Tribute to Hall of Fame coach
October 24 was a football Saturday, a good day to remember the life of W.C. Gorden, the College Football Hall of Fame coach who died Friday, Oct. 23, at the age of 90 in his adopted hometown of Jackson.
First thing’s first: W.C., whom I considered a good friend, was a terrific coach and a better person, always seeming on such an even, gentlemanly keel. He was a sports writer’s dream, a quote machine.
W.C., who knew a thing or two about winning, once told me what “victory” meant to him.
“Victory makes your coffee sweeter and your food taste so much better,” he said. “It makes your jazz sound smoother, the sun shine brighter. It makes your wife look more beautiful. It even makes you sleep better and dream sweeter. Victory makes all the difference in the world.”
For most of his coaching life, Gorden’s coffee must have tasted mighty sweet and his wife was surely a knockout. Over 15 seasons at Jackson State’s head coach, his Tigers won 119 games, lost just 48 and tied 5. In the SWAC, they won 79 and lost 21.
Let’s put it this way: Deion Sanders would love to be so successful.
And here is the stat of this football week: During Gorden’s 15 seasons at the helm, Jackson State won eight conference championships. In the 28 seasons since, the Tigers have won three.
He won those championships in the SWAC’s heyday, when Eddie Robinson was the head coach at Grambling, when Marino Casem, The Godfather, was coaching at JSU’s arch-rival Alcorn and, for a while there, Archie Cooley, The Gunslinger, was at Mississippi Valley. Gorden, nicknamed The Jazzman for the music he dearly loved, just won.
As a coach he was very much the CEO type. He hired good coaches and kept them. He let them coach.
One was James “Big Daddy” Carson, the defensive coordinator who succeeded him. Indeed, Carson’s teams won two of the three SWAC championships the Tigers have won since Gorden stepped down.
In the 23 seasons since Carson retired, six different Jackson State coaches have won one title.
For a guy who won so often, Gorden proved to be a good loser as well.
His one losing season was in 1984 when the Tigers finished 4-5-1. That was the Mississippi football season that will be remembered for Alcorn and Mississippi Valley taking center stage. That was the season when Valley and Alcorn, both undefeated, played on a Sunday in JSU’s home stadium before a capacity crowd. That was the season when Alcorn and Valley went to the NCAA playoffs and JSU stayed home. But, as much as it must of hurt him inside, Gorden smiled through it and seemed to enjoy seeing SWAC football in the limelight. He even did the color commentary for the TV broadcast of that Valley-Alcorn game.
And then he won the next Gorden was on the losing end of another huge day in Mississippi football history. That was in 1987 when Jackson State played at Southern Miss in the first game ever matching one of Mississippi’s HBCUs against one of the historically white universities.
A packed house at The Rock — including about half Jackson State fans — watched Southern Miss grind out a 177 victory in a game statistically dominated by Jackson State. Lewis Tillman, the great Jackson State running back, actually out-gained the entire Southern Miss team, which was quarterbacked by none other than Brett Favre.
Afterward, Gorden and then-USM coach Jim Carmody embraced at midfield, and after that Carmody said, “They are as fundamentally sound as anyone we play. They would beat a lot of teams we play.”
Said Gorden, simply, “I felt like we showed we belong.” Fast forward to 2008 and South Bend, Ind., where Gorden was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I am so elated because this is the ultimate generosity given in recognition of my coaching career,” Gorden said.
“Coaching football to me was like living the American dream.” Rick Cleveland is a sports columnist for Mississippi Today.