By Dan Callahan
Charlottesville– For every beginning, there needs to be an ending. It was a fitting end to a glorious career for Joel Hicks last Wednesday evening at the Doubletree Hotel in Charlottesville. The Virginia High School League was gathered for its annual “Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.”
He received his gold medallion along with seven other very impressive people; B.J. Carroll of Galax, Cornelious Cousins of Richmnd and Hermitage High, Robin Dotson of Wise and J.J. Kelly High, Tom Harding of Clinchco and St. Paul High, Heath Miller of Swords Creek and Honaker High (also the Pittsburgh Steelers), Munro Rateau of Heidelberg, Germany and Fluvanna County High, and Meg Turner of George Wythe of Wytheville. Lots of small towns, and Southwest Virginia with great representation.
Hicks hails from Richwood, West Virginia. He was born and raised in lumber country. Did a lot of things growing up. Drove a coal truck to make a few bucks, helped his dad (Charlie) at the service station, and went rattlesnake hunting in the mountains with Ellsworth Buck. That was worth a few bucks too. He was a Richwood High Lumberjack. He was a three sport West Virginia All-State athlete. How serious a football player was he? His senior season at Richwood, Hicks shattered three helmets.
From Richwood it was on to WVU, and then to coaching. His first two coaching jobs were at Big Creek of War, and Woodrow Wilson of Beckley. He then joined the staff at WVU from 1976-78. Then he came to Pulaski County. He won 91 games in West Virginia and 210 with just 69 losses, a stunning record at Pulaski County. He won 10 or more games 10 times, nine or more 12 times. Over his 37 years as a head coach, he was never anything but a head coach in his high school years, he had a losing record his first season at Big Creek. He never had another for 36 years. He finished with 301 career victories.
The numbers speak for themselves, as Cougar head coach his teams won six region titles, played in 13 region finals, in six state semi- finals, won 15 district championships, had two state runner-up seasons, and in 1992 won the Group AAA, Division 6 state championship, still the only state title ever won at Pulaski County. In 1993 he coached the 6th ranked high school team in the America, in 24 years he put his Cougars into the playoffs 17 times, and most of those were during a time when only the top four teams from each region qualified.
Pulaski County played in 39 total playoff games under Hicks’ direction, almost four total extra years of football. So during Hicks’ tenure, over 24 years his teams played in 28 years of games for most schools. That’s how good he was. His teams had 21 and 18-game winning streaks. How significant is that? Consider this, it has been since the 2000 and 2001 seasons since Pulaski County has posted back-to-back winning seasons. Or you could say it hasn’t happened since Hicks. Stephen James is finally about to change that and make “Cougarland” happy again.
He was joined for his special evening in Charlottesville by his wife Melinda and daughter Amy. PCHS principal Mike Grim and athletic director Scott Vest were at the Pulaski County table. Also there were two old cohorts who served PCHS during the highest of the glory years. Former principal, and now retired, Tom DeBolt, and former PCHS athletic director Ron Kanipe. While at PCHS DeBolt was a prime mover in the building of the field house above Dobson Stadium. He would give pep talks in the locker room on Thursday to Cougar teams. “Joel was the best coach any school could ever have. I admired how he did his job. It was a joy working with him in my years at Pulaski County. I wouldn’t have missed this,” said DeBolt. This writer was there for two primary reasons. I could not have explained to Hicks or Kenneth Dobson, two of the finest men I have ever known, why I wasn’t.
But the journey ended for Hicks Wednesday. It is done. It ended the way way it should have, and likely was destined to end from the very first day he ever coached. Never has there ever been or ever will be a more fierce competitor. I have said often that Joel Hicks would have fought a chain saw. I don’t consider that an exaggeration when it comes to winning a football game. He pushed his players hard, but I have never heard a negative remark from a former player. Hicks pushed himself harder than anyone else. His coaching staffs worked very hard, he demanded it, but I have never heard a former staffer ever say a negative word about Hicks. He loved his players. He never cut a player. He felt the same about all of his players, not just the best ones.
Hicks’ concern was always about the program, never any individual aspect. It was always the team, never anything but the team, and totally organized, driven. Off the field, he was an easy going man, and a friend to all who wanted a friend. He was top notch on the practice field, on the sideline, in the school, and in the Pulaski County community. Joel Hicks never said no to anybody. He was always sure to mention Melinda. He has often said were it not for her he would have never graduated from WVU and would have likely ended up hanging out at the pool hall in Richwood. He said, “It takes a special lady to be a coaches wife, especially this coaches wife. But Melinda knew what buttons to push, and if I was down a bit I would get a pep talk just like I was talking with the team. Many times she told me to pick it up, get back to that fieldhouse, break down that film and find a way to win. She has always been the rock in my life,” he says.
Hicks was likely motivated by the fear of losing, and he didn’t do it often. He was the last to leave following a Friday night game. He was always still keyed up, and would hang around and sweep the locker room floor. In the old days, there was no video. It was film, and coaches still use the term, “breaking down the film.” Games would be filmed and sent to developers and they would arrive at the Pulaski bus terminal between 4-4:30 am on Saturday mornings. I knew when they arrived because Hicks told me. Often he was there waiting.
It didn’t take long that I began to realize that sometimes Hicks never went home. I usually returned around 9am Saturday morning, and following a loss, he would be there looking at film still wearing the same coaching shirt, pants, and dirty shoes from the night before. He could not wait to find out what went wrong, and how to fix it. Even when he did go home he was always back early Saturday mornings during the season. I would take him a breakfast sandwich at times, but it seemed he didn’t eat much during the season. But regardless, he often had a cigar (Swisher Sweet) stuck between his teeth. He didn’t like expensive cigars, just the sweet ones. Still does. But always there was the legal pad and two or three pages were already full, and the first thing said every Saturday morning was not hello, but “Sit down, and I’ll show you what happened.” Hicks would take a bit of Saturday afternoon, and Sunday evening off, but that was all the down time there was during the season.
I remember a warm Friday afternoon. It was the day of his first game as head coach at Pulaski County in 1979. The Cougars were opening at home against Radford. There was a lot of tension. The people of Pulaski County wanted a winner, but weren’t sure if they could field a winner. Hicks’ father used to drive far enough from Richwood to high ground so he could pick up Cougar games on the radio on Friday night, but for his first game, Charlie and Goldie Hicks were in Newbern Heights. I walked across the street and Mr. Hicks wanted to know about this Radford team. I mentioned a couple of things I was concerned about with the Cougars. Charlie quickly said, “I don’t want to know about that. That will be fixed. Tell me about this Radford team.” I did. He knew I was concerned about the game, and Charlie Hicks just looked down at me and said, “You don’t have to be concerned anymore. My Joel is in charge, and he will win tonight.” He did, 13-0 and Radford never crossed the 50. Later on that evening I thought. Charlie Hicks maybe already knows something the rest of us are about to learn.
From that point what happened in Pulaski County was a wonderful story. The football team brought the county’s people together and nobody was upset over the consolidated school system anymore. Hicks and his football program brought notoriety to our county. He not only won, but he taught Pulaski County how to go about preparing to win. While some wanted to spend time talking about the problems we faced, Hicks spent most of his time telling everybody what a great place this was to live and coach. In the school system, in the community, in the surrounding region, and soon the entire state, Hicks and his football program brought positive recognition to our county, and our people loved it, and couldn’t get enough of it. Joel Hicks and Cougar football made Pulaski County’s people feel special.
I still remember a cold early March in 1979. The process was finally over, and there had been a curve or two in the road, but I was able to announce to the county that Hicks was the next coach. I remember working with Mr. Dobson, the former superintendent of schools. We knew we had to have a new coach, but even more important, we had to have the right one. The community was demanding it.
So Hicks speaks to a huge gathering in the Little Theater at the school. He tells them what kind of program he wants to build, and then says he’ll answer any question anybody might have. PCHS was likely the worse Group AAA football program in the state at that time, and simply being competitive was a huge hope in the minds of most. The very first question came from a gentleman who asked, “Do you really think that this school will ever be able to win a district title, or ever qualify for the playoffs?” Hicks responded, “I’m coming here to win football games. Winning games is what I’m concerned about, and if we win enough games, all that other stuff will take care of itself.” Nobody could have possibly imagined what was about to happen. It was “The Miracle on Slaughterhouse Road.” He won 210 times, almost 8.8 wins a season for 24 years.
And the story grew and grew. The crowds for Pulaski County home and away games were the largest in the state. The Cougars got so good and the reputation spread so far that it became difficult just to get a 10-game schedule. In one season during a five-Friday October, the Cougars played in Danville, in Lynchburg, Petersburg, and Charlotte, North Carolina. There were also games with schools from D.C., Maryland, Tennessee, and West Virginia. In 1993 the Cougars were ranked first in Virginia and 10th in the nation when the fifth game of the season came about. It was a trip to Bluefield to face the Beavers. Bluefield was ranked number one in the mountain state and has won more state football titles than any West Virginia school. They called it the “Border Battle.” Mitchell Stadium was packed. When Pulaski County played, capacity crowds were common, home or away. It was 42-0 Cougars at the half, 56-8 at games end, and the next morning the headline in the Bluefield newspaper said, “Pulaski County comes as advertised.”
Hicks’ Cougars always showed up. You didn’t have to hunt very hard to find Pulaski County’s football team during his tenure. The floor of Dobson Stadium and on many fields all across Virginia, are memories of great battles. And regardless of the outcome, when you played the Cougars you knew you had been in a battle. Hicks’ teams were physical. When you played the Cougars you had to buckle up tight because you were about to get hit and you knew it was coming. His teams were focused, every game was its own season, no conquest too small, beat ’em all. His teams were almost flawless in execution. It was not rare for Pulaski County go play a game without a penalty. After the state championship win the head referee thanked Hicks for getting to officiate his team.
And Hicks’ views about Pulaski County have never changed, and he expressed them again in Charlottesville. “It was paradise for me. It’s a hard working. blue collar county. Lots of good people. I didn’t get here all by myself. I had hard working players who wanted to win, and I loved how hard they were willing to work. Coaching the players at Pulaski County was a pleasure. We have good kids. I had great coaching staffs, some of which have gone on to be successful head coaches, but we all worked hard, and I’m happy to say that some of my best friends were members of my coaching staffs. Some of my players ended up being coaches for me later on. I loved working with the people in the school system. I had great, supportive administrators. It was all for one, and one for all. Those friendships continue. And the Cougar football fans. I loved them. Many times, I would think how great it would be if I were out in the parking lots tailgating with them. I could not have ask for better support. They were so helpful, friendly, and man did they love their Cougars. Pulaski County was made for Joel Hicks. I love it, and even though I’m now retired, I will never leave Pulaski County,” said Hicks.
And then VHSL Executive Secondary Billy Haun, a man who Hicks gave his first coaching job to, draped the gold medallion around the coaches neck. Then he handed him a glass plague and smiled as he shook his hand and officially inducted Hicks into the “Virginia High School Hall of Fame..” Melinda and Amy smiled with great p;ride. Vest and I looked at each other with glassy eyes. It had taken far too long, but that’s okay now. Everything is okay now. It should be mentioned that Hicks has won the “Frank Loria Award” in West Virginia, and has already been inducted into the Pulaski County HIgh School Hall of Fame.
Joel Hicks’ career is now over. The journey has ended the way it should have. There are no more games to win, no more awards to receive. He has it all, and has been justly rewarded for being a great football coach, a great mentor to young people, and a great member of our school system and community. He is Pulaski County’s example of the best it has to offer. The field on the floor of Dobson Stadium has his name on it for a reason. Hicks and Dobson were a dynamic duo.
But in reality it is not over, and will not end for years and years. Hicks has a legacy that will live on and on. It will live on because the people of Pulaski County will remember, and his players will live on and remember for decades, and tell of all the championships won to generations to come. And me? I will never forget.