Tommy West grew up cradling footballs in city fields, darting to his left and to his right avoiding the nearest linebacker. He’d visualize running schemes at City Park Stadium, donning Gainesville High’s red and black. The dream was to be a running back for the Red Elephants.
He’d achieve that, and more.
“I’d been there four years and we never lost a region game,” West said. “I never thought about losing a region game. I wanted to be the first team to win a state championship but didn’t get it done — got there twice. Thank goodness they did after us.”
Several foundations were laid for the eventual 2012 championship football season, the first in program history. West’s era (1968-1971) was one of them.
“I came along in a different era in that there wasn’t any entitlement in playing football at Gainesville High School. It was a privilege to play football there,” West, an All-State, All-Southern and All-American honoree, said. “Nobody was bigger than the Red Elephants. You knew you were fortunate to play at Gainesville High School.”
On Saturday, West will be recognized for his achievements on the football field, basketball court and baseball diamond during Gainesville’s Athletics inaugural Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Scott’s Downtown. He is one of six players given the nod, along with legendary Gainesville football coach Bobby Gruhn.
The 1956-57 Fair Street High football team, which won back-to-back state championships, will be the first team honored for its accomplishments before integration.
“It’s very humbling,” West said of the honor. “From growing up there, I know of all the tradition and the people that have come through the sports program, so I don’t take it lightly at all. I’m very honored and humbled.”
Coaches, like parents or a kid’s favorite professional athlete, are influencers. The mind of a growing teenager is malleable, ready to consciously and unconsciously appropriate any inspirational quality.
Don Brewer, Ted Ivey and Bobby Gruhn had that effect on many athletes to come through Gainesville, and as West’s career has taken him outside of Gainesville, he has not forgotten their impact on his life.
“You don’t lose games you’re supposed to win and you don’t take days off,” West said of Brewer’s coaching style. “That made a big impression. I can’t remember what I had for supper last night, but I can remember that game and losing.”
That game was in Winder.
To restructure the team’s mindset, Brewer spent the next practice badgering the guys as they ran laps, never touching a basketball. “You don’t lose games that you’re supposed to win.”
Playing Little League Baseball for Ivey duplicated similar ideologies. He did not believe in taking days off. Running laps, he said, became the difference between winning and losing.
Those old-school coaching sentiments transcend all sports, as did West. The three sport athlete dedicated much of his time at Gainesville High learning the art of rebounding and shot blocking — less on slugging fastballs and battling robust defenders. His hard work propelled the Red Elephants to a Lanierland basketball tournament championship in 1972.
“I wasn’t a really good basketball player by any stretch,” West said. “I was one of those that just played really hard. I was fortunate in that tournament that I made some plays. We played really good as a team.”
Basketball was difficult for the natural football and baseball athlete, but as West progressed in basketball, the Gainesville community followed along.
“There wasn’t a lot of interest in basketball,” West said. “It was kind of something in between football season and spring football practice. People started getting interested in it. We started winning some games and ended up winning the Lanierland tournament.”
West was the Lanierland basketball tournament MVP in 1972 and ended his four years with three Gainesville defensive players of the year awards.
The University of Tennessee recruited West to play football and baseball. He decided to forgo professional baseball, after going in the fifth round of the 1972 draft by the Chicago Cubs.
“Baseball was my best sport,” West said. “I had decided that’s what I was going to do, and then my mother talked me out of it because she wanted me to graduate college.”
His life’s path changed at that point. Football soon became the forefront while in Knoxville, where he earned three letterman awards and recorded 32 consecutive starts for the Volunteers. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw promise and drafted him in 1975.
He used the tongue of old mentors to leverage a career in football, becoming the head coach at Clemson (1993-98) and Memphis (2001-09). His 40-year coaching career, peppered with the influence of old, attracted the likes of future NFL Hall of Fame kicker Stephen Gostkowski to Memphis, leading West to his current place at Middle Tennessee State as its defensive line coach.
“You come to work everyday, you’re early and you work as hard as you can everyday to be the best you can be,” West said. “I hope somewhere down the road that’s what all my players say about me.”