Former players discuss what made Tucker a coaching legend
There are many ways to measure the success of a coach.
The first, and perhaps the most simple, is to look at his or her career record. If there are significantly more wins than losses you can say that person was a successful coach.
Another way to measure a coach’s success is the impact he or she had on the players. If the coach was a positive influence in the lives of his or her players, then the coach was also successful.
The third way, and perhaps the best way to distinguish a successful coach, is to see how well he or she excelled at the first two measurements.
Former Russellville basketball coach Jack Tucker easily qualifies as a successful coach under the first measurement. He had a career record of 612 wins and 258 losses in 31 years of coaching. Tucker guided the Golden Tigers to a state championship in the 1980s and is a member of the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
But for many of his former players, it will be his accomplishments in the second measurement of success that will mean more to them than winning games.
“My dad passed away when I was 11,” said Carver Phillips. “He was the closest to a dad I had. He was going to make sure you made the grades.”
While Tucker has had an impact on several Russellville players during his coaching tenure, which stretched from 1963 through 1988, his biggest influence was probably on the players he coached in the early 1970s.
A few years earlier the schools were desegregated, a move that caused racial tension throughout Alabama. Many talented black players in the state were relegated to the bench in preference to their white counterparts — that was not the case at Russellville.
Tucker had no problems starting five black players if they were the players that gave the Golden Tigers the best opportunity to walk off the court with a victory.
“He didn’t have a starting five,” said Harlan “Peaches” Winston. “Whatever you did in practice determined who started.”
But Tucker’s ability to see past race extended beyond the basketball court. Tucker was not afraid to visit with his players at home or to invite them into his home.
With Tucker earning the trust of his players Russellville became one of the top programs in north Alabama. From 1968, the year the Alabama Interscholastic Athletic Association merged with the Alabama High School Athletic Association, until the 1974-75 season, the Golden Tigers suffered no more than eight losses in a single season. They lost four games in the 1968-69 season as well as the 1971-72 season. In the 1973-74 season the Golden Tigers posted an impressive 30-2 record.
Tommy Bonds, who went on to play collegiate basketball at the University of Alabama, was a member of the Golden Tiger teams in the early 1970s. He said one of the things he remembers about those teams was the size of the crowds who came to watch him and his teammates play.
“We played Leighton and had to move the game to the coliseum where UNA played,” Bonds said. “People from the Tri-cities would come down to Russellville to watch us play.”
Watching the Golden Tigers of the 1970s was a sight to behold — behind it all was Tucker.
Tucker had his team dressed for success before the games, a ploy that intimidated opponents as much before the game started as Russellville’s mastery of the fundamentals intimidated them during the game.
“Those were good years,” said R.J. Bonds. “We were dressed up for home games, but when we went away we had those gold jackets and black bags. A lot of schools began imitating what we did.”
As the wins continued to pile up for the Golden Tigers, Tucker made sure his players kept their grades high. The combination of athletic and scholastic success translated to scholarship offers for many of Tucker’s players.
The Russellville players at that time knew they had a valuable resource in Tucker and were willing to do what he asked so they could be successful.
“We realized we had a legend with us,” Winston said. “We looked at other coaches and realized nobody else had a coach with that respect.”
The Golden Tigers of the 1970s were so good players from opposing teams would come to Russellville during the summer to play. During the course of those summer games friendships began to develop between the Russellville players and the opponents they would be facing in the fall.
While it may seem unusual for members of rival teams to become friends it fit with Tucker’s coaching philosophy, which encouraged respect for opponents and a high level of sportsmanship.
It is a lesson that has resonated with his players throughout their lives. To this day they still have a level of respect for their former foes, but that respect pales in comparison to the respect they have for their former coach.
After speaking with members of those Russellville teams, it quickly becomes clear that their feelings for Tucker go well beyond respect — they love coach Tucker.
“It’s hard to get another like him,” Phillips said.
“He’s the only one,” R.J. Bonds agreed.
“He treated us like his son. He was like a father figure, what you see is what you get. That is what I like about him,” Winston said. “I love that man, John Wooden doesn’t have anything on him to me.”
Tommy Bonds said even though he played college ball in the Southeastern Conference, his best times on the court were representing the Golden Tigers.
“I am so proud to have played four years for this man,” Tommy Bonds said. “People say, ‘you are the best, you are the best.’ No. I was part of the best. What I had at Alabama doesn’t compare.”