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pressbox1.com - Counce was one of the great ones
Date: Sunday, October 29 2017
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Counce was one of the great ones

JIM STEELE, Editor
pressbox1.com
I recall a very warm day late in the summer of 1995, walking into a musty old storage room attached to the gymnasium at Dyersburg High School. It had been converted to a weight-and-conditioning room.

That's where I met James Counce Sr. I knew who he was, but had never met him. Most of the teams I covered prior to '95 were Class A and AA teams and my path seldom crossed with Henry County football.

The room felt like a sauna that day, but he was in there counseling one of his future players about conditioning. This player would eventually become one of his better performers, but at that juncture in the Counce tenure, he was soft. He was jumping rope and didn't quite complete the reps.

Counce asked the young man, "did you do enough to get you through the fourth quarter?" His inquest was stern, but not coarse. He served notice that he expected everyone's best. But he expected more of himself than anyone.

I introduced myself to him and talked about some of our mutual friends. It was a bit awkward because we were sizing each other up. I was media, so he was automatically disdainful. Time took care of all that and we soon became friendly "adversaries." I say that jokingly. He was always fair with me and we had our share of fun picking at each other.

He had success at Henry County and set the wheels in motion for Camden's success in the mid 1990s. He came to D'burg where the program had kind of floundered. His mission was to turn things around. That first year, his Trojans went 3-7, but had a shot at the playoffs, before bowing to 23-0 at Bolton in the season finale. The next year, his Trojans recorded another 3-7 year and that burned him up. During the sports banquet, he excoriated himself for the lousy results and put the blame squarely on his shoulders.

He turned thngs around in 1997, leading Dyersburg to a 10-0 regular season and a No. 2 state ranking. The Trojans went all the way to the state semifinals where they lost to John Henderson and Pearl-Cohn 40-0. Dyersburg had two more undefeated regular seasons after that when he decided to retire. He was asked to come back to the DHS helm for a year.

Counce had a great sense of humor and liked to pick on me because I was a Tennessee fan. He...was not. One night, in the third quarter of a playoff game, the public address announcer was promoting the pay-per-view package from the local cable company, featuring the next day's Tennessee game. Counce, whose team had things well in hand, came running over to me and asked, angrily, "why in the hell are you letting them announce that UT game over the PA?" Then he quickly scurried way, then looked back and grinned.

One night he called me, after midnight, telling me he was reviewing the jamboree film and noticed I was on rival Dyer County's sideline and not his. "Why are you over there on their sideline. You're the enemy, that's what you are?" Dumbfounded by his call, I stammered, trying to explain to him that I didn't take sides. After arguing with him for a few minutes, he conceded that he was kidding with me and gave me the scoop on a story about his team. He always pranked me that way. His wife Donna, who passed 10 years ago or so, told me it was his way of showing me that he liked and respected me.

One thing I'll remember about Counce is that he was much more than a football coach. He was a teacher. Yeah, he was employed by the school system, but he taught his players how to be good citizens. He knew every play in the playbook and what each position was supposed to do and he'd often demonstrate for the players. He also lectured them about taking care of themselves, eating well before practice, hydrating properly before, during and after practices and games.

I remember in the visitor's locker room at Haywood County, after Counce had picked up his 100th victory, one of the players told me, "Coach Counce doesn't just make you a better player; he makes you a better person. He just makes you better." MBA lineman Preston Bailey, who was a Mr. Football winner and signed with Tennessee, said to me, after the Mr. Football ceremony, "Man, that guy can coach."

He tried to set an example. One night in 2001, he suffered a mild heart attack on the sideline. He finished the game before he went to the hospital. He was back on the sideline the next Friday night. That's the kind of guy he was.

One of my fondest wishes and biggest hopes was that he'd one day win a state title. He was part of one as an assistant at Montgomery Bell Academy. Then he returned to Henry County, where he captured two Class 5A state crowns, perhaps the toughest division in Tennessee. After his second title, he turned the whistle over to his son, whose team just claimed the Region 7-5A championship.

I don't think that Counce ever gets enough credit for being one of the best coaches in the history of West Tennessee. He succeeded everywhere he landed and turned fortunes around. By my count, I think Counce won 233 games, if you include his totals from his first year at Ohio County, Ky. (Beaver Dam). He was one of the great ones.

Saturday, l learned the great one had passed away at his home in Dyersburg. His guidance, knowledge, tutelage, friendship and presence will be missed. I wish his family peace and courage during this difficult time.

Jim Steele is editor of pressbox1.com, a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT Monday-Thursday on WRJB 95.9 FM.

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