By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Dr. Bert Lyle’s national and international success as a coach in women’s track and field doesn’t surprise Mem Leake.
“Whatever he did, he knew everything there was to know about it,” said Leake, who was a teammate of Lyle’s on Tupelo High School’s undefeated 1945 Big Eight Conference championship football team. “When we played football, Bert was a student of the game. He knew what he was doing and knew how to do it.”
Lyle, who died at age 83 on May 11 in Denton, Texas, was a former track coach, basketball coach and athletics director for Texas Woman’s University. He directed the school’s track program to three AIAW national championships and to two United States Track and Field Federation team titles during his coaching tenure (1965-82).
Known for his innovative training methods and scientific analysis of women’s sprinting and hurdling techniques, Lyle coached the U.S. women’s sprinters and relay teams in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He also coached Louise Ritter, who a gold medal in the high jump at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
He was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2010. He also received numerous honors from the USTAF, including its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
Lyle, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served in the Korean War, earned his bachelor’s degree from Duke, his master’s from SMU, and his Ph.D. from the University of Texas.
Despite his extensive education, it was during his high school days in Tupelo that Lyle honed his coaching skills working as the “unofficial” assistant coach while playing offensive and defensive end for head coach Pick Noble.
“Bert was like an assistant coach, an unofficial assistant coach,” Leake said, then laughed. “He would sit around in class drawing up football plays.”
During their championship senior season, Lyle and Leake, who played center, both suffered injuries and were held out of a non-conference game against Baldwyn. Instead of attending their game, the two traveled to scout Meridian, a Big Eight power and future opponent the Golden Wave had never beaten.
“Bert saw they had three successful plays – a wide sweep, a reverse and a double reverse,” said Leake, a retired businessman.
The two players’ scouting report – which included defensive calls by Lyle and Leake on Meridian’s favorite plays – was used two weeks later in Tupelo’s 33-13 victory against the favored Wildcats.
“They never figured out what we were doing (defensively),” Leake said.
Lyle, Leake and another teammate from the 11-0 Golden Wave team, Bob Kirk, attended Duke University together following graduation from THS.
The physical 6-foot-2, 190-pound Lyle went to Durham, N.C., school on a football scholarship to play for legendary coach Wallace Wade. He played for the Blue Devils for two seasons before being sidelined for the remainder of his playing career with a concussion.
“Bert and I were called to the principal’s office one day during our senior year in high school,” Leake said. “That’s never good.”
Waiting for the two in the principal’s office were Alabama assistant football coach Hank Crisp and Crimson Tide star quarterback Harry Gilmer.
“Alabama was recruiting Bert and they wanted to check his speed and pass-catching ability,” Leake said. “I was a center, so I got to snap the ball to Harry Gilmer while he threw passes to Bert.”
Leake believes Lyle’s best quality was his ability to lead.
“Bert was natural leader,” he said. “He was always a troop leader in Boy Scouts. He was always an officer in whatever clubs we were involved in.
“He was a leader … all the time.”
Contact Gene Phelps at 678-1593