MONTGOMERY – As Larry Blakeney surveyed the room full of people at the Renaissance Hotel, he couldn’t help but be impressed as he glanced at the two football teams assembled to play in Saturday’s sixth annual Camellia Bowl.
“It makes me feel good to know football and bowls and Montgomery, Alabama is this big,” Blakeney said. “And this is big. Keep doing what you’re doing because this is a tremendous thing, not only for the schools that get to come and be a part of it and learn about this great city, but there are a lot of other things going on to make this game important, very important.”
The 72-year-old former coach of the Troy University Trojans was on hand for Friday’s luncheon as the sixth recipient of the Camellia Bowl Alabama Football Legend award, joining former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden in 2014, former Auburn coach Pat Dye in 2015, former Alabama All-American linebacker Woodrow Lowe in 2016, former Alabama coach Gene Stallings in 2017 and former Montgomery native and NFL running back Johnny Davis in 2018.
“I am indebted for this award,” Blakeney said. “The thing that makes me most thankful and gracious is the people that you had in here before (as previous winners).”
Blakeney was a successful high school coach and assistant coach but was best known for his job as coach of the Trojans from 1991-2014, guiding the program from Division II to the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, maintaining a high level of success at each level that culminated with five consecutive Sun Belt Conference championships from 2006-2010.
He remains the winningest coach in Sun Belt history with 52 wins over an 11-year career in the conference. Interestingly enough, the second winningest coach was sitting to his right, Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson, as Blakeney delivered his speech.
The Gordo native and former Auburn quarterback started his coaching career at Southern Academy before moving on to Walker High and Vestavia Hills. In 1977, he started his collegiate coaching career as an assistant at Auburn under Doug Barfield and was retained by Pat Dye when the latter took over in 1980.
“We sort of turned the focus and the direction of the program,” Blakeney said. “You know, winning some games and going to bowls were things that Auburn people hadn’t necessarily been accustomed to in a while. And the 1989 game, when we brought Alabama to campus, was one of the major accomplishments for Pat Dye in his whole career at Auburn.”
In 1991, he was offered a head coaching position at Troy, where he remained for 24 years, compiling a 178-113-1 record. In 2004, the Trojans’ first year in the Sun Belt, they pulled off what is arguably the Trojans’ biggest win, a 24-14 victory over 17th-ranked Missouri in Troy.
His time at Troy, he noted, “was really a labor of love. Dr. Jack Hawkins and the Board of Trustees were doing everything they could do to give us a chance to advance the program through (Division) II to I-AA and then I-A.”
He remains one of only two coaches nationally to lead a program from Division II to FBS. The playing surface at Troy’s Veterans Memorial Stadium was renamed in his honor in 2011.
While he mentioned on more than one occasion how much he missed coaching, he seemed thankful he didn’t have to coach in Saturday’s Camellia Bowl against Florida International and Arkansas State.
“I’ve had to deal with both of those teams over the years and it ain’t no easy task,” Blakeney said. “But they’re playing each other tomorrow so we don’t have to worry about it. You guys at Ark State and FIU, I wish you luck. I can’t wish one more than the other, but I wish you luck and hope nobody gets hurt and you have a great game. That’s a great showcase for college football.”