The call came in just before lunch Monday. When I saw that it was Benny Monroe on the caller ID, I knew the timing meant one of the best head football coaches ever to walk a sideline in our area would be retiring. Football coaches don't call reporters in the middle of the day in February to discuss district basketball tournaments.
Two things stood out in my mind as we talked. The first was the finality in Monroe's voice as he explained why he was stepping down. He had resigned from Cleveland in 1996 but missed the adrenaline rush of Friday nights too much and eventually returned to the game four years ago at Ooltewah. But this time is different as Monroe discussed the need to spend more time with his own family, rather than every afternoon with someone else's kids at practice.
The second thought I had was that Monroe's retirement, coupled with that of Baylor wrestling coach Jim Morgan, meant our area had lost two legends in the business in less than 24 hours. Both men will be remembered for far more than the numerous state championships they won. They were teachers even on the football field and wrestling mat, and few coaches gave more second chances to kids from tough backgrounds than Monroe.
But I began wondering who would be next from our area to hang up his or her coaching whistle.
There is something special about working in the Chattanooga area, and that's not just my opinion. I wrote a story two years ago detailing the 12 coaches who have worked in this area for more than 30 years. That number is still holding strong at nine, compared with the seven combined in the Nashville and Memphis areas.
Our list includes names such as Brainerd girls' basketball coach Carolyn Jackson and boys' coach Robert High, Lookout Valley basketball coach Joe Galloway, East Ridge volleyball coach Catherine Neely, Baylor baseball coach Gene Etter and track coach Bill McMahan, McMinn Central girls' basketball coach Johnny Morgan, Polk County basketball coach Ron Davis and Tyner football coach Wayne Turner.
Those coaches have combined to win nearly 8,000 games in their respective sports. All but one on the list has won state titles, and according to a TSSAA official, none of them ever has had a rules violation. It reminded me of a statement former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter once told me about how much better he felt about the direction of a school's athletic program if he saw a few coaches with receding hairlines or gray hair to steer things.
Jackson and Morgan have won district basketball titles this season, and although none of the nine have even hinted at slowing down, there reaches a point that any of them could decide to step away. And while all have earned the right to decide when to call it quits, their departures will leave a gaping hole in the mentor department.
The last thing Monroe told me before we hung up was how much he will miss the game and especially the kids. It won't be nearly as much as the game, those of us who cover it and especially the athletes will miss men like Monroe and Morgan.