Thursday, March 27, 2008

breaking news that possibly only I care about

Actually, it's not really breaking news if it's already broken ... and a day old. But it's breaking to me, if only because I just found out.

My old head coach is retiring after the 2008 season.

(Note: If you click on that link, please take 3 minutes on watch that video. I implore you. Everyone who's ever wondered what Spence McCracken is like ... that's what he's like. He's a man who always, always, ALWAYS wears his emotions on his sleeve, for better or worse. And it's genuine emotion, too — not that phony-baloney stuff you saw from Rush Propst on "Two-A-Days." He's absolutely serious.)

Full disclosure: not only did I play for Crack at Opelika for three years; his first season at Opelika (1995) coincided with my freshman year in high school.

Opelika was known as the team that couldn't quite get there. Arguably the three most talented teams in OHS history were the 1991, '92 and '93 teams. None of those teams ever got out of the third round.
The culprit in two of those years? Lee High School in Montgomery, coached by McCracken.

The thinking here: if you can't beat 'em, hire 'em.

The actual terms of 'Crack's deal, I don't remember. They did throw a wad of cash at him, a wink-wink deal with a local car dealership and the first "athletic director's" position I remember anywhere in the state — basically, a promise to take him out of the classroom.

Because of all this, 'Crack came to Opelika like a conquering hero or a rock star. People anticipated — nay, expected — that he'd take all the unrealized potential of the last few years and turn it into a state championship. People outside of Opelika believed that, also.

And the first season? Terrible. Appalling, actually. OHS finished 4-5, and how we won four games I'll never know. McCracken came in and promptly chased off every shred of talent on the roster his first spring and fall, working them to the point (allegedly) that the terrified team trainer actually stopped practice.
Amazingly, that team had a chance to make the playoffs that year — this was back in the last days of the area system where teams only had to win one or two games to qualify for the postseason. A win over Marcus Washington and Auburn High and we were in.
Auburn won 23-0. At our place. And pulled the grass up in the postgame.

The next two seasons were frustrating. We finished 6-4 and 8-2, but managed to miss the postseason in both cases. My senior year ('98), we weren't expected to be terribly good, what with a beefed-up scheduled ('Crack always had an affinity for impossibly-tough schedules) and a lot of youth coming back on defense.

Of course, when we beat Vigor in the season opener, everybody noticed. Followed that up with a win at Prattville in Week 2. When we rallied in the second half for an easy win over Benjamin Russell headed into midseason, suddenly we were 6-0. We drilled Smiths Station, hammered Central-Phenix City 28-0 (the end of a long, bitter losing streak to those jerks) and finished the season off with a whipping of Auburn at Auburn.
Ever since then, Opelika's been a contender for the state championship every season.

Unfortunately, barring a miracle run this fall, 'Crack will retire without delivering that elusive ring to Opelika. The '99 season was derailed by injuries. In 2000, Daphne clipped us in the third round in one of the most bizarre games I've ever witnessed. In 2005, a very good Opelika team faltered in the final minute at home in the semifinals. In 2006, Prattville — on its way to winning back-to-back state titles — clipped us.

Still, McCracken's career hasn't been all about wins and losses. Opelika emerged as a dominant presence for college football, as witnessed by the multiple signings that seem to occur in the fieldhouse every February. His guidance has helped OHS become a legitimate state player, not an upstart or an also-ran.

More importantly, 'Crack has seen a generation of young men come through the doors at OHS, and he's been an instrumental part of their lives. I couldn't sniff the field at a professional football game, but I can guarantee that, if my coach had need of me, I'd be clocking out of work right now and headed to wherever he needed me to go. To me, he's not really a living legend; he's the guy who helped teach me how to be a man.

The most fun (and alternately terrifying) part of being around McCracken was, and is, his energy and emotion, which could manifest itself in swelling tears (as in that video), in explosive anger (as I absorbed on many occasions) or in raucous yelling at a pep rally. I can still see him walking around the track at our high school, listening to audio cassettes of his state-championship games through his headset. You could always tell when he got to the good parts of those games, too — he might pump his fist, or start walking more vigorously. Is he insane? Possibly. But how many people do you know who get that excited over a game that happened 15 years ago?

I also love his competitiveness, which (I believe) led to the timing of his announcement — everybody on the schedule gets one last crack at the old man. Step right up.

And honestly? I'm going to try my damnedest to get down there and see it. After all he gave me, it's the least I can do.

God bless Opelika. God bless those Dawgs.


1 comment:

Peggy said...

Maybe it's because I'm young, but honestly, I can't imagine Opelika High School without Coach McCracken. I know there was a time before him, and Brian Blackmon will do a fine job after him, but it just makes me a little sad. He's one of a kind. Enjoyed your blog.