By Tim Gayle
Camellia Bowl Staff Writer
MONTGOMERY – It’s been a whirlwind tour for Gene Stallings this fall.
The College Football Hall of Fame coach was honored by Texas A&M with an assembly of the 1967 team during the Aggies’ game with Alabama, by Alabama with an assembly of the 1992 team during the Crimson Tide’s game with Arkansas, by the Southeastern Conference as part of their annual legends’ recognition at the SEC Championship Game and he will be honored in two weeks as part of the inaugural class for the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame.
Might as well make a stop in Montgomery, where Stallings was presented the fourth Regions Bank Alabama Football Legend Award on Friday afternoon by Regions president Michael Hart and Camellia Bowl executive director Johnny Williams during a luncheon at the Renaissance Hotel.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been 82, so they think I’m going to die so they’re going to give me something before I’m dead,” Stallings joked. “But I appreciate all the honors I’ve received. I realize the game is for the players, not for the coach, so I appreciate it.”
Stallings has spent much of his 20 years in retirement as a speaker and he used that platform to deliver a powerful 25-minute talk to the players and coaches of Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas State, the two participants in Saturday’s fourth annual Camellia Bowl.
“I love the game of football because it teaches us a lot of things,” Stallings said. “Primarily, it teaches us how to do right, how to think right. Do you know the importance of just thinking right?”
Stallings played for Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Texas A&M in 1954-56 and was a member of the famed “Junction Boys” that survived Bryant’s rigorous boot camp at Junction in his first season. Stallings would reunite with his coach as a member of Bryant’s coaching staff at Alabama (1958-64), serving primarily as a secondary coach as the Tide won national titles in 1961 and 1964.
Stallings left to become a head coach at Texas A&M, where he led the Aggies to the 1967 Southwest Conference championship and a Cotton Bowl victory over Bryant’s Alabama team.
Stallings spent the next 14 seasons (1972-85) as secondary coach for Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys, including a victory in Super Bowl XII. He became head coach of the Cardinals (1986-89), then returned to Alabama as the head coach for seven seasons (1990-96), winning a national championship in 1992.
“The real joy that I got out of coaching was seeing that player graduate,” Stallings said. “Parents didn’t ever say anything about making a good football player out of him. They said help him with his books. To see that player graduate, that was the real joy I got out of coaching.”
He spoke to the players about their academics, their attitudes (“just a little kindness goes a long way”) and the lessons he learned over the years. Those lessons, of course, included his son John Mark, who suffered from Down syndrome before finally passing away in 2008.
“My life wouldn’t be nearly as rich if not for the fact that I helped raise a child with special needs,” Stallings said. “I can’t tell you all the things that are named after Johnny. As long as they play football at the University of Alabama, the equipment room is named the John Mark Stallings Equipment Room. The beautiful playground behind the RISE program (on the university campus) is named after Johnny. Faulkner University – now this is a major university – named their football playing field the John Mark Stallings Field.
“I’m in seven halls of fame. I don’t have a football field named after me.”
Maybe not, but there is a college football award named after him and another for his son. The Stallings Award is presented annually to a coach in recognition of his humanitarian contributions as well as his performance on the field and the Johnny Stallings Award is given to a company of individual that recognizes the value of helping those with special needs.
In addition, Stallings is a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Texas A&M Hall of Fame, the Gator Bowl Hall of Fame and the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame. He will be added to the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame on Jan. 2, 2018.
Now, he’s an Alabama Football Legend Award recipient, joining former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden (2014), former Auburn coach Pat Dye (2015) and former Alabama All-American linebacker Woodrow Lowe (2016).
“It’s a big deal to be honored in the state of Alabama and in Montgomery,” Stallings said. “In fact, when I was at (Texas) A&M, I was one of the few players that did not get invited to the Blue-Gray Game. I went to work for Coach Bryant, though, so I still had a good experience.”
Friday offered another good experience as a small group of friends ventured down from Tuscaloosa for the ceremony, including longtime secretary Linda Knowles, who Stallings noted should be in the “Super Bowl Hall of Fame for secretaries.” It also gave him an opportunity to visit with several former players as Roger Shultz and Jeff Foshee accompanied him on the plane trip back to Texas following the event.
“It’s a real good joy to be able to see the players and visit with the players,” Stallings said. “That’s the reason I went back to College Station, the reason I went back to Tuscaloosa when they honored the ’92 team, is to see the players and pay my respects one more time.”
At 82, Stallings told the crowd, he isn’t sure how many more of these events he will make.
In the last four months, I’ve had two stokes and a heart attack,” he said, “so, when I say I’m happy to be here, I’m happy to be here.”
In a few weeks, he’ll attend a similar ceremony in New Orleans, where he’ll take in a College Football playoff semifinal matchup between top-ranked Clemson, coached by former 1992 walk-on receiver Dabo Swinney, and fourth-ranked Alabama.
“I’m sort of in a bind,” Stallings said. “I’ve got a grandson (tight end J.C. Chalk) playing for Clemson, but I love Alabama. I just want the best team to win. I want them both to play well and I want it to be settled right at the last, like it was last time. I’m very fond of Dabo, but I’m fond of (Nick) Saban, too.”
As he closed his speech, he reminded the players to listen to their coaches who will not only instruct them about football but will provide valuable lessons in life.
“Life is not about waiting until the storm passes by,” said Stallings as he quoted from a recent letter mailed to him. “It’s learning how to dance in the rain.”