Ed Grisamore

He didn’t have the experience, but Mary Persons hired him as football head coach anyway

Former Mary Persons football head coach Dan Pitts stands in the stadium named in his honor.
Former Mary Persons football head coach Dan Pitts stands in the stadium named in his honor. edgrisamore@gmail.com

The old coach is older now, although he looks much the same as he did the last time I visited with him.

Arthritis has settled in his hands, but he rarely complains. His eyesight has failed him to the point where he no longer drives at night. He has adjusted his play-calling on that, too.

The years have a way of chop blocking you. He now stands 5-foot-7, down an inch and a half from his playing and coaching days.

But his mind is still as sharp as a No. 2 pencil. Even when he struggles to remember a name or recall a face, he never is at a loss for stories.

Dan Pitts, once the winningest high school football coach in state history, recently turned 86 and is a legend in this town. They named a local street after him, along with the football stadium at Mary Persons High School, where he coached for 39 seasons.

Age does not rattle him. It’s not how old you. It’s how you are old.

“Every time I get down about being old I have to tell myself half my friends are dead,’’ he said, chuckling.

He does not live in the past, yet every day is a throwback. The wardrobe is retro. The daily schedule is filled with old-school discipline and routine. He still cuts his grass with a push mower every week.

He walks for an hour each morning with Jim Lord, one of his former players.

“They walk same route each day,’’ said his oldest daughter, Carolann Evans. “Someone asked him if he ever changed his route, and Daddy said, ‘Why?’ ’’

This from a man who followed the ritual of polishing his spit-shine black shoes on Thursday nights before each game and ran the fullback trap in every one of the 459 games he coached.

He still attends a Mary Persons football practice once a week. He keeps his mouth shut — no armchair coaching. He is a man of few words, anyway.

His career spanned parts of five different decades, and his sphere of influence goes far beyond the county line.

He sometimes wonders if he could coach the players of today.

“I’ve thought about that a lot,’’ he said. “If I was still coaching, I don’t think I would change a thing.’’

One thing different, though, is the start of the season. In the old days, opening games rarely were played before the first of September. This season, Mary Persons’ first game was scheduled for Friday, Aug. 17. The Bulldogs will have finished almost one-third of their regular season before Labor Day.

Pitts got the job at Mary Persons in 1959 in rather serendipitous fashion. He grew up in Lincolnton, where he was an all-state quarterback and played in junior college at South Georgia College for Johnny Griffith, who went on to become the head coach at the University of Georgia.

After graduating from UGA and serving two years in the Army, Pitts followed his heart’s desire to coach. He was friends with Billy Henderson, who started the football program at Willingham High School in Macon. They knew each other from playing baseball together in the mill town of Jefferson.

In the summer of 1959, Henderson offered him a position as an assistant on the Willingham staff. But when Pitts went to Macon to sign the contract, the school superintendent deducted $200 from his coaching contract. That was a lot of money back in those days.

Pitts refused to sign the paperwork, and he stopped in Forsyth on his way home after learning about the vacant head coaching position at Mary Persons. It was a bold move, since he had never been a head coach. He had never even been an assistant coach.

His hiring may have been a desperation pass. The Bulldogs had gone through five coaching changes in the previous nine years. Pitts returned to Lincolnton after his interview, then drove back to Forsyth the next day to roll up his sleeves and go to work. Football season was just a few months away. He was so anxious to get to started; he didn’t know his salary until he received his first paycheck.

One of the greatest coaches in Georgia prep football had an inauspicious start. His first three teams were a combined 8-22, including an 0-10 season in 1961. Four of his first seven teams had losing records.

During the winless season in 1961, his roster dipped to 18 players, barely enough to field a team. He would walk from the practice field behind the school through the city cemetery to his apartment, trying to figure out what was broken and how to fix it.

He came home one evening and told his wife, Mary Lynda, he was going to concentrate on football, and he needed her to take care of everything else. And she did.

Pitts finished with a career record of 346-109-4 and 32 consecutive winning seasons. His team won 15 region championships and a state title.

When the Bulldogs went undefeated in 1980, the overflow crowd for the state title game was so large some fans climbed in the trees at the end of one end zone to get a better view.

When Pitts notched his 316th career victory, making him the state’s winningest coach (he now ranks fourth behind Larry Campbell, Alan Chadwick and Robert Davis), fans held up banners that read: “Dan 316.” (In the 1970s and ‘80s, a fan named “Rock’n Rollen” Stewart was a fixture at American sporting events, wearing a rainbow-colored wig and holding up signs with the Bible verse John 3:16.)

In 39 years, Pitts never missed a day of practice. That work ethic carried over to his players. They knew how much he demanded of them, and they loved and respected him.

“I was the luckiest guy in the world,’’ he said. “I got to coach what I wanted to coach on the level I wanted to coach it on. You can’t ask for anything more than that.’’

He retired following the 1997 season, having coached three generations of football players in Monroe County. It was time, he said, not wanting to be like a boxer who tried to climb into the ring for one round too many.

“It had gotten to the point where losing was killing me, and winning was nothing but a relief,’’ he said. “That’s when I said it was time to go.’’

The Pitts family legacy is assured to continue. His grandsons, Dan and Kip Burdette, are on the coaching staff at Mary Persons, and his granddaughter, Anni Horne, is a cheerleader coach at the school. His youngest daughter, Penny Mitchell, is now an associate director with the Georgia High School Association. Great-grandsons Drew and Bo Horne are active in recreation football and baseball leagues in Monroe County.

Every town, it seems, has an old coach. This one has one of the best there ever was.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon and is the author of nine books. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.