Georgia lost two giants of high school football this past week. Butch Brooks and Dan Pitts died within a day of each other and their deaths have impacted not only their families and communities, but the entire coaching fraternity around our state.
Coach Brooks began his career in Valdosta after serving in Vietnam as a para-rescueman. He was hired by the legendary Wright Bazemore in 1972, but mostly worked for another legendary figure at Valdosta, Nick Hyder, for whom he coached the offensive line and served as offensive coordinator. Coach Brooks was in that position when Valdosta won the state title in 1978. In 1981, he became the head coach at Washington-Wilkes where he led the Tigers to six region titles and made the state finals four times. He posted a record of 140-64 in 17 seasons. In 1998 he became the Director of High School Relations at Georgia Tech under George O’Leary and later moved into the job of Director of Football Operations under Chan Gailey before retiring in 2008.
Coach Pitts became the head coach at Mary Persons High School in 1959 and held that post for 39 years. Only one other coach in state history has stayed at a single school longer and that is Larry Campbell at Lincoln County (42 years). Ironically Coach Pitts was from Lincolnton. Career wise, Pitts and his Mary Persons Bulldogs posted an overall record of 346-109-4 with 15 region titles and a state title in 1980. Those 346 wins rank as the fourth highest total in state history. Over the course of his last 32 years, the Bulldogs never had a losing season. Pitts is a member of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the National High School Hall of Fame.
I knew both these gentlemen.
When Coach Brooks came to Washington-Wilkes I was an assistant at Lincoln County and the rivalry with our neighbor was waning. Lincoln had outscored the Tigers 192-21 over the past five seasons and there was very little enthusiasm for the game. That all changed when Coach Brooks came to town. In his first contest against Lincoln County his team took our Red Devils into overtime before falling 35-21 and the rivalry was back.
I moved into the head coaching position at Morgan County in 1987 and Washington was in our region so Coach Brooks and I went head to head for six years. We didn’t fare very well against them posting a 2-4 record between 1987 and 1992. I remember the 1989 game in particular when we went to their place and upset them (they were ranked 3rd) 10-6.
Coach Brooks was so upset he ran his players off the field before any handshakes could take place. It made me mad and I went over and told him so. He agreed that he’d done the wrong thing and he came over and congratulated our players in our locker room – a classy thing to do. He and I were good friends from that point on.
I first got to know Coach Pitts when I was at Lincoln County. We beat them 27-7 in the state semifinals in 1979 and lost to them in the semifinals in 1982. I don’t believe I had ever seen teams that disciplined or fundamentally sound. My first real one-on-one experience with Coach Pitts was back a few years ago when I was hired to write a book on the history of their football program. Spending time with a legend was special for me and I was struck by his humility and his simple philosophy. That philosophy centered around a strong work ethic, attention to detail and taking care of his kids. His unpretentious formula led to a head coaching career that spanned nearly 40 years and influenced thousands of young men.
Coach Brooks and Coach Pitts represent a dying breed in high school football. They stayed at their post for a long period of time and always found a way to win football games even when their talent pool was at low ebb. They both made an impact on their respective communities that is felt to this day and they are both revered and beloved in those communities.
So the loss of these two men have left a gaping hole in the lives of their families, the communities they served and in the old football coaching fraternity, a hole that cannot be filled. The only thing we have left are the memories and those memories will have to do.
But what fine memories they are.