Shannon Fagan, Sports Editor
CENTRE – Back in the mid-1970s, former Cherokee County High School and Hall of Fame head football coach Bobby Joe Johnson was looking for someone to fill a vacancy on his coaching staff.
Johnson was at a state coaches meeting, and he asked Ohatchee principal Grover Whaley who he thought was the best young coach he knew of.
Whaley’s answer to Johnson was Bobby Beckett, who was coaching at Ragland at that time.
“He said he was really good,” Johnson said. “He said Ragland was very competitive, and they never had been at that time in football. I had Grover write his name down and I called him at Ragland. He came down for an interview. I talked to him and I really liked him. I could tell he was really eager to coach.”
That eagerness led Johnson to offer Beckett the job. It was a move he never regretted.
“When he come here, I said ‘You’ve got the defense. You call the plays. You’re responsible,’” Johnson said. “He said ‘Wait a minute. You’re going to let me do that?’ I said ‘Yeah, you’ve got the defense and I’ve got the offense. I’m going to get it to the end zone. You just keep it out of the end zone.’ It worked out well for us.”
Beckett died on April 13 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 75.
Those who knew Beckett say his attention to detail was his greatest coaching trait.
“I really appreciated his knowledge of the game,” said Tim Griffith, who caught for the Warriors on the 1980 championship team. “It was just a lot of fun. At practice I can remember he was serious, but he did it in a loving way. He was a great, spirited guy. He was your coach, but he was also your friend. He was all about the kids. He was all about the program. He was a great man of integrity, and he was a joy to play for.”
Not only did Beckett help bring prosperity to the Warrior football program as defensive coordinator (the 1985 team finished as state runner-up), but he also demonstrated his mastery on the baseball diamond as a head coach for the Warriors (168 wins, four area championships, back-to-back state titles in 1980-81).
Beckett also pioneered the school’s girls basketball program, and later in his career, the baseball program at Gaylesville. He also had coaching stints at West Jefferson, Collinsville, Gadsden City and Chattooga (Ga.) throughout his career.
“We coached together 20 years, and he was just a heck of a defensive coach,” Johnson said. “He worked hard. He was one of those guys who took the film home after we got through on Sundays. We’d stay 8-9 hours on Sunday afternoon, and he’d still take the film home. He’d have the down, the distance, and the hash mark when he come back. He’d put a percentage with it, and he’d say ‘There’s an 85-percent chance they’re going to run this play in this situation.’ He really did his homework. All I ever asked him to do was stop them three downs and give us the ball, and he did that.”
Ronnie Whorton, a three-sport standout who played at CCHS in the late 1970s and went on to play baseball at the University of Alabama, remembered Beckett as a coach who was adaptable. He recalled two football games during his career where Beckett demonstrated just that.
“We played Piedmont one year and they had the first spread offense we’d played,” Whorton said. “In our region, we never saw anything like that. Coach Beckett was primarily a zone defense type of coach against the pass, but he put in man-to-man for that week. We stayed with our men because they would have picked our zone apart with that kind of a spread. He changed his coaching philosophy for that single game to match the offense we were playing.
“He did the same thing against Scottsboro. Scottsboro was a powerhouse who had Don Jacobs at quarterback. They ran a wishbone style of offense and they were just killing people with their pitchman on the quarterback option. We had not seen that all year, but he designed a defense specifically for them. My typical position was free safety, and he changed me to the read-pitch person. My read was the quarterback. When he went right, I went right. When he went left, I went left. They didn’t throw over the middle much, so he thought he could bring his free safety up and do a two-deep coverage with his halfbacks.
“He was very adaptable to what we needed to do. He was very innovative, and it was based upon his preparation and read of the opposing offense.”
Whorton also said Beckett showed his players his lighter side on occasion.
“He had the uncanny ability to command respect with a certain amount of fear, but at the same time, he was really funny. He could lighten the stress or tension of whatever the moment was,” Whorton said. “He had very high expectations, but his temperament compared to Coach Johnson, it was like black and white. Coach Johnson could get really angry, but with Coach Beckett, sometimes you wondered ‘Why aren’t you mad at me?’ When you know you missed your assignment or made a mistake, seldom did he show any negative emotion toward his players. He did address it. He would correct the action, whatever it was, and that was with every individual on the team. That was his way of coaching.”
Whorton, a Cherokee County Sports Hall of Fame inductee in 2014, said Beckett also knew how to “de-escalate a situation.”
“One day, Sam Fife and I both played defense and we had a little altercation (at football practice),” Whorton said. “Whistles came in immediately because they didn’t want me hurting Sam because he was such a good player. He (Beckett) comes up to me after our altercation, puts his arm around me and says ‘Whorton, I know you’ve got grit, but how long are you wanting to play this game? Don’t do that again. He could have killed you.’”
As good as Beckett was calling the defense for his football teams, Johnson called Beckett “probably the best baseball coach I’ve ever been around.”
“He said there’s not but one way to swing at a baseball, and that’s as hard as you can swing without moving your head,” Johnson said. “If you hit it and you don’t hit it right on the nose, there’s still a good chance it will go through the infield. We had a lot of kids who hit home runs. He did a heck of a job with the baseball team.”
Johnson recalled a playoff series against Sheffield in 1981. Beckett had heard they had a pitcher who threw in the mid-90s, and opponents had struggled all season hitting him. He was worried about how the Warriors were going to approach the Sheffield pitcher at the plate.
“We called all the people we knew on the phone, and they said ‘Nobody can’t hit this guy.’ One of the schools we called said he had struck out 17 against them,” Johnson said. “Coach Beckett said ‘We can’t simulate a 95 mph fastball.’
“We were sitting in the teacher’s lounge and Nathan Jennings, who taught physics, said ‘How fast do you have someone who can throw?’ David Boatfield, who had played for us, was at Jacksonville State and had been timed at 89. Nathan said ‘I can turn that 89 into 95 real easy.’ He got out a pencil and paper and started figuring all this stuff out. He said if you move him up so many inches, his 89 will be equivalent to 95. David was out on spring break, and Beckett said, ‘We’re going to let him throw against us.’ We moved him up (from the mound) and had him throwing.”
The move paid off for the Warrior hitters.
“We went over there and Eddie Price was the first batter,” Johnson said. “He was a slender kid and he hit the first pitch that guy threw. It was right down the middle and he hit the top of a house behind the fence and it bounced over the house. It was 350, 360 feet at least. We knocked that guy out in three innings, and he’d pitched no-hitters and all this stuff. That was a smart thing they did. They got it right down pat.”
But it wasn’t all about offense with Beckett’s baseball teams. Some of his defensive mind from the football field carried over to baseball diamond as well.
“He did his homework,” Griffith said. “He would tell the team when we were on defense where this kid would hit the ball, and nine out of 10 times it happened exactly how he coached it. He was a great coach in that fashion.”
Whorton said one of the things that stood out to him beyond Beckett’s coaching was his devotion to his players – even after they had graduated.
“When I was playing baseball at Alabama, without even knowing about it, I could look up in the stands and he and Coach Johnson would be sitting up there watching me practice,” he said. “They would come down on a weekday if they weren’t tied up with coaching responsibilities and watch Alabama baseball practice because I was part of the team. Those are the type things that go beyond on-the-field experiences.”
Johnson said the coaching bug was still inside Beckett right up until his final days. He said Beckett, who was inducted into the Cherokee County Hall of Fame in 2008, still wanted to coach somewhere as recently as a year ago.
“He loved it,” Johnson said. “He told me ‘Won’t you go somewhere and hire me?’ I told him ‘I can’t run up and down the fields no more when it’s 103 degrees. Those days are over with.’ There’s no telling how many ball games we’ve seen together and coached together.”
Griffith said those who knew Beckett will certainly miss him.
“He was always willing to help,” Griffith said. “He was the kind of guy you could pick up the phone and call and say ‘Hey coach, my kid is having trouble, could you help him?’ He delighted in that. That’s the stuff I’ll remember.”