News from the Tennessee Valley Sports

Recalling Webb's way
Ex-players, staff pay honor to former coach

By Mark Edwards
DAILY Sports Editor 340-2461

With broad shoulders and a stocky build on his 6-foot-2 frame, Wally Burnham looks like the old, tough football coach that he is.

Former Decatur High football coach Earl Webb, left, with daughter Debbie Wiggins, at Sunday's fieldhouse dedication ceremony.
DAILY Photo by Dan Henry
Former Decatur High football coach Earl Webb, left, with daughter Debbie Wiggins, at Sunday's fieldhouse dedication ceremony.
But Sunday afternoon found the 63-year-old Burnham breaking down to tears at Ogle Stadium as Decatur High honored former coach Earl Webb by naming its football fieldhouse for him.

Maybe nothing showed the emotion and passion of the day more than when Burnham's feelings overcame him for several moments as he started to address the crowd of more than 250 people who attended the ceremony.

Burnham played for both Bear Bryant at Alabama and Bobby Bowden at Samford. He helped coach a national championship team with Bowden at Florida State. But on Sunday, his attention focused solely on Webb, 76.

"I've got three kids. I don't know any of their phone numbers. But I know his phone number," Burnham told the crowd while pointing to Webb, who sat to the side with his wife, Inez, and other family members.

Burnham has coached college or pro football since leaving Decatur after the 1971 season, including 1985-93 at Florida State. He has spent the past five years as South Florida's co-defensive coordinator.

He was one of seven people to speak to the crowd during the 40-minute ceremony outside the fieldhouse, which was capped by the unveiling of the new lettering on the side of the building that read, "Earl O. Webb Fieldhouse."

Webb coached 29 high school football seasons during 1952-80 at Falkville, Arab, Lanett and Decatur. He oversaw the Red Raiders' program from 1967 to '80 when he retired from coaching. He retired as Decatur High's assistant principal in 1983.

He compiled a 203-80-14 record, including two state championships — 1963 at Lanett and 1971 at Decatur. He was 96-42-2 with the Red Raiders. In addition to the state title in '71, he took his 1976 and '77 teams to the state semifinals.

Webb did not address the crowd at Sunday's event, but he spoke with well-wishers at a reception inside the fieldhouse afterward.

However, others had plenty to say about Webb. Almost all the stories brought laughs from the crowd.

Paul Brogdon, who played on the 1971 state championship team before lettering four years at Vanderbilt, joked that the secret to Webb's ability to motivate was water.

He said that during preseason when the team practiced two times a day, Webb allowed his players to have only "a half Coke bottle of water." But they only got it if they practiced hard.

"When I got to Vanderbilt, it wasn't like that," he said. "I said, 'No wonder Vanderbilt is no good — they drink too much water.' "

Another former player, Roger Ferrell, told about when he quarterbacked one of Webb's Decatur teams against Scottsboro.

Ferrell said both teams were unbeaten, and Ogle Stadium had an overflow crowd. Webb and his staff had noticed something about Scottsboro's defense that would allow a simple quarterback sneak to produce a nice gain.

So when Ferrell saw Scottsboro line up in a certain way on defense, he was supposed to change the play to a quarterback sneak and get whatever yardage he could. When he did that in the game, however, it worked for a 65-yard touchdown run.

Ferrell said as Decatur lined up for a 2-point conversion, several of his teammates told him that Webb wanted him to call for a timeout. When Ferrell looked to the sidelines, he saw Webb furiously signaling for one as the crowd cheered loudly.

Ferrell did as ordered and trotted over to Webb.

"I asked him, 'What's wrong?' And he said, 'There's nothing wrong. I just wanted to give you a chance to catch your breath and let the fans cheer a little longer."

Mayor Don Kyle, who played for Webb's first Decatur team in 1967, said he found out upon his first meeting with the coach how sharp he was.

He went to see him with several teammates, and as the first one started to introduce himself, Webb told him to stop. Then he pointed to each and said their names.

"He had memorized the program from the prior year," Kyle said. "He already knew us. When I saw the other guys, I kept telling them, 'That guy already knows you.' "

Webb's reputation

Kenny Cole, who was part of the 1976 semifinal squad, told about how Webb's reputation brought him and his family to Decatur.

Cole said his family lived in Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1973 when his father, who had retired from the military, planned to move the family back to his home state of Alabama.

"My dad called a cousin who was in education in Birmingham and told him that I was going to be a freshman in high school and wanted to play football," Cole said. "He was told that the best high school football coach was Earl Webb, and that we needed to move to Decatur.

"That's why we moved here."

Cole recalled how the 1976 team was a group of small players and that few expected much of them. Then commenting on the builds of his old teammates, he added, "I'm sure Coach Webb is saying, 'I wish they'd been that big when they played for me.' "

John Godwin, who graduated in 1979, told of the respect Webb's assistants had for the coach.

He recalled how he always helped work on the homecoming float, even though Webb had forbidden his players to do so. Webb's assistant coaches knew he was working on it, however.

"They told me that they would come by at 7 o'clock and that I should step outside when they did," he said.

That's what Godwin did, but Jim Milner, then the Decatur High principal, saw him there and mentioned it in passing to Webb. In response, Webb disciplined Godwin with three swats with a paddle.

"Did (his assistant coaches) say anything? No, they hung me out to dry, even though they had kind of said it was OK," Godwin said with a grin. "I think they didn't say anything out of respect for Coach Webb."

Lindy Smith, one of Earl and Inez Webb's daughters, thanked the crowd at Sunday's ceremony.

"A lot of hours out of a lot of very busy lives went into this, and our family is thankful," she said.

She also mentioned that her father didn't always intend to be a football coach. She told of how Webb began college as an accounting major.

"He already had completed 18 hours, and that's a lot," Smith said. "But what he wanted to do was coach and teach.

"So he switched to education. ... There are a lot of people here who think that was a good decision."

New name for Decatur fieldhouse

Decatur High formally dedicated "Earl O. Webb Fieldhouse" for the former football coach Sunday afternoon at Ogle Stadium.

Webb coached the Red Raiders during 1967-80, winning 96 games and the 1971 state championship. In addition, his 1976 and '77 teams advanced to the state semifinals.

During 1952-66, he coached at Falkville, Arab and Lanett. When he stepped down from coaching in 1980, he had compiled 203 victories.

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