My remembrances of Coach Thomas Dobie Holden at “The River”


David A. Farrell next to statue of Coach Holden at new stadium. I played for Dobie in 1963, 1964.

David A. Farrell next to statue of Coach Holden at new stadium. I played for Dobie in 1963, 1964. (Photo by Hodding Chuel)

  • He was way ahead of his times
  • “Huh! Huh! Run it 100,000 times!”
  • He won 7 state and 1 national championships

POPLARVILLE, Miss., Sunday, June 14, 2009 — Pearl River Jr. College officials recently tore down the old stadium to make room for a new building, and I did a story on it, posted below, and it brought back memories of my time at “The River” during the 1963 and 1964 seasons.

I, like many players who played for Coach Holden, was touched by his influence, and it was a pivotal time of my life. Dobie did mold and influence greatly anyone who came in contact with him.

He was way ahead of his time in football tactics and strategy, and his plain philosophy of life, which he shared with his players every practice session, made a lasting impact on anyone who heard him hold forth.

By the time I played at “The River”, Coach Thomas Dobie Holden’s reputation had been long established. He had won seven state championships and many of his teams ranked nationally, and in 1961 the Wildcats were named National Champions. He was also ranked No. 2 and 3 nationally on a number of other occasions.

Coach Holden was unique, and eccentric. Gene Gatwood, who played for Holden in 1958, 59 and 60, wrote a novel about his time at Pearl River, and while it is fictional, he caught Holden’s style of coaching and personality.

Even in the way Holden dressed for practice sessions, he made a statement. Writes Gatwood in “Dobie’s River”:  “But there coach stood in all his radiant glory. Decked out in a pair of old, baggy tan Bermuda shorts; wearing a faded red, tear-away football jersey with the number 88 emblazoned on it; and a pair of weather-worn white golf shoes on his feet over a pair of partly-rolled-down black street socks. He was a sight to behold, poised there with exposed, lightly suntanned legs showing varicose veins; his feet naturally positioned, at a ridiculously wide angle; and head topped with an old, slightly brown straw golfing cap that had definitely seen better days.”

Holden dressed impeccably for ball games, but you never knew what he would show up in at practice. Writes Gatwood: “. . .But then he added one piece to his costume: a big, straight-handled golf umbrella. The sight of him strolling about the practice field using the umbrella as a cane, or having the umbrella opened and positioned closely above his head was hilarious. . .One of coach’s favorite pastimes during practice was leaning against a particular creosote light pole that was positioned near the sidelines and near a ground-level water spigot. He was a sight to behold as he stuck the umbrella in the ground near him, leaned against the pole with his left hand, and smoked his always half-concealed cigarette with his right hand. . .Even the way he extinguished his cigarette was comical in that he would raise his leg at the same instant he dropped the cigarette so it appeared as if he began stomping the weed before it hit the ground.” Gatwood was describing Dobie in the late 1950s, but when I got to Pearl River in 1963, the same description still fit him.

Dobie was a psychology major and taught a psychology course in addition to coaching

There were other things that caught your eye when you talked to Coach Holden. He always curled his forefingers on his right hand and slowly rolled his thumb across the tips while he talked to you. And then there was that little laugh that was interjected intermitently into his conversation, “huh, huh, huh.”

Dobie was a psychology major and taught a course in psychology at Pearl River, in addition to his coaching duties, and he used those methods all the time on his players. He was a keen observer and student of human nature. One of his favorite sayings was you show me a guy who is comfortable with losing in life or football or anything, and I will show you a loser, period.

He would sometimes stop practice and enter into a long philosophical discussion with fellow coaches and players, asking them all kinds of questions. He was always improvising in practices and even in games, searching for a solution to problems with plays and players. “Run it 100,000 times!” he would yell out, when something went wrong with a play or a player screwed up, and sometimes you would run the same play over and over again for hours. Afterward he would say, “Now, huh, huh, huh, do you think you can remember what to do?”

Dobie had a way of treating every player differently. If you were smart and knew what to do, and did it, he never said anything to you. Again I have to quote Gatwood, who quotes Dobie, saying:

“Ya know, every individual is motivated differently. So they must be treated accordingly. People can be grouped under one of three motivational categories. The first category contains people who, the more you praise ‘em, the worse they get.

“I call this the negative motivation group in that they’re motivated by literally tellin’ ‘em daily how sorry they are. Management books refer to this as the KITA method of motivation, or the Kick-In-The-Ass method. Huh, huh, huh.

“The second category contains people you motivate by simply giving ‘em a pat on the back. Never raise your voice to a person in this group. Just pat ‘em on the back now and then and they’ll be world-beaters for ya. Chastise a member of this group in the least and you could destroy him. He’s his own worst critic, and derogatory remarks support the negative beliefs he already harbors about himself.

“These two categories are the extremes and contain the fewest people. The overwhelming majority can be grouped into a category between the extremes that contains people who need a combination of praise and KITA for motivation.

“You’ve got to know your people to insure ya treat ‘em properly and use the appropriate motivational technique. In a nutshell, you’ve gotta know what to say, when to say it, and what not to say. Huh, huh, huh.”

 I have heard Dobie make that same speech, maybe not word-for-word, but the same ideas. Don’t forget, this guy was not only one of the nation’s most successful football coaches, he was also a college-level psychology professor.

I remember one time after we played Itawamba, which had the hardest field I had ever played on; actually the field was a rodeo arena, with practically no grass, and actually had the imprint of horseshoes, with scattered piles of horse dung. When you were tackled and fell on the ground, elbows and knees were skinned and bruised.

He would use embarrassment as a motivational tool

It was a Monday practice and I was so bruised up and aching that I moved around real slowly and took short steps to avoid long strides that produced aches and pains in my legs and groin. Holden kept looking at me, and then he burst out, “Hold it! Stop!” He walked over to me and speaking loud enough to let others hear, he asked, “David, what’s wrong with you?” I replied, “Coach, I don’t know, I am just so banged up I can hardly run.” He replied, “Well, I knew something was wrong because you were walking and running like a Chinese wash woman with her feet tied together.” Uproarious laughter erupted from coaches and fellow players, so I got with the program to avoid further embarrassment.

That’s what he would do. He would embarrass you before your fellow players, and that was a one of his many ways of motivating you to do more.

Another thing I quickly noticed about him was that he did not ever ask you to do something; he told you to do it and demanded that you do it. And if you didn’t do it, he immediately was in your face with his sarcastic remarks and sometimes ridicule, which he always delivered loudly enough to let other players and coaches hear. Nothing was done in secret, or low-key.

I remember we had a big tackle, who was about 6-2, 240 lbs. He looked like a pro lineman, but Holden was on his butte over and over again about doing his job and blocking and tackling. He staid on him continuously, and I thought, “Man, how cruel. I couldn’t do that. I just would not have the heart to push a guy like that.”

But Holden never relented, and one day, he called a halt to practice and called out the guys name and told him to go to the dressing room and hang up his gear. The guy walked slowly off the field with his head hung down, and you could have heard a pin drop on the field.

But we all knew what that meant: you either do the job I demand or you will be gone, too. It does seem cruel, but that is the price you pay for winning.

I soon found out he was the same way in the games. Everybody who survived the hot August practices wanted more than anything to play. No one wanted to ride the bench. And if you screwed up in a game, you knew you would come out, and if he could only replace you with what he called a “rake straw,” he would do it. But before you sat down on the bench, you got a good dressing down from him on why you were being taken out.

I also noticed another thing. During my high school career there was always a lot of hoopla and emotion, but under Holden it was always businesslike and quiet, even in the dressing room at half-time. When you went on the field you walked on the field slowly and without emotion, but determined to win, determined to do your job.

 Dobie was noted for figuring out his opponents during half-time and turning a game around, and I know that many thought he was in the dressing room chewing everyone out, but the half-time talks were unemotional, low-key and businesslike. He would always say, “Now tell me guys what you see they are doing, what I don’t see, and let’s get a new plan for the second half.” Players would begin telling him what they thought and what they saw and it would be just like a low-key business meeting. And then we would walk back out on the field and do our job. That’s what he expected, and that’s what he got. Gatwood mentions this aspect of Dobie, too, in his novel. 

Back then coaches had total control but Holden always listened to his players

I know that Dobie’s antics seem drastic to us today, but back then the head coach had total control over you, and they brooked no backtalk. You either did your job or you were gone under Holden. I often wondered how he could be so tough at practice and during games, and then be so nice when he functioned in civil society where he was the perfect Southern gentleman.

But as stern and imposing as he was, he let each player know that he was open for ideas, at practice or in a game, and you were not afraid to talk to him. You knew he wanted your input. I remember we were playing I believe Southwest, and for most of the first quarter we could not get anything going.

However, I noticed that when QB Roland Pierce faked to me up the center line that I would run through the line and no one was around me. I went to the sideline and told Coach Holden that no one was covering me or around me when I faked through the line. “Well, you tell Pierce, to fake to you and just run down the field, and tell him to hit you.” So I did. When he faked to me I zipped through the line and right pass the safety man; I was all alone and wide open, and Pierce placed a perfect spiral right into my hands. That 40-yard pass play resulted in a score and broke their backs. We went on to win big. That’s the way he coached; he listened; and he improvised. 

And his influence extended off the field, too. You were always a Wildcat, even when you were at home on break, and if you got into trouble, you knew that you not only answered to authorities and family, but to Coach Holden, too, when you got back to “The River.”

Another thing about Holden that I noticed was his work ethic. Although the actual football season only stretched from August to the end of November, he was constantly thinking about football, reviewing films and planning for next year’s season, all year long.

I would pass Lamar Hall late at night coming back from the library, and I would notice a gray light flickering in coach’s office, and I would peak in the window of his office, and there he would be with Coach Clark and Coach Russell, going over films of last season’s game, trying to figure out why a certain play did not work. I felt sorry for Clark and Russell. This would be like in January, or February, or even March, when the season was well over and long forgotten by many, but not by Holden. He would still be asking himself, what went wrong on that play. He was a perfectionist.

I remember he would walk out of his office in the basement of Lamar and would scan the sidewalks to see if any of his Wildcats was walking by, and if he saw one, he would wave you over, take you down to his office and start talking to you, not only about football and going over plays, but about life.

One time he caught me, and I seated myself in front of his desk, and he began.

“You are studying for the ministry, aren’t you, David?” he asked.

“Yes, I hope I can make it coach, but it’s tough,” I replied.

“What are you, a Methodist, a Baptist or what?” he asked.

“I am a Baptist, coach,” I replied.

“Well, huh, huh, huh, I am a Methodist. But don’t get me wrong, I like the Baptist,” he said.

“And why do you like the Baptist?” I asked him.

“Well for one thing, they have a lot of rules and regulations, and I think that is great, because in order to live a good life, people have to have a lot of rules and regulations to follow,” he said.

“And, huh, huh, huh, if you didn’t have a lot of rules and regulations, everybody would be fornicating in the bushes,” he added.

“Well, I guess you are right on that, coach,” I replied.

He also told me a story that one time he attended a Baptist service, and overcome with emotion because of a very eloquent evangelist, he “walked the aisle” and accepted the Lord. “But I later joined the Methodist church because they are a little less emotional than the Baptist,” he said.

 “What do you think of that, David, was I right in doing that are should I have remained a Baptist?” he asked.

“Well,” I replied, “I am sure that the Baptists regret losing such an influential man as you, coach, but it was the Methodist’s gain.”

He laughed.

That’s the way he was. He would quiz you endlessly on how you felt about the offense, or defense, or on life in general. He took an active interest in each player.

Would Jesus Christ break a contract? he asked

Another thing I noticed was that he was an inerrant judge of football talent and just where to play a player. He moved people around a lot, and if he thought you could do a better job at a different position, he made the decision quickly and decisively. Improvisation was a trait he exhibited on and off the field.

 Here’s another story that illustrates what a character he was:

Leroy Kellarand I had a good senior year at Picayune in 1962. We both were named to the first team All Big Eight state conference team that year and I was the state’s leading scorer, scoring 112 points. G.H. Jordan, who was a junior that year, was the state’s second leading scorer with almost 100 points. We posted a 7-3 record that year, probably the best season that Coach Frank ”Twig” Branch had posted in his career at Picayune in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Leroy and I were also given the honor of playing in the Mississippi High School all-star game that summer in Jackson, and Branch was one of the all-star coaches. It was a big affair and all the major college coaches came and watched the game to see if they had missed scouting anyone.

During the practice sesssions Southern Miss. Coach Pie Vann approached me and Kellar and said flat out that he had missed scouting us, but was offering us a full scholarship to Southern. We thanked him, but said we had signed with Dobie and would have to talk to him.

It was the case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. I told Kellar I was going to Southern and that I was going to talk to Dobie. Kellar said he planning on taking a two-year vocational course at Pearl River and was not interested in going to Southern. But he was later to change his mind.

So up to Poplarville I went to talk to Dobie. 

The back and forth went on for hours it seemed, and I finally stood up and said I was going to Southern and I would not change my mind. Dobie told me, if you want to go to Southern, I can’t promise you everything, but I know those coaches up there and I will have them talk to you after your two years at Pearl River. “You will learn a lot more under me these two years than you will under them,” he said with his characteristically self-confident style.

I appreciate the offer, coach, I said, but I am adamant.

“Well, I have only one thing left to say,” he looked me straight in the eyes.

“What’s that coach?” I asked.

“Would Jesus Christ break a contract?” he asked, and stood firmly and squarely, looking me straight in the yes.

I knew that he knew I was studying for the ministry, and the question hit me squarely between the eyes. He was playing his trump card and he knew it.

There was a period of silence as we looked each other in the eye.

“Well, I don’t think he would go back on his word if that is what you mean,” I replied.

“That’s all I have to say, David, and I will be content with whatever decision you make,” he said.

I left; I slept on it; and I decided to go to Pearl River, and true to his word, two coaches from Southern came down to Pearl River and offered me a scholarship to Southern. But I also had one to Mississippi College, a Baptist-supported college, so I went to Miss. College, but thanked Southern for the offer.

And oh yes, Leroy. He jokingly ridiculed me for choosing Pearl River and for letting Holden talk me out of going to Southern. “I have decided to go to Southern and he ain’t goin’ to talk me out of it.”

I saw Kellar a few days later and asked him where he was going. “To Pearl River, I guess,” Kellar said. “I don’t know what the man said, but after he got through talking to me, I didn’t even open the door to leave. I just walked out under the sill.”

Dobie signed a raft of Picayune players off the 1961 and 1962 Tide teams. Picayune players at Pearl River in 1963 besides me and Kellar, were David Jarrell, J.C. Pigott, Joel Pigott, Charles Frierson, Steve Skipper, Jack Russ, Richard Dossett and Wayne Dupont (I hope I haven’t left anyone out), and we all played either on offense or defense and some went both ways. In 1963, we went 9-0-1 at ”The River” and won the State Championship, and were invited to play in the Jr. Rose Bowl, but did not accept the invitation. Nationally we were ranked No. 2.

My sophomore year at Pearl River, we went 7-3.

I am glad I played under Dobie and met this man. He truly was unique and one of the most innovative coaches for his time. He died in the 1980s.

I went and visited with him in the early 1980s when I became editor of “The Poplarville Democrat,” and he was still the same old Dobie, quizing, philosophical and eccentric. He still rolled that thumb and still smoked Camel cigarettes.

“I still hear the roar of the crowds and the thud of pads at practice time, sometimes late at night,” he told me. His widow, Earlora, is still alive and still lives in Poplarville. In April she celebrated her 100th birthday. Both Earlora and Dobie were natives of Picayune.

Take one last look because it will be gone soon. It's the old Wildcat stadium at PRCC. It all began here in 1911 and lasted until 1966 when the Wildcats moved into their new stadium. Dobie won all his games on this field. The PRCC administration plans to build a new fine arts building on the site.

Take one last look because it will be gone soon. It's the old Wildcat stadium at PRCC. It all began here in 1911 and lasted until 1966 when the Wildcats moved into their new stadium. Dobie won all his games on this field. The PRCC administration plans to build a new fine arts building on the site.

 

 

  •  (See additional story on old stadium below)
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  1. #1 by John on June 15, 2009 - 11:03 am

    great story, I think I would give a life time to play under this guy, in hind sight.

  2. #2 by M. DuPont on June 16, 2009 - 5:50 pm

    Sounds like Doby would have made a good instructor at one of the schools I went to..Army Airborne at Ft. Bragg!!!!!!!!!

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