Connections in life are kind of a funny thing. When I think of the people who have influenced me in my past and whose teachings and values I subconsciously carry with me to this day, the difference in each of those people is quite striking. There are few common denominators between them. They range from passive to aggressive, from strong type A personalities to passive type B personalities, from men to women, and any other clichéd opposite I could choose to put in this description. However, the one commonality that each of these people shared in my life was that they were trying their hardest to teach me something. They were doing their best, despite their human limitations, to make me push past some of my human limitations. Some of those people’s names got lost over time and their faces blurred or merged with another person whose path may have crossed mine in a classroom, on a basketball court, or on a baseball diamond. I often wish I had paid more attention or run a little harder or trusted them a little more than I did at the time they imparting their wisdom to me. So many times these people fade away and out of our lives, even though we have absorbed more than we thought of what they were teaching us. Too many times we’re not able to reconnect with those people who shaped us in our formative years. That was not and is not the case for a group of former Lambuth football players and their coach, Vic Wallace.
According to an article from October of 2014 written by Dave McCulley, Coach Wallace spent fifteen seasons as the head coach at Lambuth University here in Jackson. While at Lambuth, Coach Wallace reached the national semifinals twice and the quarterfinals twice. During his time at Lambuth, Coach Wallace compiled a 98-64-1 record. Throughout his entire career, Coach Wallace coached thirty-eight seasons that ranged from all three levels of NCAA football to the NAIA. He was conference coach of the year seven times and national coach of the year twice. To say that Coach Wallace had a successful tenure as a head football coach would be understatement. To say that Coach Wallace had an impact on his players on and off the field, would be an even greater understatement.
I had the chance to speak with Coach Wallace recently over the phone while he was vacationing in Wisconsin. I wanted to ask him some questions about football and about the recent reunion that he had with his former players at his home a few months ago. What ensued was a conversation that left me wanting to put on the pads I never had the courage to put on in high school and convince Coach Wallace to come out of retirement so he could coach me. When I first heard the story of Coach Wallace’s players coming to his home for a reunion, I was intrigued and, honestly, a little jealous. The time spent on a team (from Little League to high school to college to professional) is unlike any other time someone can spend with any other group of people. As an athletic team, you experience immediate joy (winning) and, at times, immediate pain (losing) after working so hard at practice together. You all visit the same range of emotions together and you all trust the person who is leading you through this experience…except when you don’t and then things can get really bad. From the way Coach Wallace spoke of his players and the way they spoke of him, I can tell you that they never lost trust in where he was taking them. More than anything, I wanted to know what he thought was the key to developing a bond with his players as a football coach. Here is some of what he said:
“Every player came to our program with a set of values, self-respect and work ethic established through their elementary and HS years. There is a wide scope of these characteristics; but whatever they arrive with we try to develop and improve them. We work with all of the players both as a group and as individuals. Through our attention we begin to develop a bond with the players and they begin to develop a bond with each other.
“I define an education as anything that teaches a person to meet and deal with the challenges of life. I and my coaches see athletics as an integral part of the student’s education. A person gets better at whatever they practice. If they practice math they will get better at math. In everything we do we teach striving for perfection and developing a high personal and team standard of excellence. If the players practice this they will develop in these things. We teach developing the competitive nature and this is fundamental to achievement in anything.”
After hearing this, I began to understand why this bond between Coach Wallace and his players had been so strong and had lasted over a number of years. Many people in authority will try and lord their authority over whatever perceived subjects they think they have under their control. Coach Wallace chose to meet his players where they were and develop and enhance their personal characteristics and “work with all of the players as . . . individuals.” The word “individuals” is normally frowned upon in the overfed vocabulary of “coachspeak,” but Coach Wallace met the individuals where they were and chose develop their unique talents and personalities.
Coach Wallace summed up his philosophy on developing a bond with his players by believing in a four point process:
- We are teachers.
- We care about each of our athletes and teach them many things other than football.
- We teach our players to believe in themselves, believe in each other, while working as a team.
- We developed our players and prepared them to enter life as an adult, an employee, and an employer, as a husband and as a civic leader.
“Many people don’t remember the last three Heisman winners, the last 5 Presidents of the USA; but everyone remembers the teachers they had in elementary, junior high and high school that had a profound impact on their lives. Athletes always remember the bonds they developed with their coaches and the bonds they developed with fellow players, trainers and team managers.”
All of the time that Coach Wallace and his staff put into their players’ lives at Lambuth University came to fruition on a June evening at his home. Coach Wallace had recently retired but didn’t really want this to be a retirement party for him. With the help of his wife, daughter, and social media, word began to spread about a second reunion for former Lambuth players at their former coach’s home. When all was said and done, players came from all over the country (and even from another country) to spend time with and pay homage to Coach Wallace. Coach Wallace told me that the players even stayed in the backyard long after he turned in around midnight, reminiscing about the experiences they had playing together and playing for him. When Coach Wallace awoke the next morning, the players who had stayed up so late the night before, were back at his house, cleaning up from the previous night’s events.
When I called Coach Wallace for the interview, I was prepared with a notebook page full of questions that I thought were very insightful. Within five minutes, the conversation shifted to a former player that Coach Wallace coached at Lambuth: Cory Hill. Cory had just accepted a job as the quarterback coach at Southside High School. I could hear in Coach Wallace’s words and his voice, how proud he was of Cory. He told me that Cory had sent him a very simple text message the day Cory accepted the job that said that he knew this was what he was always supposed to do and he thanked Coach Wallace for the time that he spent coaching him at Lambuth. At that point in our conversation, I put my notebook down and settled in to listen to the wisdom of a coach who, at the end of his career, has had a positive and lasting impact on hundreds of athletes who have chosen different paths for their lives, but have absorbed the teaching and coaching of a man who cared about who they would become as men.
Coach Wallace told me he had a quote that he loved to tell his players: “It’s fun to need, and it’s fun to be needed.” While this obviously applied to football in a certain context, it can also apply to whatever someone chooses to pursue in life. As a team, as a school, as a family, as a parent, as a child, as a player, as a coach, as a church, as a business, and most importantly, as a community, isn’t it fun to need and be needed? Don’t we want to prop each other up and help each other when things go terribly wrong? Aren’t there times when we need people no matter how strong we think we are? Coach Wallace knew that it was a good thing to be communal and to invest in people as people, not simply as football players. The proof was there when he was surrounded by his former players one more time as their coach, their mentor, and their teacher.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.
Photography by Morris Abernathy.