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July 14, 2011
Stallings to take his place among game's elite
Gene Stallings will be honored this weekend for a career in college football spanning nearly 40 years. In South Bend, Ind., at the site of the College Football Hall of Fame, he will gather with his fellow inductees today for the start of festivities before slipping on his Hall of Fame blazer Saturday.
At arguably the center of collegiate football, with Touchdown Jesus looking on from the University of Notre Dame, Stallings' lifework will be on display - his championship tenure at the University of Alabama, his years guiding the Texas A&M football program and even his 17 seasons as an assistant coach in the National Football League. In a room full of football men, in a town built on football, there will be talk of championships, of epic wins and heartbreaking losses.
What won't be on display, however, are the moments that have defined the 76-year-old native of Paris, Texas - from his start as a high school player, to his special relationship with a special son, to his retirement to raise cattle on a remote ranch in Texas.
Here is a look at some of those moments, gathered from Stallings and those who knew him best.
Ask Stallings what kind of player he was at Paris High School, and he'll tell you there's not much to talk about.
"Very average," he said.
Stallings said the coach who recruited him to Texas A&M, Gil Steinke, later told him flat out, "I didn't think you could play very much."
Stallings' theory on how he landed a scholarship? "Probably some A&M alums put some pressure on them."
In fact, Stallings proved good enough, and tough enough, to start for the Aggies under Paul W. "Bear" Bryant. He lettered in 1954-56 after a year on the freshman squad.
Jack Pardee, one of Stallings' A&M teammates, remembers him as a hard-nosed player who started both ways in the days of one-platoon football, when substitutions were limited. Pardee was a rough, 6-foot-2, 200-pound bruiser. Stallings was a shade taller and much leaner, but willing.
"Coach Bryant would line us up, first 20-minute period we had in practice we'd have head-on tackling drills and head-on blocking drills," Pardee said. "Gene had good height, but he was always a leverage guy - he knew how to play football. Coach Bryant wanted you to put your face right in their numbers every tackle, and Gene would do that. He never shied away."
Stallings still maintains he was "not a great player," but he takes pride in one fact: "I was the captain of every team I ever played on," he said, including his high school football, baseball and golf teams, as well as the freshman and varsity football teams at A&M.
The Junction boy
When Bryant arrived as coach at Texas A&M in 1954, he set out to toughen the team by taking nearly 100 players to an adjunct A&M campus in Junction, Texas, which was in the midst of a severe drought. Players practiced several times a day in temperatures above 100 degrees, and slept in sun-baked, corrugated-steel Quonset huts. After 10 days, only 37 players remained, the rest having left to escape the torturous camp.
Stallings was one of the 37.
The woman who would soon after become Stallings' wife, then known as Ruth Ann Jack, remembers receiving letters from Junction.
"I just knew it was a terribly stressful time for him," she said. "I remember a lot of letters about how hot it was, how miserable the practices were.
"He wasn't sure about that new coach. Of course, he didn't know who Coach Bryant was."
Ruth Ann visited a few weeks later for a game in College Station, Texas. She saw first-hand the effect of those brutal practices.
"He was as skinny as a rail," she said. "He was very thin then anyway. His playing weight in high school may have been less than 170, but he was even thinner after Junction."
As a youngster, Stallings spent five summers working under the blistering Texas sun as a roughneck in oil fields.
"It was extremely hard," he said. "The day after I graduated high school, I went to work in an oil field."
Pardee and Stallings shared a one-bedroom apartment with four other A&M teammates one summer while working together.
"Back in the days you'd get a job making two or three dollars an hour doing roustabout work in a working field," Pardee recalled.
That work included digging trenches for pipes, clearing weeds around oil lines and tending to pipes with wrenches to keep them in working order.
"When we took our lunch break, we'd try to find some shade by a tank or something," Pardee said.
Stallings' final summer of oil work was in 1957 on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico. He rode out Hurricane Audrey's 100-plus mph winds on the shaky rig, wondering if it would crumble into the sea. The storm slammed into the Texas and Louisiana coasts and killed more than 400 people, the largest death toll from a hurricane in the U.S. until Katrina hit in 2005.
"We were the only rig that wasn't evacuated," Stallings said. "Everything had broke loose. We were there two or three days. It was scary."
Stallings and Ruth Ann raised four daughters and one very special son, John Mark, who was born on June 11, 1962, with Down syndrome when the young coach was an assistant at Alabama.
Life changed for Stallings that day.
Jackie Sherrill was a freshman at UA at the time, and had been recruited by Stallings. They became friends over the years as coaching contemporaries.
"All the doctors kept telling Coach that they needed to put him in a state institution," Sherrill said. "Coach refused. By him refusing, he prolonged a life for many years, and none of us will ever know how many lives (John Mark) touched."
One of those lives was Jim Uptmore, a Texas A&M booster Stallings has known since he returned to his alma mater in 1965 as head coach.
In April, 1966, Uptmore's wife gave birth to Paul, a child with Down syndrome. The day after Paul was born, his parents were informed by a doctor their son would die without a blood transfusion. The doctor advised the parents against the procedure, telling them they would be better off, then stepped out of the room to let them decide.
"I was in shock," Jim Uptmore said. "My wife was in shock. The phone rings. It was (Stallings) on the phone."
Paul Uptmore became close friends with John Mark Stallings. Paul was more athletic and participated in the Special Olympics. John Mark's long-time heart problems didn't allow him to compete. When John Mark died in 2008, Paul brought a gift to the funeral.
"It was Paul's idea," Jim Uptmore said. "He had a medal still in the cellophane and he wrote a little note, 'For someone who tried the best he could, but never got one.'"
Stallings urged Paul to put the medal around John Mark's neck. Paul delivered his own simple eulogy at the grave.
"It's OK, Johnny," he said as the casket was lowered. "Bye."
When Stallings was an assistant coach at Alabama, Bryant sought the counsel of his assistant coaches on whether to suspend Joe Namath over a 1963 drinking incident when the star quarterback was a junior.
Bryant went around the room, and one by one the coaches voted to let Namath off the hook, until it came to Stallings.
"I said I thought he shouldn't be able to play," Stallings said. "I'm very fond of Joe Namath - was then and am now - but he was beginning to feel his oats and I felt Coach Bryant needed to get his attention for the following year.
"Not debating whether it was a good rule or a bad rule, but it was a rule and I voted the way I thought would be best for the team and best for the player."
Namath was suspended, and missed the Sugar Bowl.
Almost 30 years later, it was Stallings the head coach who allowed star receiver David Palmer to remain on the team in 1992 after Palmer was cited for drunken driving twice in a span of two months.
"I felt like David needed me and the team more than we needed him, even though he was an outstanding player," Stallings said. "I felt like he needed the association with everybody, as opposed to just letting him go."
Palmer served his suspension and returned to help Alabama win the national championship in 1992.
Stallings took a lot of criticism, but never second-guessed his decision.
"He always did and always said what was right," Sherrill said. "You weren't going to change his mind."
As a father, Stallings was as protective as he was demanding.
When the family was living in Dallas while Stallings was an assistant coach with the Cowboys, one of his daughters was selling advertisements for the school football program and got a rude reception from the owner of a nearby store.
Papa Stallings came to the rescue.
"He went down and confronted the man," Ruth Ann Stallings said. "I don't know what he said, but I do know after that the man became one of our best friends."
Stallings also made sure his daughters married men who knew how to work.
"When he could tell they were starting to get really serious about someone, he had them bring their boyfriends to the ranch to work for a summer," Ruth Ann said. "The sons-in-law all laugh about it now, but I don't think they thought it was so funny then."
The right man
Cecil "Hootie" Ingram hired Stallings as Alabama's head coach in 1990. Stallings had compiled losing records as head coach at Texas A&M from 1965-71, and with the St. Louis and Phoenix Cardinals of the National Football League in the 1980s.
Ingram was sure, however, he had found the right coach to unite a divided UA fan base after Bill Curry's three-year tenure.
"A lot of people looked at his record and behind the scenes kind of said it didn't look like too good a choice," Ingram said. "I'd been knowing Gene since 1958 when he came here with Coach Bryant. We weren't necessarily bosom friends, but we knew each other and had some kind of contact through the years.
"I knew a good bit about him. He had something that he never got discouraged if things didn't go real good. He would work through situations."
Stallings lost his first three games at Alabama, and Crimson Tide fans weren't happy.
"That's bad when it happens," Ingram said, "but sometimes that's good in the long run. If you go in and have immediate success, someone else gets credit for having made the situation good for you. If you work your way through it, that gradual improvement gives you the momentum, and the people got confidence in him as it improved."
Stallings overcame that rough start to go 7-5 in his first season, then went 30-0-1 in his next 30 games (although eight wins and a tie in 1993 were later forfeited for playing an ineligible player).
"He had some down times and went through it," Ingram said, "but he never lost confidence in himself."
At the end of his sophomore year against Ohio State in the Jan. 2, 1995 Citrus Bowl, center John Causey felt his knee pop. He immediately fell to the ground, watching as the play resulted in a fumble. Looking down, he saw just how bad the injury was.
"My toes were where my heel should have been," Causey said.
On the grass, trainers looked over Causey. The player watched as Stallings made his slow walk from the sideline. Irritated at losing possession of the ball, the coach hovered over Causey, asking a simple question that summed up the old-school football coach.
"Are you hurt or are you injured?" Stallings asked, "because you can play hurt."
Causey had dislocated his knee and tore three ligaments.
Laid up in the hospital, Causey didn't expect to see Stallings until next year. The following day, his head coach came by to say hello.
"I was in there nine days and he stopped by each of those nine days," Causey said.
Speaking with nurses, Causey found out it wasn't anything new. At 5 o'clock each morning, Stallings would come walk the halls, sitting with patients.
What caught the lineman off guard was what coach and player talked about.
"In my heart of hearts, I thought by his showing up that he cared," Causey said. "Our conversation wasn't about me getting rehab or healed up. He cared. It was more about John. It's was more about the person than getting that knee healed up so we can get back to doing what we do."
John Copeland played for dozens of coaches in a football career which spanned from youth league to the pros. Not one handled his players better than Stallings, in Copeland's estimation.
The All-American defensive end who helped lead Alabama to the 1992 national championship saw Stallings as a man who was part CEO and part drill sergeant, above the fray but in the know.
"He was more of an overseer," Copeland said. "He was the CEO of the company, occasionally popping up in meetings. He'd let his staff coach, but if he saw a problem - if he saw a guy not doing things the way he wanted them done - he was quick to step in at that point."
Stallings was also quick to dole out punishment. Copeland remembers how quick, and sharp, a tongue he had with players.
"He would walk around and monitor what was going on," Copeland said. "If a player did something that was stupid, bone-headed or just wasn't doing it right, he would always say something to the effect of, 'Hey man, what are you doing? Hell, John Mark can do it better than that!'"
Now retired from the NFL, Copeland still laughs at Stallings' signature barbs. How he got away with it was simple.
"Stallings probably forgot more about football than his entire staff knew to begin with," Copeland said.
Chad Key had a car accident in 1993, just before the start of his sophomore year, receiving stitches in his head.
The day after the accident, the coaching staff asked him to come in to see how he looked. The pats on the back were aplenty, and when Stallings asked for him to come into his office, Key thought he'd get a quick check-up and be on his way.
"Here I was, still relatively young, and I'm thinking, OK, I'm fixing to go up to coach and he'll give me a sympathy check and make sure I'm OK," Key said. "I kind of bee-bop on up to his office and when I went in, expecting to have somebody lick my wounds and make sure I was OK, and he proceeded to basically rip me another one. He ripped me out because he said, 'Chad, what are you thinking? We're fixing to start two-a-days in a week and here you are out there getting injured in a car accident. You need to be more careful than that.'"
When the yelling subsided, Stallings surprised Key again: the coach had an idea.
Stallings said he had watched from his office a few days earlier as Key and the other quarterbacks were warming up. What impressed Stallings wasn't his throwing motion, it was his hands. Short on wide receivers due to graduation and injuries, Stallings proposed Key try out at wideout. A week later, Key was practicing with the receiving unit and soon found himself starting a few games. Key was a three-year letterman at the new position.
"That's the thing about coach, he has a mystique - a way of keeping you on your toes," Key said. "You never know what he's thinking. You think you might have him figured out, but you don't."
The detail man
Tank Connerly had been equipment manager at Alabama for two years before Stallings arrived as head coach. During the 1993 Gator Bowl, Connerly thought he might not last another year.
With Alabama facing North Carolina in Jacksonville, Fla., Connerly saw one of the Tar Heel players was wearing an illegal piece of equipment - a garter from one of the UA majorettes. From the sidelines, he shouted at the referee to throw a flag and penalize UNC for the illegal equipment. At first, the umpire ignored him. The next play, he shouted once more and drew a quick response from the referee, who said, "I ain't got time to mess with you."
Connerly made a snide remark in return and walked back toward the bench. In the pit of his stomach, he knew something was wrong. After the next play, the referee stopped the game to talk to Stallings, complaining about the heckling. Stallings asked who it was and the referee led him through the sidelines and back to the water cooler, where he pointed out Connerly.
A ball formed in Connerly's throat as he waited for Stallings to let lose his legendary temper. As Connerly recalled, "There were times you could tell he was fixing to bristle or he was bristling. Suddenly, you felt the humidity was there."
"I thought I was absolutely going to get blown up in front of all these people," Connerly said.
But in front of thousands of fans, Stallings gave his equipment manager a smirk and told him, "Just leave these officials alone."
Stallings retired to his ranch, which covers around 800 acres, when he left Alabama. He made his first payment on Hike-a-Way ranch in the 1960s, when he was coaching at A&M. It is where his grandchildren all learned to drive, where they learned to swim and where they learned to fish.
Hike-a-Way is still a working ranch. Stallings raises cattle, maintains horses and grows hay.
"That consumes a lot of his time," his wife said. "When he's not doing that, he spends a lot of time sleeping."
Stallings confessed to his wife a couple of years ago he would like to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, where past Alabama national championship coaches Bryant, Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas already had been enshrined.
"I think this is the one honor that I really would like to have," he told Ruth Ann, "and I think it may have passed me by."
Turned out it hadn't.
Stallings was in Tuscaloosa last spring, playing in a charity golf tournament, when he got the news. Archie Manning, the standout former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints quarterback, was chairman of the committee and was also playing. Manning called Stallings and some of the retired coach's good friends over to deliver the message.
"He was so very excited," Ruth Ann said. "I think it is very important to him."