By Fred Woods
Phil Knight makes up his mind in a hurry, even if acting on the decision doesn’t occur until much later.
On a hunting trip with boyhood friend, Fred Birchfield, he told Birchfield that Helen McClain was the girl he was going to marry. The two were in the 11th grade. Four years later Knight and McClain, a native of Salem but, like Phil, an OHS graduate, were married.
Knight also knew he wanted to be a high school coach. That decision was made after being coached (and mentored) by the late, legendary Harold Turner, who was a positive influence on so many Pepperell Kids. Playing under the beloved OHS Coach Sam Mason in high school reinforced this decision. Mason and Phil were particularly close – fishing buddies, in fact.
Sports were so important to Knight, he took Helen to Moore Stadium and proposed to her on the 50-yard line. So Helen accepted from the very beginning Phil’s decision to make his career in high school coaching. In fact, Phil gives much of the credit for his successful career to the support he received from Helen and their three daughters. Helen would even go to the school on Fridays in the football season, take his car and gas it up so he would not have that distraction from football.
As a youngster Knight played sports year-round. “That’s what we did,” he said. Knight credits playing sports –football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and pick-up baseball games or American Legion ball in the summer, with keeping him, and many of his friends, out of trouble. When asked his favorite sport, he replied, “Whatever’s in season!”
After graduating from Opelika’s Clift High School, Knight went to Troy State University on a football scholarship, where he played both football and baseball (quarterback and catcher, respectively.) Knight said he didn’t play a lot, but he played enough to letter in both sports.
Losing his scholarship after a misunderstanding over curriculum procedures, Knight transferred to Auburn, where he could live at home, work part-time and finish his collegiate studies. And, of course, begin married life with Helen after she returned home from two years of business school in Birmingham.
Knight began coaching at Rockmart High School, working for three years alongside Don Braswell, an Auburn classmate who played guard for the Tigers. Rockmart is a small town in northwest Georgia about 100 miles from Atlanta. This began a 35-year career in Georgia High School coaching.
Knight coached at nine different schools, eight of them in DeKalb County. Knight pointed out that, although he coached at a number of schools, all but the first were in close proximity, so his family lived in only two houses during his whole career. Somewhere along the line Knight also found time to get a master’s degree at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Probably his favorite coaching assignment, Knight said, was at Lithonia in DeKalb County. When he came, Lithonia’s once-proud program was in shambles. It took Knight two years to turn things around, but then Lithonia went to the state playoffs ten years in a row.
Knight also coached his finest pure athlete, Jesse Baker, at Conyers High School. Baker played college ball with Jacksonville State University, was drafted in the second round by the NFL’s Houston Oilers and played eight years for them as a defensive end before finishing out his career in Atlanta.
For all the truly good coaches and teachers, the reward comes in seeing his or her players succeed in life. Knight has seen a dozen or so of his former student athletes choose coaching as a career, just as he was influenced by Harold Turner and Sam Mason to choose a career in high school coaching.
One of these was especially close to Phil and Helen. When Knight coached at Decatur High, Tom Jones played for him, and Tom’s future wife, Linda, was a cheerleader. Tom went on to Wake Forest on a football scholarship, and Linda became an Atlanta Falcons cheerleader. When Tom finished college, now married to Linda, he came back to coach with Knight for 15 years before accepting, at Phil’s urging, a head coaching job of his own.
Linda kept the home crowd at the games inspired with her cheering. The couple became particularly close friends to the Knights.
During Knight’s coaching career, coaches couldn’t be head coaches in more than one major sport and had to either teach five classes or accept five major responsibilities. At various times Knight taught Georgia history, sociology, science, physical education and health.
Another mark of how well a person has performed in life is how he is perceived by his peers. Knight passes this test with flying colors. He is a member of a group of 30-35 retired coaches who meet for breakfast once a month near his home in Monroe, Ga. The love and respect he gets from this group make it obvious they believe him to be a good man, a good coach and a good friend.