MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Russell Jacoway did not play football at Auburn when he transferred from Gadsden State Community College in 1976.
“They didn’t have a lot of use for 155-pound linebackers,” joked Jacoway, one of 12 inductees Monday into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017.
A physical education major, Jacoway had already chosen his career path long before arriving at Auburn.
“I decided about the eighth grade I wanted to be a football coach,” Jacoway said. “My father had died at a young age and I looked up to my coaches in high school. L.D. Dobbins, my basketball coach, is in the Hall of Fame. Steve Clay was my high school football coach, and they were mentors.”
A few years into his coaching and teaching career, Jacoway landed his first varsity head coaching job at Sand Rock High School in northeast Alabama in 1983.
“They had been 1-9 the year before I came,” Jacoway said. “I went there thinking, ‘I know I can do better than that.’”
That turned out to be a miscalculation.
“Well, we went 0-10 the first year,” said Jacoway, who then engineered a turnaround so dramatic it inspired a book, Fire on the Mountain, by Douglass Scott Wright.
“We were very young. Knew we were going to be better,” said Jacoway. By that time, Sand Rock had lost 19 straight games.
“We didn’t have but three seniors,” he said. “Weak physically. We got in the weight room that winter. Went to work. Had a great core group of sophomores. Went from 0-10 to 8-3 the next year, and then that third year we went 15-0.”
Jacoway’s 1985 Wildcats won the 1A state championship, the only undefeated season in school history.
“Looking back now, it was just kind of like a dream run,” he said. “We weren’t overly talented. I had some teams later on that had more talent than they did. The character and leadership on that group was unreal. I never had a team even come close to matching the leadership of that group.
“I ended up coaching several of those guys’ sons before I left which was really neat. And a lot of those guys are actually the officers and running our booster club at Sand Rock now. It’s been really nice.”
Jacoway retired after the 2014 season, his 32nd at Sand Rock.
Through it all, Jacoway and his wife, Yvonne, a fellow Auburn graduate, returned often to the Plains.
“Loved our time and have stayed very attached to Auburn,” he said. “People say, ‘When you get to a big college, you don’t get the attention.’ I can attest, I did, because I needed it a lot of times. They were very good about making sure that we were on task and helping us when we needed it.
“My daughter graduated (from Auburn) about five years ago in landscape design and it was the same way. She’s still very attached to the instructors she had.
“That was the greatest thing I still remember about Auburn that I didn’t expect was that personal attention at a big university.”
During Monday’s ceremony, videos of each inductee highlighted their careers.
“It’s been very emotional for me because I did this for 37 years,” Jacoway said. “I had always wanted to be a coach. So this is kind of the final thing.”
Jacoway remains close to Sand Rock in his new position running a utility conservation project for a company that contracts with the school system.
“I got to do what I wanted to do for 37 years,” he said. “I love my job now, but I wouldn’t give anything for those Friday nights.”