By Rick Cleveland
JACKSON – No doubt, many have watched the inspiring movie Remember the Titans, in which Denzel Washington, playing Herman Boone, is made the head coach over a previously highly successful white coach at a newly integrated Virginia school.
As the team wins, Boone slowly wins over the fans. Sadly, here in Mississippi we know it did not always happen like that. In fact, most times it did not. There weren’t many Herman Boones in Mississippi, at least not in football, at least not at first. Black coaches did not get those jobs.
Take the case of Marion “Chief” Henley, a Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame coach, who died last week at the age of 79 at his retirement home in Cocoa, Fla. Prior to integration, Henley’s Picayune Carver High teams won 64 straight football games in the 1960s, a record that stood until 2007 when South Panola exceeded that streak. Henley still holds the record for consecutive games won by a single high school coach because two coaches were involved in the South Panola win streak.
Listen: Henley’s Carver teams won 112 games while losing only six for a remarkable winning percentage of .949. Nobody wins 95 percent of their games, but Marion Henley did.
“He was the best coach I’ve ever seen, the smartest coach I’ve ever seen,” said Lap Baker, who was quarterback for Henley in 1965-66. “You have to realize that he never had an assistant coach. He coached everything: the linemen, the backs, the offense, the defense, the special teams – everything. He was a strict coach who stressed the fundamentals.”
During that same time period, all-white Picayune High had a losing team that often dwelled in the cellar of the old South Big Eight Conference. When Picayune played on the road, it was usually the home team’s homecoming sacrificial lamb.
And yet, when the two schools combined in forced integration, Henley, with a record of 112-6, was offered the job as an assistant coach to the white coach at Picayune.
“It was an insult to Chief Henley,” Baker said. “He wouldn’t do it and nobody blamed him.”
Shelia Henley, Coach Henley’s widow, remembers how disappointed her husband was.
“He knew he deserved better,” Shelia Henley said. “He was very, very disappointed.”
Shelia Henley, who was a Picayune school teacher at the time, says her husband had worked to help register black voters in Picayune. That didn’t help his standing in the white community, not at that time. The Henleys moved to Baltimore where they continued their careers in education until their retirement.
“I know it sounds crazy with how it ended, but we have nothing but warm memories of Picayune, and Carver High,” Shelia Henley said. “We won a lot of games and so many of those players were like sons to Marion.”
Baker was one who considered Henley a second father.
“We won so many games, a lot of high schools wouldn’t play us, so we played junior colleges,” Baker said. “Coach was a great motivator. He always told us a gnat could stop a freight train traveling at the speed of light if he just believed he could. He made us believe we could.”
Yes, Shelia Henley said, she and her husband watched Remember the Titans more than once. They loved it.
Said Shelia Henley, “In that movie Denzel coached a lot like my husband. He had spunk.”
Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@ msfame.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His blog can be found at msfame.com.