The time has come to put to rest that lingering debate over who are the best and most influential high school coaches in the history of Columbus and Phenix City.
This is one of those arguments that will never be truly settled. There are no wrong answers, only opinions. Your choices depend on your age, what your favorite sport is, where you went to high school, what part of town you live and which side of the Chattahoochee you call home.
I’ve been here long enough to understand such matters. As sports editor, I lived in that world and many times I was the target of fandom’s slings and arrows. I should have known better, but I opened up that argument last week upon the unexpected resignation of Central High baseball coach Bobby Howard.
Howard is most remembered for his 900 victories, the 12 state championships he won at Columbus High and for helping develop the talents of scores of young ball players. Some might claim that Howard is the best of the best, but I thought I was wise by listing him in a group of five outstanding coaches. I didn’t rank them. Instead I presented them in alphabetical order.
I invited you to join the debate — and of course you did. Some of you agreed with my final list but many of you pointed out flaws. You mentioned the names of coaches you thought I overlooked. You mentioned sports you thought I should have considered and criticized me for not including women’s sports and female coaches.
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Using Facebook, emails and voicemails you brought up the name of T.C. Britton, who helped give birth to the athletic program at Smiths Station before becoming superintendent of schools in Lee County. You talked about Hardaway golf coach Larry Gaither who won eight state titles in 35 years. You mentioned Sam Roberts who put together powerhouse track teams at Baker High. You praised Debbie Ball, girl’s softball coach at Shaw and Brookstone and James Patrick, basketball coach at South Girard, Carver and Fort Valley State College. You cited Art Williams and David Kirk — football coaches at Kendrick — and Murphy Jenkins, a colorful basketball coach at several local schools. You also brought up the names of Russell County baseball coach Tony Rasmus, Glenwood baseball coach Tim Fanning and Columbus High wrestling coach Larry Morgan. And how we can forget the husband-wife tandem of Bobby and Carolyn Wright at Central.
With your help, I’m turning my original list into a Dandy Dozen — in alphabetical order, of course.
Howard “Buzz” Busby
Left off the original list because much of his success came elsewhere, he shared the 1991 state title as head football coach at Kendrick. He went on to win a state championship in Alabama at Central of Tuscaloosa in 1995, and won a second Georgia championship at Statesboro in 2001. But keen observers will tell you that Busby left an imprint on local football that has yet to fade. He changed the culture at Kendrick by showing his peers that you could compete with Columbus talent. He showed cross town opponents the importance of weight rooms and conditioning — opening a pathway for other local teams to receive statewide recognition. He retired with a record of 222-154-3.
Mary Lynne Smisson Cumiskey
She first made her reputation as a champion high school tennis player at Brookstone and she went on to be a star at the University of Georgia. She then came home to coach tennis at her alma mater and she has stayed long enough to have the tennis complex on campus at Brookstone named in her honor. Eleven poles in the complex celebrate the 11 state titles her Cougar teams have won in her 37 years of coaching. Cumiskey’s squads thoroughly dominate local matches and consistently have shown they can compete statewide. She was the first woman inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame.
Alvin “Pig” Davis
Recruited to Alabama by assistant coach Bear Bryant, Pig Davis played in the 1938 Rose Bowl. Years later, after fighting in a world war, he sent four of his five sons to Tuscaloosa where they played for Bryant by then a legendary head coach. Tim, Steve, Bill and Mike were kickers for the Crimson Tide. Bill became a dentist and the other three were physicians. Son Robert didn’t kick for Bryant but was a dermatologist. Davis had a winning reputation even before he joined Bubba Ball as a defensive coach at Baker. He became head coach at Columbus High in 1966 and in 1974 his 12-1 Blue Devils made it to the state finals, falling to Marietta 6-0 in a driving rain storm. He retired in 1978 with a 79-51-4 record. He was a man of character and faith as shown by the affection he and wife Sadie had for their daughter Cindy. His sons were doctors but Cindy was a special needs child that Pig and Sadie adored and cared for until their deaths.
He may not be that well known in the sports world at-large, but among area track and field enthusiasts Evilsizer is a giant. He coached track and cross country at Smith’s Station High School for 17 years and his teams won 17 Alabama state championships. Individual runners captured numerous awards and six of them earned All-American status. His gift of encouraging young people to run long distance events was unmatched and his ability to develop their talents was immense. In 2002, he became cross country coach at Columbus State University and eight years later he started a track program from scratch. In 2017, he produced the school’s first five Division II All-Americans in track.
He was president of CB&T of Russell County and the mayor of Phenix City. But before he was a banker or an elected official, Howard won state football titles in Mississippi and Alabama. He got into coaching during the tedious years of desegregation and at a consolidated school in Yazoo City, he won the Mississippi state title. Moving to Georgia in 1970 to be near his ailing father, he became coach at Hardaway, a young program that had won 10 games in five seasons and the year before had gone 0-10. In three years he put together a record of 17-12-1. With strong support from assistant coach Wallace Davis he also dodged the landmines of a city learning to live with people of another race. He went to Glenwood in 1973 and showing his patient leadership he soon guided the Gators to a state championship. He later was principal and headmaster of the private school in Phenix City.
He was a teacher — whether he was conducting class in a chemistry lab or coaching basketball in a gymnasium. Redd coached basketball at Central High in Phenix City from 1975 to 1989. He won 325 games — around 22 victories a year. His best season was in 1981 when his Red Devils won 33 games in a row before losing in the state semi-finals. Redd knew how to get the most out of talented players whose tendency was to coast. Under his tutelage 50 Central players received college scholarships — many of them at major institutions. Perhaps the greatest player to come through his program at Central was Mike Jones. He signed with Auburn and after college became an international superstar. Eddie Adams and Ken Johnson also received major college offers. Adams held the school single game scoring record with 57 points and Johnson left with a resume that included 1,451 career points. They each signed with Alabama. Without a doubt his greatest protege was Travis Grant, who played for Redd at the Barbour County Training Institute in Clayton, Ala. At Kentucky State University — where he was aptly dubbed The Machine — Grant scored 4,045 points, more than any college player had ever recorded.
Nathan Rustin’s record does not speak for itself. He spent 27 of his 34 years in coaching at Pacelli, a small Catholic school whose roster of football talent was always small. He had only eight winning seasons out of 22 years as head coach and made it to post-season play only twice. One of them was in 1975, his first season in charge when the Vikings went 8-3. His overall record was 96-141-1. But wins and losses do not measure the impact Rustin had on his school and his players or the respect his opponents had for this peaceful bear of a man who played tackle on one of Bear Bryant’s national championship teams at Alabama. Armed with little talent, he put together competitive football and wrestling teams that were prepared and motivated. Players loved him and so did a school that appreciated his loyalty and commitment. The story is told of the night he was bringing his wrestlers home from a meet. They stopped in a McDonald’s and a patron started belittling his team. Rustin said nothing until the fellow started picking on David Smart, one of the Pacelli wrestlers. Rustin physically responded and pinned the guy to the floor until the police arrived. No one messed with one of his own.. After his death, Rustin was inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame.
As a community, from the very beginning we have been blessed with an endless army of caring coaches. They put in time even if their paychecks didn’t reflect their hours. Trophy cases are filled with their awards and family scrapbooks are packed with memories.
Even the ones who didn’t win championships have contributed. They didn’t make as many headlines and sports writers didn’t recognize them if they saw them in the checkout line at the grocery store. And when we make these kinds of lists, they’re dominated by coaches of the major sports, but the ones in charge of the so-called minor sports should also be remembered.
THE DANDY DOZEN
Mary Lynne Smisson Cumiskey
I could have started a serious fuss by ranking the coaches. And trust me. I do have private opinions on that subject. But I will leave the rankings to happy hour debates and fusses on social media. Yes, Bobby Howard won a lot of championships and Charles Flowers won state titles in two sports in two consecutive school years. Wayne Trawick was a fixture and Bubba Ball is a legend. Sammy Howard could coach a team and he could also serve his community. Del McGee’s successes in his hometown may one day lead him to a big time job in college football. But others deserve more than a honorable mention.
Forgotten names — names we don’t even recognize — built a foundation for these contemporary coaches and those coaches from the past should not be overlooked or forgotten. We can only hope that the young athletes still to come will be blessed by the presence of coaches who care more about their players than their resume.
So if you want to rank them, go ahead. I’ll leave my list in alphabetical order.