responses to “Coach Willie Tate: The loss of a mentor”

  1. Richard Moss says:

    Coach Tate was one of kind. I played for him in that 87 team, through my senior season of 89. His mark on his player and students will stay with us for life. He was a giant of man, with the same giant heart.

  2. Blake Bell says:

    Willie Tate was “the most influential” mentor at my time in Arkadelphia Public Schools. As a “white” track sprinter, in the late 1980’s 7AAA, needless to say, I was a bit under-represented and overwhelmed. I was good, but each week’s meet’s meet in Magnolia, Camden or Ashdown was a new challenge to the favored Badgers and their “different” third leg. Through all the butterflies, the insults, slurs and ridicule, there was always Coach Tate and his alluming presence, in the top row bleachers. Arms crossed, head and chest high, one sight and I knew all was good. Plus, it didn’t hurt we won most days. The best way to talk “smack” was to roll somebody up. I ran track and played football for Coach Tate for three years here, and we rolled lots of folks up. We were prepared, were together and had a swagger everywhere we went. I believe we took at least two buses to each state track meet. Not cocky, but confident! A Coach Willie Tate comes along once a lifetime. He will be missed but never forgotten.

  3. Brandon Helms says:

    Gret piece. I also know “the stare” He was always encouraging people to be the best. It is hard to believe he and Coach Outlaw are gone. Gone but not forgotten. Something that alotof people forget is the number of track titles he won.Great coach, better man, everyone’s best friend. If anyone has ever uttered a negative word about Willie Tate,they really didn’t know him. I loved him and that is why this hurts so bad. I find solace knowing he, Coach Outlaw and Richard Martin are back together again.

  4. Tara Brown Stacks says:

    I couldnt agree with Richard Moss’s last sentence more. TRUE! TRUE! TRUE! One thing nobody can argue is that you NEVER saw TATE W/O A SMILE ON HIS FACE! Of course, I wasnt running plays against a team when the Badgers might’ve been getting their behinds handed to them during a game, BUT, he always showed a wonderful love of life NO MATTER WHAT! Thank You Rex this was very kind.

  5. Lisa Karber Wright says:

    I had the opportunity to work as a Park Ranger at DeGray lake with Willie Tate! He was a great man! I was still in college at Henderson and worked 2 summers with him. He knicknamed me the “Alpine Flash” because I drove a little too fast to and from work. One night he saw a panther near Alpine Ridge and it literally scared him so much, he headed straight back to the office for the night! He was a great Ranger and a good friend!

  6. Paul says:

    I spent five years working in the Henderson State sports information office for David Worlock and also played a little golf for Willie. Just a great man. Dave and I had so.e wonderful, hilarious heartfelt recollections of the man yesterday when the news broke. Much like everybody here would probably agree, my time at Henderson/Arkadelphia was unforgettable. I’m grateful the memories of Coach Tate will forever be a part of it.
    This was really great Rex. Thanks very much

    Paul Gatling
    HSU Class of 98

  7. Steve Eddington says:

    Great piece. I have been telling Willie Tate stories for the last two days, and drawing big laughs from everyone. Coach Tate was a good man, a true character and a great influence to both studnts and sthletes. RIP Coach Willie Tate.

  8. Vance Walker says:

    Great memories, Rex! I remember having Coach Tate beginning in 7th grade for our P.E. class. He was already preparing the guys for football by having us lift weights and run. He always had a smile and we found out what a great athlete he was right away. I played catch a few times with him and he could scorch your palms with a baseball through a leather glove. He also had a great sense of humor and would lecture all of us about making sure we took our workout clothes home on Friday for laundering. We all respected him, and he will be missed. RIP Coach Tate!

  9. David Sharp says:

    Coach Willie Tate was one of a kind. He was one of the finest gentlemen I have ever been associated with. Always well dressed and very professional. Willie and I played a lot of golf together, and even won the AAA Coaches Tournament a couple of times. Along with my Dad, my brother Paul, my son, Jordan, Coach Benson, Otis and Tab Turner, there was nothing like a round of golf with Willie.

    There is another void in Arkadelphia. My thoughts and prayers are with Annie and the entire Tate family. We lost a very, very good man.

  10. Llewellyn says:

    Thanks Rex! You’ve spotted the pages of wisdom with your pen very well describing Coach Tate. He is no doubt another giant of a man lost from our community. He will be missed yet the love he shared will remain. We’re praying and offering support to Annie and family, thanks again.

  11. George Baker says:

    Rex, once again you have hit the nail on the head, Willie was indeed, a very special man. As you know, I coached with him for five years at Henderson State and he became my best friend during that time. He just had a way about him that caused you to know that he valued your life and contribution. He was a humanitarian of tremendous profundity.
    He coached my only son. He coached him well. Brady Baker loved Willie like the football father he was. I could wish for no better mentor for this my most precious lad!
    I loved willies’ humor and view of life. We commiserated in the heat, celebrated the victories, suffered the losses, labored over opponent’s schemes and generally enjoyed the unique life of a college football coach.
    Willie was a man f great courage who would quickly squat down and duck walk off the practice field on hearing a loud clap of thunder! He absolutely refused to fly, claiming that if we flew to a play off game he would surely drive, even if it was in Hawaii!
    We laughed a lot, worked incredibly long and hard and grew as men and coaches. I have missed him long before his death. May he rest in peace; he fought the good fight and ran the good race. G.B.

  12. Maurice Buckley says:

    Great man and mentor to me, who through it all always told you the truth and I became a better man for it. “Buckley do what you are supposed to do”. “Yes Sir Coach” May God keep his arms around you family, you age greatly missed!

  13. Randy Ensminger says:

    Great piece REX!! I felt like i was watching a movie!!! Wished I knew him!

  14. Stan Wood says:

    Great story for a great man. We were some of the lucky ones who got to experience Coach Tate both on the field during playing days and later in life as an adult. I can only say, Willie Tate was one of a kind and had impact on this community like no one else. Yes, he was a legend. I hope Annie and his family know how much we loved him as a coach and as a friend. Rest in peace Coach Tate. I know you, Law, Atkins and Richard have a great game plan for us in heaven!
    Stan Wood
    Badger #14 ’78-’79-’80

  15. Henry Wilson says:

    I did not know Willie Tate but l know his family,his dad and my dad was good friends,his older brother Sammie always protected me when l was growing up at Peake. Willie Tate came from good stock

  16. Melvyn Gillette says:

    Great piece.

    I’m a Gum Springs native and I’ve known Willie Lee (as I knew him) for most of his life.

    Rest in peace, Willie Lee

    Melvyn Lois

  17. David Worlock says:

    Wonderfully written, Rex. It was an honor to know a special man like Coach Tate. I got to know him as a work study student in Steve Eddington’s sports information office, and then got to work with him as the Reddies’ SID. Lots of great memories that I’ll always cherish and the fact that I still talk about Coach with friends like Steve and Paul Gatling, and even had to break the news to friends in Indy who have never met him but have heard the classic Willie Tate stories, is a testament to the great man he was. RIP Coach.

  18. Great Piece, Mr. Nelson!

    The world needs more men like Coach Willie Tate. He will be missed, but not forgotten.

    God Bless,
    James Calhoun

  19. Randy Wright says:

    An outstanding article about a great man. I was a junior at Hope in 1969 when Hope High and Yerger High integrated. Coach Tate was the head coach at Yerger and became an assistant head coach at Hope. I loved the man as a father and a mentor. He enabled the young men of Hope and Yerger to become as one without any of the discourse or problems that other schools experienced. I believe it was because of the leadership of our coaches. Our school and community came together and the experience for the young men that played football for the Hope Bobcats during that time was life defining. I know I am a better person because of Willie Tate. He prepared us not only for the next football game but also for the many different roads each of us would travel in life.
    Much like yourself, I was an undersized center who absorbed all of the lessons that Coach Tate taught. I will never forget Willie Tate!

  20. Tom Hazelwood says:

    Rex, thanks for a great piece. Coach Tate was a mentor for me as well. I came to know him through Track and Field and he was my supervisor at Goza when I did my practice teaching at HSU. His humor and encouragement helped me in becoming who I am today. Again, Thank you for your reflections.

  21. Howard Mills says:

    Great job Rex. As you mentioned, Coach Tate was a pillar for everything good in this world and for doing the right thing even if it was not the most popular thing. He was a mentor, an inspiration, and most of all a freind to so many of us who were fortuntate enough to have been a part of his life. Below I have lsited a few of my favorite memories:

    Anyone who was in Arkadelphia in the late 70’s and early 80’s would know Coach Tate by the old yellow truck. I was one of the few that drove his truck on various details one of which was taking the distatnce runners first thing in the morning to an undisclosed location where I would drop them off and they had to run back to the gym. Coach Tates instuctions were to never disclose the location in transit (he did not want anyone jumping out early) and to only comment that it looked like we had a full tank of gas. The irony of the story was that I was not very good with the stick shift and I was only 15.

    Yes, we all knew the stare and in football it meant extra time on the boards and in track as a field event participant if you did not peform well in your event during the day there was a good chance you would be runnning the 880 that evening. It was obvious for two reasons: you had on tennis shoes (not track spikes) and they did not bother bringing out the starting block.

    I’m sure that many of you remember Coach Tate, the singer, nothing wakes you up early in the morning like the smell of the locker room and the sound of Coach Tate singing on the gym floor. It was normally a song that you felt like you knew but some of the words were different.

    I grew up around football and I have been blessed to be coached by some outstanding individuals and Coach Tate is at the top of that list and I will always cherish the memories I have with him.

  22. Andy Jayroe says:

    Great read Rex.

  23. Rex,
    Arkadelphia has lost a lot in the past couple of years. I am glad you are there to help remember and so eloquently communicate their importance in many of our lives.
    Bill Vining Jr.

  24. Jimmy Cook says:

    I played football for Coach Outlaw in the 80’s. Coach Tate was the offensive line coach. He was also in charge of all the equipment. During practice one day I was complaining to Coach Ealey about my practice shoes. They were in bad shape. Coach Ealey told me to tell Coach Tate I needed some more practice shoes. I said, ” Ask him for me, you know Coach Tate won’t give me some more practice shoes.” Suddenly, Coach Ealey said, “Uh oh”.

    Coach Tate was standing right behind me and heard the whole thing. I have never been so scared. Coach Tate was also in charge of after practice bear crawls for us kids that were less than perfect off the field. He did not say anything to me. He just turned and walked away.
    I could not get my mind on anything else for the next 24 hours.

    The next day after school I walked into the locker room before practice and sitting in my stall was a brand new pair of practice shoes. Not another pair of used ones in good condition but brand new shoes.

    The other players kept asking me at practice how I got brand new shoes. Maybe they could have got new shoes. We will never know because everyone was too afraid to question Coach Tate about their own shoes.

    I think he was trying to teach me not to be afraid to ask. The only dumb question is a question not asked. He had a way of teaching you something about yourself without him ever saying a word.

    He wasn’t just a good coach, a positive mentor and a stern disciplinarian. He was a gentle giant with a heart of gold. I am a better person for having known him.

    Badger 81′-83′

  25. Lance Wall says:

    I’m saddened to hear of Coach Tate’s passing, he was a good man and a great O line coach. I played for him at Henderson State in the late 90’s and we loved his terminology such as the “scream pass” & his stories like the time he had to block Buck Buchanan in college. He was a classic! We all loved Coach Tate he was one of a kind, RIP Coach.

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