Editor’s note: Legendary Etowah County High School football coach E.C. “Baldy” Wilson passed away last Monday (Oct. 26) at the age of 93. The following article was originally printed in the July 18, 2012 edition of The Messenger.
By Joshua Price
E.C. “Baldy” Wilson is a jewel of Etowah County.
Whether the conversation is centered on coaching or good men, Wilson was and remains one of the county’s finest in both categories.
Wilson’s claim to fame is his tenure as varsity football coach at Glencoe High School from 1949 to 1967, during which time he compiled an overall record of 90-75-10. Wilson was also a successful basketball coach, leading the varsity Yellow Jackets for 15 years.
Wilson grew up in rural Calhoun County near the Bynum community and attended Oxford High School, where he played football and basketball. Wilson graduated from Oxford in May of 1942 and was drafted into the United States Army not long afterward.
“We all worked hard in school [to keep our grades up] to keep from being drafted into the army,” Wilson said of the early days of World War II. “The army needed a lot of people then, and they wanted to get us. We all knew we would get drafted as soon as we finished high school because we were a 1A school, and we did.”
Wilson said he and his colleagues worked for the army even before getting drafted.
“We worked on the old Talladega race track. Back then, it was a thick wooded area. We went in with the Army [Corps of] Engineers and cleared that area out and built an airport for the army to land B-29 bombers.”
Wilson was drafted into the army in early 1943 and assigned to a tank destroying battalion of the 28th Infantry Division.
“I didn’t join anything,” Wilson said. “They had to come and get me. I spent all of 1943, 1944 and 1945 in the army.”
Wilson arrived in Europe in June 1944.
“We went in at Omaha Beach two weeks after D-Day,” Wilson recalled of his ‘official’ entrance into the war. “From there we went to Luxembourg, Belgium and into Germany.”
Wilson recalled combat action during the Battle of the Bulge, which occurred from December 1944 to January 1945.
“We woke up early one morning and heard tanks rolling by near us. We took a look and realized it was German tanks, Panzers and Tigers with infantry support.”
Surrounded by Germans in the Hürtgen Forest after months of combat, Wilson and his battalion, were given a simple order – get out the best way you can; you are on your own.
“We ran around for four or five days, sneaking away from the Germans,” he said. “They didn’t know where we were and we didn’t know where they were.”
Wilson and his company finally reached American lines and were assigned to roadblock duty at the town of Lutremange, four miles south of Bastogne, Belgium, searching for German spies.
“We stayed there the rest of the time searching for Germans in American clothes,” Wilson said. “When we caught them, we would strip them down to nothing. The temperature then was below zero [degrees], and those people would turn blue. We caught quite a few of them.”
Wilson said one of his most vivid memories of the war was an incident after reaching an American post following his escape from the Hürtgen Forest.
“We were exhausted one night and we needed to rest. One of guys at headquarters told us we could sleep in a little house nearby on the post. It was dark when we went in to lie down, but we knew there were other people in there. We found out that we were laying down beside German prisoners. We didn’t stay there long!”
Wilson arrived home from the war in November 1945 and enrolled at Jacksonville Teacher’s College in January 1946. Wilson and a number of his friends who had served in the military learned that the school had a football team.
“A bunch of us decided we would try out for football that spring,” Wilson said of his first semester at Jacksonville. “There were lots of veterans coming back from the war, and they all wanted to play football. That was a tough group.”
Jacksonville head coach “Dizzy” Dylan welcomed the combat-hardened vets.
“Coach Dylan used what he called the “EZ Formation,” Wilson said of the Eagle Owls’ offensive set. “Everybody laughed about it and poked fun of him for running it, and it didn’t last long. Looking back, that was very much like the shotgun offense and the spread offense like folks are running now.”
Wilson saw extensive playing time his first year back on the gridiron.
“I played end on both sides of the ball,” he recalled. “I weighed about 155 pounds and hardly ever came out of the game. That was just the way we played back then.”
The Eagle Owls won only three games in 1946. Prior to the 1947 season, the school decided it needed a number of changes and the football program needed some new life breathed into it.
“Some of the fellas complained about the school colors and mascot. Dr. [Houston] Cole told the football team they could change the mascot and colors to whatever they wanted it to be.”
One of Wilson’s claims to fame is his suggestion to the school’s administration.
“I had been raising game roosters to fight,” Wilson said. “A number of the players had worn red and white in school. We made a deal with the other guys that if they would vote for the gamecock, we would vote for red and white, and that’s what we did.”
Wilson’s suggestion was considered and accepted. The purple and gold “Eagle Owls” trotted on the gridiron in the fall of 1947 with a new look – red and white Gamecocks.
The team also got a new head coach in 1947. Don Salls took over the program that fall and posted a 10-0 record, including a bowl victory to close out the season.
“We had a great team that year,” Wilson said. “Coach Salls really turned the program around for us.”
Wilson attended classes at Jacksonville year-round and finished his degree early.
Coach Banty Newman offered Wilson a job as an assistant football coach at Jacksonville High School prior to the 1948 season.
“He offered me a job and I took it,” Wilson said of his first teaching and coaching position. “I helped him with the high school football team. I was also the head basketball coach.”
Despite being a college graduate, Wilson still wanted to play football.
“I was still eligible to play football at Jacksonville, so I played the last three ballgames in 1948,” said Wilson. “I was glad I got to do that.”
The Etowah County superintendent offered Wilson a job at Glencoe High School during an assembly at Jacksonville College in 1949.
“I talked to [the superintendent] for awhile before he offered me the job,” Wilson recalled. “I took over the football program at Glencoe and stayed there for 19 years.”
Wilson inherited an unstable football program on Lonesome Bend Road. The Yellow Jackets posted one winning season since the war ended, going 5-4 in 1946. Glencoe was 5-5 in 1947 and 1-8 in 1948.
“We didn’t have any bleachers on the field when I came to Glencoe. It was hard to keep the crowd off the field. I protested a call during the very first game on that field and I walked over to the referee. I looked around and there were three Glencoe fans standing beside me. I learned real quick not to run out on the field because the crowd was going to follow me.”
Wilson noted the current football field that bears his name once was a swamp covered with cattails.
“We worked hard to get that football field there,” Wilson said. “It was a very low place and we couldn’t get it to drain. We finally got it raised up enough to hold the field. We built bleachers out of concrete blocks and 2×4’s.
“We had some of the boys out there helping us build the bleachers and they forgot to put rebar in one of the sections to support the seats. When we tested them out, they fell. Luckily, we tested the bottom row first.”
Wilson said Hokes Bluff and Southside high schools were always the Yellow Jackets’ biggest rivals.
“Southside was like war. There were fights on the fields and in the stands. It was a rough rivalry.”
The Yellow Jackets also developed a great rivalry with Etowah High.
“We never beat them but it was always a hard-hitting game. They were state champions in 1950 and we tied them the opening game the next season. That was a big game for us. Coach [Jim] Glover is one of the best high school coaches ever.”
Wilson’s teams played the bigger schools in the area rather than the smaller schools around the county.
“We didn’t play the smaller schools around the county early on because there wasn’t any money in it,” he explained. “Those schools had not developed programs yet, and we couldn’t afford to play them. We played big schools like Pell City, Oxford and Gadsden because they were big money games. We needed that money to pay for our football program. What we earned off those games kept our program running. It would last us the whole season.”
Wilson said one of his best teams was the 1956 squad, which posted an 8-1-1 record and featured players such as Jimmy McClendon, Gary Lawson, Chick Phillips, Franklin Oliver, Wayne Knight and Wayne Clowdus.
“We only lost one game that year and we tied Etowah,’ said Wilson. “Alexandria was the only team that beat us that year. We lost because five of our starters missed the game due to illness.”
Wilson was quick to point out who the top player was during his years at Glencoe.
“Don Gregorn was the hardest runner I ever coached. I think he finished in 1952 and he played in the All-Star game. He was a tough all-around football player and ran the ball as hard as any player I ever saw.”
Wilson taught Alabama History, Civics and Physical Education at Glencoe until he resigned in 1968 to take control of the adult education in Etowah County.
“It was a tough decision for me to make,” Wilson said. “I was tired and wanted a break from coaching. I missed it a lot, but I think it was the best decision for me at the time. When you coach in a community like Glencoe, it’s a full-time job. You never quit coaching. You are always looking after your boys and you try to keep them out of trouble. I got a chance to move on and I took it.”
Wilson jokingly described his coaching career to the crowd during a banquet following his resignation.
“A successful coach is a man who makes folks think he’s leading a parade as he’s being run out of town,” he said.
Wilson remained in education after his resignation, including nine years as county superintendent, before retiring in 1984. Wilson served six months as superintendent in 1994 as the board searched for a full-time superintendent.
Wilson was elected to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Jacksonville State University Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.
Wilson’s honors include being named Etowah County’s Patriot of the Year in 1995 and being inducted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Jacksonville State University Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Sports Halls of Fame in Etowah and Calhoun County.
Since 2002, the Glencoe High School football stadium has been named Wilson-Darnell Stadium in honor of Wilson and his assistant coach and successor as head coach, Lyle Darnell.
Wilson recently was awarded with a Purple Heart in honor of a wound received during the Battle of the Bulge.
“I never thought anything about it [the wound],” he said. “I always felt like Purple Hearts should be left to the ones who lost arms or legs or both. They gave me the honor and I am proud to have it.”
Wilson provided this writer a tour of his basement, which is a museum to his experiences in World War II and Glencoe High athletics. Dusty old books cover the walls of the stairwell, while plaques, awards and service dedications litter the walls and tables. Wilson’s quick-triggered memory easily recalls the significance of each one.
The coach showed his vintage Glencoe and JSU cap collection along with his biggest trophy – a mint condition 1966 Ford Mustang Convertible.
“I drive it as much as possible,” Wilson said of his turquoise car. “I enter it as many car shows as I can and I’ve won a few awards with it. It’s a real darling’.”
Like his former Glencoe High colleague Bob Coley, Wilson enjoys old military jeeps.
“I have a 1951 army jeep I drive around. I always drive it in parades around Glencoe and Gadsden.”
Wilson is now a couple of months away from reaching his 90th birthday. He stays active physically, riding his bicycle daily around his neighborhood.
“I love to work in my garden,” he added. “I raise tomatoes and corn and have a big muscadine vine that does well every year.”
Wilson also attends as many Glencoe High football games as possible.
“I don’t travel as well as I used to but I do my best to see all their home games.”
Wilson insists that age is only a number.
“I look forward to my next 90 years. Shoot, I may even coach a few more football teams!”
Before departing, Wilson offered this writer a token of good luck and appreciation – a shiny gold dollar in my hand along with a wink and an ‘atta-boy!’
Baldy Wilson is a true gentleman, a great storyteller and is doubtless among the greatest of all Yellow Jackets.
Wilson is survived by his wife of 69 years, Mattie, three children and a number of grandchildren. There will be a celebration of his life at Glencoe High School on Tuesday evening from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m., and his funeral will be held at 10 a.m. at Forestlawn Memorial in Anniston on Wednesday.
This story was supplemented by jsugamecocksports.com.