(Coach Roy Kidd / Photo Courtesy of EKU Athletics)
Roy Kidd: A Football Coach by Trade; A Life Coach by Calling
Roy Kidd was not a huge person, if you looked at his stature. He could stand in the midst of a crowd, and get lost in a hurry. But, in my mind, he was always and shall be forever more a mountain of a man. Standing out. Standing up. Standing tall.
Roy Kidd was not a person of many words. But, in my mind, every word he used was like a picture – worth 1,000 more that painted a story in vivid color that Leroy Neiman could only hope to copy on canvas.
Roy Kidd was never a person who sought the limelight. Not one time. Ever. Never. But, in my mind, he always caught the eye of the camera and always delivered his down-home, folks-speak one-liners with expert precision that dripped with honestly and truth; passion and commitment; frank and right.
Roy Kidd was never a man who tried to make a name for himself. He didn’t hustle speaking gigs or look for autograph sessions to promote his brand. He didn’t put himself first, in any way. He didn’t plug his resume or accomplishments. He didn’t try to sell tee-shirts or energy drinks. He didn’t endorse merchandise or promote product lines. Not even to his friends and family. But, in my mind, he made a name alright. The old-fashion way. He made a name by winning football games. Over and over. And, over and over. He made a name, alright. A big one.
Roy Kidd was never supposed to go away. He was never supposed to die. He was never supposed to leave. After all, there is a bronze statute that looks just like him that stands on the stadium grounds that bears his name. In my mind, he was always supposed to be there in Richmond, KY. In my mind, he was to never, ever leave Eastern Kentucky University. He was never supposed to go anywhere else. He was always, always, always going to be right there. Always.
But, on Tuesday, the world lost Roy Kidd.
Time and age caught up with a man who could “x” and “o” out of most any difficult situation.
A series of health issues had delivered an all-out blitz on a man who seemingly could always find an escape route.
A blindside hit of medical maladies launched a full-out attack on both body, mind, and soul and against a man who knew how to pull rabbits out of nearly every football helmet that he could find when he stood on a sideline and needed a miracle play drawn in just in the nick of time.
Finally, the man — who could stand in the pocket and deliver a left-hand pass with a perfect spiral; the man who could pick off a pass from the great Johnny Unitas, when they both played their college football with leather helmets and no face masks at their respective schools of Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Louisville – finally had to take a knee. In the end zone.
Early Tuesday morn, I was just getting a start to another day when the phone buzzed like an alarm clock. As soon as the text message came in this morning from my great friend and former Eastern Kentucky defensive lineman, Robert Palmer, I was afraid to look at the message’s content. We all knew that “The Coach” had fallen on tough days and into his bed at Hospice. We all knew that time was neigh. We all knew that the next bit of news was not going to be good.
But when you were around a guy like Roy Kidd, you dared to dream, because he dared you to dream along with him.
But when you were around a guy like Roy Kidd, you learned to believe in miracles because he made them come true. So many times.
But when you were around a guy like Roy Kidd, somehow, someway, you just thought that you could still win any game; any time; any where. Because the man made you want to believe. He made you believe.
So, with trembling hands and fingers, I launched that text message to life. The light flickered. And, then my head dropped and the tears flowed. One of the most important men to ever stroll the sidelines of my life was gone. He was headed to be inducted into the biggest Hall of Fame ever. The one in heaven.
And, for awhile – a time lost which lasted longer than I can imagine — I just stood there and cried. Bent at the waist. Broken at the heart.
The tears flowed.
Onto the floor, until they made a puddle.
Onto the phone, until they caused the phone to blink.
Onto my desk, which sits directly underneath an old print of an Eastern Kentucky University jersey; a set of shoulder pads; a pair of white cleats, and an EKU helmet which had a signature scrolled on the bottom of it:
“Congratulations,” it simply read.
Signed by Roy Kidd.
Coach Kidd gave me that old print some 40 years ago. I had gotten a new job. And, I would be leaving the newspaper business and headed into the dark of the night of a new career path full of mystery and difficulty. I was entering a new world. I was scared, to death, to be honest. I didn’t know if I could make the transition. I didn’t truly know I wanted to make the transition.
Questions swirled. Self doubts mounted. Lost ball in high weeds. That was me.
But like the man who gave that old print, the faded figures and maroon and white colors became more important to me than a name on a wall, to quote Jimmy Fortune — the great tenor for the gospel music group The Statler Brothers.
On the dark days, the print was a constant reminder that there was a team of people who were willing – and able – to pick me up. Ready to strap on the shoulder pads. Willing to put on the helmet. Wanting to tackle the issues, along with me.
On great days, the print was there to reflect the sunshine and remind me that if you work hard, try harder, believe hardest and pray even harder – that you can win against any and all odds. Ready to strap on the shoulder pads. Willing to put on the helmet. Wanting to tackle the issues, along with me. Helping to lift that metaphoric trophy high into the sky in celebration.
And, on every day that was labeled anywhere and somewhere in-between those two types of days described above? It reminded me that Coach Kidd was always there. A phone call away. A willing ear to listen. A shoulder to lean on. A heart to share. A recommendation, if one was requested. A tip that would always encourage and engage. It was always hanging right there. A constant reminder of the man and what he always meant.
Shoulder pads – for the shoulder.
A helmet – for the hard hits.
The white cleats – to help me dig in.
But the name at the bottom and the scribbled message always meant the most:
“Congratulations. Coach Roy Kidd.”
The Coach was always there. To Coach. To led. To inspire. To encourage. To pick up the pieces. To push when pushing was needed. To console when consoling was needed. To always Coach.
Back in the mid-1970s, I left little Midway, KY and went off to school at Eastern Kentucky University. On the few Saturdays that I stayed in town, I always made it down to the stadium to watch a home football game. It was the first time I ever saw Roy Kidd. From afar. I watched his teams play. I watched his players excel. And, I watched the undoubted leader.
I didn’t know him at the time, but I knew this man was The Coach. I didn’t know much at all, at the time, if truth be known, but I knew this man could Coach.
In the fall of 1977, I got the chance to become the Sports Editor at “The Eastern Progress.” The college newspaper. The first thing I did was call and set up an appointment to go and meet with Coach Kidd.
When I walked into his office, for the very first time, the lights were off and the room was dark. An old reel-to-reel projector was spinning like a car engine. The images on the wall flickered. Coach Kidd set behind his desk with a notepad and a pen. He never took his eyes off the wall, and just waved to a chair in front of his desk for me to make my way and ultimately occupy.
I slowly made my way over and quietly slid into the chair and waited for The Coach to finish his film session, and turn his attention to our meeting and conversation.
It seemed like it was forever, although it was probably a 5 minute delay. Then, all of a sudden, Coach Kidd turned the machine off and his attention to me.
“Hi, I’m Roy Kidd,” he said, standing up and sticking out his hand. “I hear you are Gene McLean. Great name. And, I hear you have already pissed off the women’s volleyball coach. Is that true?”
My face turned team-color maroon, and I nodded in the affirmative. I had pissed off the women’s volleyball coach and entire team, because I spent more time writing about the football team and less about “spikes” and “sets.” But I didn’t expect that Coach Kidd had heard of it.
“Well, what do you think about that,” he asked. “Do you think they are right to complain?”
Finally, somewhere, I found my words.
“I don’t think they are right,” I said. “I only have so much time and so much space to write every week, and I think I should stick to covering the sports that people want to read about the most.”
He pushed his reading glasses down farther on his nose and leaned up over his desk. “You going to give in and back down?” he asked.
I grunted, and said, “No sir.”
He leaned back and nodded. “Do what you think is right. And, do that to the best of your ability. Every single time. Things will work out. I promise you, son, things will work out. Trust your heart. Trust your gut. Do your best. Things will work out.”
I don’t know if I knew it at the time. I know I didn’t fully appreciate it fully at the time. But I had just been coached by one of the best, all-time greatest coaches of all time. Not just a football coach, mind you. A life coach, too.
Coach Kidd didn’t know me from Adam, or Eve. He knew me for about 3 minutes, with the clock ticking. But the Coach had just given the best advice I had ever received. At that time. For all time. Instinctly. He gave me words to lean on; words to live by.
Which I did. Which I try to do still, to this day.
A few years later, I had gotten the opportunity to work for “The Lexington Herald-Leader” in Lexington, KY. Much to my surprise, one of my colleagues had gotten promoted to Sports Editor. That opened up a few “beats” to cover. One of those was the chance to return to the Ohio Valley Conference and cover the Eastern Kentucky University football team, which had already won a National Championship in 1979.
It was the chance of a lifetime.
I got to go “home.”
I got to cover a Championship caliber football team. Each year. Every year.
I got to go back and be with Coach Roy Kidd.
And, it was like I never left.
As soon as I returned and told Coach Kidd that I would be following the team for the paper, the door swung wide open. I was always welcome at any and every practice. I was introduced to players, who were told to be both polite and accommodating. I was allowed into the locker room before the players came in, some of the time.
Always, I was able to watch the players and the coach/song leader unite in singing the team’s legendary team song “Cabin on the Hill.”
Some didn’t know the lyrics or the tune. Some couldn’t remember the words or the arrangement. Some just muttered along. But all screamed with emotion after every win. And, they sang a lot more than they didn’t through the years.
I was there when quarterback Chris Issac and his teammates nearly pulled off an amazing victory at the Naval Academy, when the Admirals had the great Napoleon McCallum as their leading rusher. (Issac went on to be the Rookie of the Year in the Canadian Football League).
I was there when Jerry Parrish took kickoff after kickoff nearly 100 yards in a blur of speed that rivaled Olympic sprinters.
I was there when Coach Kidd and his Assistants would find, recruit and win some of the first and best African-American athletes to ever come to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Diversity did not scare them. Opportunity and equal chance for all did inspire them.
I was there when Coach Kidd reached out to his home town of Corbin, KY and brought in wide receiver Steve Bird (who was supposedly too small) and the quarterback prospect Tuck Woolum (who was supposedly too slow), whose respective fathers both played football at the University of Kentucky and both of whom dreamed of following in their footsteps. But the University of Kentucky didn’t want either of them. Only Coach Kidd did. He didn’t see small. He never knew slow. He only knew winners. And, both Bird and Woolum were that.
I was there when Coach Kidd – along with Steve Bird, Tuck Woolum – and a host of other great athletes and players went 13-0 in 1982 to win their 2nd national championship with a victory over the University of Delaware.
No less than four or five times that year, it appeared that the Colonels were on the cusp of losing.
The very first game of the year, Eastern was at South Carolina State and the grass was so deep that a showdog could get lost in the turf. With the game on the line in the final seconds, Eastern’s barefoot kicker, Jamie Lovett, ran onto the field and pulled the sod out by the roots to make a place for the football to land. He got a personal foul penalty for that and pushed his efforts back father to a deep clump of sod. Coach Kidd ran onto the field to object to the penalty. All the while, Lovett was able to pull a few twigs out, again. Unbeknownst to the refs, Lovett and his make-shift weed-eater got ready for the final kick – which never got higher than an inch or two above the cross bar. The wobbly kick barely crawled in-between the uprights. The game was won. The undefeated season was on.
Later in the season, Eastern appeared to be hopelessly beaten at Murray State University, which was coached at the time by eventual Hall of Famer Frank Beamer. Truthfully, deep into the second half, EKU was desperate.
Until Kidd and offensive coordinator Leon Hart tooled up a play off the cuff and Woolum and Bird hooked up on a miraculous TD pass throw and run. Until Kidd and defensive coordinator Jack Ison inspired George Floyd to intercept a pass in the end zone to end the game. Until the bitter end. EKU had not led. Until the sweet ending.
In the first round of the playoffs, Eastern played host to Tennessee State – a team that had the likes of defensive end Richard Dent and fullback Larry Kinnebrew. Dent, who went on to win a Super Bowl MVP Award for the Chicago Bears, knocked Woolum out with a TKO punch early in the first half. Kinnebrew, who had a brilliant career with the Cincinnati Bengals, proved to be a human snow plow.
The game was hopelessly lost until Coach Kidd asked a dazzed Woolum if he could play again. Woolum said he could. Kidd asked him what day it was. Woolum said Sunday. Kidd told the trainers that it was “almost Sunday.” Woolum returned. Somehow, EKU manufactured a comeback win. Some how. Some frigging how.
There was the game near the end of the regular season, when long-time football and basketball referee Burl Crowell was scheduled to retire afterwards. A celebration had already been planned. But during the final minutes of the game, though, and Eastern trailing, EKU called a crossing pass pattern on the goal line. Tight end Tron Armstrong went from left to right and was as wide open as a case pocket knife. Woolum lobbed the ball in Armstrong’s direction. It was perfect.
Until Crowell found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He bent over at the knees to try to avoid contact with the would-be receiver. Instead, a back-stepping Armstrong stumbled over the ref. Armstrong fell. The pass fell. Incomplete.
Just a couple of minutes remained, but somehow EKU got the ball back and manufactured another rally. Down to the goal line again. Kidd and Hart called the same crossing pattern. Again. This time Crowell got out of the way and Armstrong caught the winning TD pass.
After the game, I asked Coach Kidd what would have happened if Eastern could not recover from Crowell’s slapstick comedy act and tackle and it had cost the Colonels the win.
Coach Kidd and looked at me and, without a smile, said:
“Well, Burl would have gotten a nice gift stuck up his ass and you would have gotten no cake.”
We all won that day. We all won most every day.
After that great season, I went to Richmond two, three or four times a week. I wanted to write a book about the life and times of Roy Kidd. We recorded every interview. We kept notes and talked.
We talked about his days at Corbin, when he was a great football and baseball prospect. We talked about his days at playing quarterback and defensive back at EKU, and the game where he intercepted a pass by the great NFL superstar quarterback Johnny Unitas.
We talked about his days of being an assistant at Morehead State and we talked about his homecoming to become the head coach at his alma mater.
We talked about philosophy on recruiting black athletes out of the South and giving them opportunities to break the cycle of poverty.
We talked about giving his assistant coaches freedom to recruit the best athletes possible and coach them to be the best players they could be.
We talked and talked. The book was going to be Roy Kidd’s story. A story that I loved hearing, and I was looking forward to telling.
Until I went to the office one day and I was told that I had to make a choice. If I wanted to write a book about Coach Kidd, I could do so. But if I did, I could no longer cover the team.
It was an awful choice, but it was an easy one. I chose to keep covering the team. It was one of my life’s passions. It was one of my life’s callings.
In 1988, I got the chance to leave the newspaper business and take the job as the Executive Vice President of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders’ Association. I decided it was time for a change. I decided it was time for a new beginning.
Before I turned in my resignation, though, I called Coach Kidd and I asked if I could come for a visit. Somehow, he knew this was not a normal call. He asked if I was OK. After assuring him that I was, he said his door was always open and to come see him any time.
Any time was the next day. It was 9 a.m. ET. I was sitting in his office when Coach Kidd arrived. He opened the door and I strode in to my favorite chair.
“Gene, I don’t know exactly what is going on with you, but I can tell you are struggling with something. I can hear it in your voice and see it in your face. What’s up?”
I told Coach about the new job opportunity. He sat. He listened. And, then he smiled. Just like a smile after the national championship victory.
“Son,” he said, “follow your heart and it will never let you down. I know. That is what I have done and it has worked out pretty well, don’t you think? That is what you need to do, too. It won’t let you down. I promise you.”
I remember two things about that advice and counsel.
One, Coach Kidd was right, alright. Following your heart is always the right thing to do. Always. It was then, for me. It has always been the right thing to do now, too, for me.
Two, Coach Kidd had, for the second time, ever, called me “Son.”
It was the highest compliment I ever got in my life. And, it was a term of endearment that I will never forget.
Go rest high on that mountain, Coach. You deserve it. You have earned it.
And, if Marc, Keith and Kathy don’t mind, too much?
I would like to say, “Go Rest High on that Mountain, Dad.”
We will miss you, dearly. We will miss you forever.
But you have taught us all well. You have coached us all very well.