By Billy Watkins
I was sitting beside Jack Carlisle at a high school football game several years ago. A team was moving the ball down the field in bruising fashion. Three yards. Five yards. Four yards. Play after play.
“About time for a fumble,” Carlisle said as the team broke the huddle.
His words were no more than 10 seconds old when a running back fumbled and the opposing team recovered.
I looked at Carlisle. “Coach, how in the world … ?”
“Too many plays,” he said. “They had to be up around 15 or 16. It’s hard to go that long without making a mistake.”
I suddenly realized that referring to Jack Mason Carlisle as a football coach was like saying Benjamin Franklin was a kite flyer, or Neil Armstrong was a pilot.
He was a coach, all right. But his knowledge, passion, and feel for the game cast him to elite status.
Carlisle died Tuesday at age 91.
Mississippi lost a treasure, but we are left with memories.
So many memories.
Carlisle, who was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, coached for six decades, beginning in 1952. His high school record as a head coach: 262-70-17.
I detailed his career in a story for the Clarion Ledger in 2012. Here is a portion of it:
Carlisle’s father, Herbert, worked as a railroad engineer. He died of pneumonia at age 37. Carlisle, the second oldest of four children, was 8. His mother, Estelle, bought a farm near Amory next to his grandparents, and they raised cotton and “just about everything we ate,” he said.
He fell in love with football at an early age and was a 125-pound, three-year starter for Amory High at running back, helping bring home the Little 10 Conference title his senior season.
Shortly after graduating in 1947, Carlisle was riding his motorcycle and struck an 18-wheeler head on. The truck ran over Carlisle’s right leg. All but six inches had to be amputated. He was hospitalized for six months.
“I couldn’t play football anymore, and I was mad about that,” he said. “So I had pretty much made up my mind I wanted to coach, but I kept thinking ‘Who is going to hire a one-legged football coach?’ But I was doggone determined to make it happen.”
He attended East Mississippi Junior College for a year, then tried to get a job at the garment plant in Nettleton where his mother worked. Though he didn’t get the job, the trip changed his life. He met Jean, his wife of 71 years. They had four children, 10 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.
He enrolled at Mississippi State in 1951 when Jean got a job on campus. He graduated from State in 1952, and had already learned that at least one school would hire a one-legged coach: Ethel High School, which hadn’t produced a winning record in more than a decade. Carlisle led Ethel to a 6-3 record.
He soon became known as a coach who could win where others had failed. His three teams at Lula-Rich, which had eliminated the football program before his arrival, went 2-6, 6-2-2 and 7-3.
He left Lula-Rich for Nettleton, where no one could recall the school’s last winning record. In his second and third seasons, Nettleton won the Tombigbee Conference. Nettleton’s home turf is now known as Jack Carlisle Field.
His legend grew, especially when he arrived at Jackson Murrah. In 11 seasons, his teams won the city of Jackson championship eight times and shared it twice. He won the 1965 Big Eight Conference title, then considered the state championship. His track squads also won eight city of Jackson titles.
In 1971, Carlisle helped build the Jackson Prep football field, the same one the Patriots play on today. He disked up what was raw pasture using an old Farmall tractor, then had an engineer come out and set the corners of the field.
He led Prep to three state championships.
In 1977, at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Carlisle was the Ole Miss assistant who pleaded with head coach Ken Cooper to put in Tim Ellis, the Rebels’ third-string quarterback, in the game against Notre Dame. The heavily favored Irish led 13-10 with 4:53 remaining.
Cooper said no. Carlisle wouldn’t back off. He knew Ellis was the Rebels’ best passer. Cooper finally gave in, and Ellis threw the winning touchdown pass to James Storey with 1 minute, 44 seconds left. The loss was the only blemish on Notre Dame’s schedule on its way to a national championship.
And in 1992, Carlisle led Madison-Ridgeland Academy — a school that had experienced one winning season before his arrival in 1983 — to a state title. MRA whipped Prep, the program Carlisle had started from scratch, by two touchdowns in the championship game on the field he had churned up two decades earlier.
His teams didn’t play fancy football. They were tough. They lived and breathed the fundamentals of the game. And he knew how to get the most out of his players.
Skip Jernigan, who played for Carlisle at Murrah and later blocked for Archie Manning at Ole Miss, once told me that Carlisle “could push you further than you ever thought you could go.”
Jernigan spoke about Carlisle’s attention to detail: “We all had the same blazers with the Murrah emblem on them for travel. When we walked onto the field pregame, every player had to have his helmet on and their chinstrap unbuckled and hanging from the left side.”
Carlisle’s playbook was several inches thick, but his players often wondered why.
“We only ran about six plays,” Jernigan said. “But we could run them in our sleep.”
Ellis, a Jackson resident, said the same was true at Ole Miss.
“I remember days when we ran the same play over and over until we were sick of it. But there was a method to the madness,” Ellis recalled. “We’d run ’16 Lead’ 20 straight times every day in practice. But when it came time for a game, we knew how to run it against every front, every blitz, anything a defense could throw at us.”
And there was this: His players feared losing and making him angry.
“I was scared to death of him,” Jernigan said. “I saw the man, who didn’t weigh more than 135 pounds, pick up a 225-pound lineman one day at practice and hold him in the air while he chewed him out. That’ll get your attention. That’ll drive you to do everything in your power to win.”
I learned of Carlisle’s death in a text late Tuesday afternoon from my longtime friend Stump Russell, who played for Carlisle at Murrah and later coached with him at MRA.
Russell reminded me one day that while Carlisle could be as hard as they come on his players, he was also fair.
“We were playing a game one night and the other team was running what we called a ‘nasty slot’ — where they flex the tight end out and have a wingback off the ball between the tight end and the tackle. It’s hard to see it from the sideline,” Russell said. “Well, they had an angle on me and kept cracking down and killing me. They were running right behind them.
“Coach was screaming at me, ‘Why can’t you get there?’ After he watched the film, he came up to me before practice that following Monday and apologized.”
How many coaches would do that?
How many coaches would take the time to be courteous and helpful to a green, naive student sports writer? Carlisle always had time for me when I was working for the Ole Miss student newspaper in 1975. A friendship was born, one I will cherish for the rest of my days.
As we arrived at that game I referred to at the start of this column, it took us nearly 15 minutes to get seated. It seemed at every row we climbed, Carlisle was greeted by a former player who shook his hand and talked family and football.
I’d never seen him happier.