Updated with more information at 5:25 p.m. on Aug. 2, 2021.
When Benny Monroe was hired to take over the McMinn County High School football program in 1972, one of his first responsibilities was to fill out the coaching staff with energetic assistants. Through a recommendation he contacted John Mullinax — Monroe knew him only by reputation as a quality young coach — and extended a job offer.
"He was working for a knitting mill in South Carolina, and I could hear the machinery in the background when we spoke on the phone," Monroe recalled. "The only thing John asked was if he could bring his girlfriend, Joy, because they were planning on getting married."
That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Monroe and Mullinax, as the coaching duo became inseparable — whether it was golfing, fishing, road trips to scout opposing teams or taking their wives on family vacations each summer.
Mullinax, who began his coaching career after two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, spent seven seasons as an assistant on Monroe's staff before setting out on what became a successful head coaching career that lasted 39 years, 19 of which were spent at McMinn County, where he became an Athens legend.
Early Sunday morning, after battling lung cancer the past six years, Mullinax, 75, died quietly at his home. He had attended a scrimmage Friday between McMinn County and Baylor, but he began to feel ill over the weekend.
"I had spoken to him just a couple of days ago because he said he wanted Joy and him to get out of the house and go do something with me and my wife Jane," Monroe said Sunday. "John was closer than a brother to me. I know I will miss him terribly, and so will everybody who ever knew him.
"He was a great competitor but someone that I never heard anyone say a negative word about."
Mullinax began his head coaching career at Copper Basin in 1979 before returning to Athens to become the Cherokees' head coach in 1984, after Monroe left to take over at Cleveland.
In what became the defining trait of his career, Mullinax turned a program that had suffered through seven straight losing seasons before his arrival into one of the Chattanooga area's most consistently successful. After going 4-6 in his first year at McMinn County, he never again had another losing season with the Cherokees, a run that included 11 straight playoff appearances.
At Copper Basin, he had taken that once downtrodden program to four straight winning seasons, including a run to the semifinals in 1983.
"When he arrived in Athens, John had hair halfway down his back, a mustache and was wearing sandals," Monroe said. "That was the first time I had seen him, so my first impression was that he was a different character. We went to the barber shop and got him ready to meet the superintendent, and from there it didn't take long before you recognized he was going to be a very good coach."
After resigning at McMinn County, Mullinax took just one year off before realizing he missed the game too much and returned to coach for eight more years at northwest Georgia program Armuchee before returning to Tennessee to finish his career at Tellico Plains. Mullinax spent 48 years as a coach in all, including more than 400 games as a head coach.
"Coaching has been my whole life," Mullinax said after announcing he was stepping down in 2018. "I have thoroughly enjoyed it."
He was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer in 2015 but remained the coach that season at Tellico Plains and continued to oversee the program for one more year.
"John was very emotional and animated, so he would have to go up to the press box for games because we couldn't both be on the sideline at the same time," Monroe said. "After one game he came down to the field and told me he thought he'd broken his arm because he had slammed it against the wall when he got frustrated and didn't realize there were 2x4s behind the plywood wall.
"Everything was a competition for John, so when he got named the (head) coach at McMinn, I told him we would have to stop talking about football strategy because now we were rivals. Of course we still wound up talking quite a bit about the game because we were always going somewhere together. He's someone that I'm just really grateful that I got to spend so many life experiences with."