The following is the final installment in an 11-part series featuring members of the 2019 class of the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame.
A high school coach is an educator who wears many hats. A Hall of Fame coach is one that wears them all well. Meet Reynolds Gwaltney Cook – Coach R.G. Cook to the hundreds of student-athletes whose lives were changed for the better because of his ability to teach the real lessons that can be learned from educational-based athletics.
Cook, now deceased, if being inducted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2019. He is going in from the “old timer” category. The banquet will be Monday night, March 18 at the Montgomery Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center. His son Stan Cook is representing his father, accepting on behalf of the Cook family.
A native of Greenville, R. G. Cook graduated from Montgomery’s Sidney Lanier High School in 1933 and from Troy State Teachers College (now Troy University) in 1950. He later earned a master’s degree in education from Auburn University.
Cook began his teaching and coaching career at Williams School, a private prep school in Montgomery. He started the athletic program and was head basketball coach from 1950-52.
He moved to Union Springs in 1952 – where he remained at Bullock County High School in some capacity through 1974. During that span he coached football, basketball, baseball and track. His 1956 football team was 10-0, and he was named the Birmingham Post-Herald Class 1A Coach of the Year. In 1957, he extended the winning streak to 19 games before losing a close game to Abbeville in the Peanut Bowl at Dothan. He was selected to coach in the AHSAA North-South All-star football game in Tuscaloosa in 1957.
Cook resigned as football coach in 1962, focusing on the basketball and baseball teams. His teams won more than 250 games in basketball with his 1963-64 and 1964-65 teams both going 23-0 in the regular season.
In baseball, his teams had signature wins over much larger schools such as Sidney Lanier and Central-Phenix City. He helped arrange for Union Springs to be an annual host of the Lions Club East-West all-star baseball game for Southeast Alabama.
Cook received numerous Coach of the Year awards in various sports and helped organize the Central Alabama Conference for small schools Central Alabama.
After leaving the classroom and coaching field, he served as Bullock County Schools’ superintendent from 1968-74.
Hall of Fame member Ken Blankenship recalled his relationship with Coach Cook. “In the early 1950s, I had the opportunity to compete against Coach Cook’s teams, and later he served as a mentor to me as I began my high school coaching career,” Blankenship said. “It was through his positive, caring influence that I learned it was an honor to have the opportunity to work with young people and an obligation to guide them as their lives were developing.”
Carlton Smith, who became a school superintendent himself, said Cook taught him the importance of priorities.
“He taught me how to relate to high school kids,” said Smith, who served as an assistant to Cook at Bullock County High School. “R.G. was demanding of his players but gained their respect and admiration. He was an outstanding, winning coach, but winning was never his first priority. In his calm, low-key manner in dealing with teenage athletes, his first priority was always to teach his kids to be good citizens, to follow the rules, and to become strong, confident men.”
Smith recalled an incident in which Cook’s character came to the forefront dramatically. “A former athlete, a senior named Benny Johnson, dropped out of school because he was still struggling with ninth-grade English,” Smith said. “He found that the local supermarket where he worked would not keep him on because he was not a high school graduate. Cook persuaded him to return to school, attending Bullock County during the day and going to Montgomery to study English at the Williams School at night. He eventually graduated.”
But the story did not end there, Smith said. “Johnson developed a rare form of arthritis that would eventually cost him his eyesight.” He went to Cook and said, “What am I going to do? I have a wife and baby. How can I support them when I am blind?” Coach Cook was active in the Lions Club and its sight conservation mission. He took Johnson to Talladega and helped him enroll in the School for the Blind. There, he acquired the skills to operate a small business without sight and was able to provide for his family.
“This is (just one) example of how R.G. Cook loved his students and the extra help he provided. This was far above what could be expected. That is the kind of coach, educator and person he was.
“A Hall of Fame coach should be many things. He should be a person who develops young men. He teaches them to be solid, confident adults. He teaches them how to become leaders. He teaches them to always follow the rules. He teaches them to be contributing team members. He teaches them that they can achieve their goals through teamwork. He teaches them to be loyal and dedicated to their team and their teammates. He teaches them right from wrong, and he teaches them how to win and how to lose.”
Smith said that Coach R. G. Cook meets all requirements as a Hall of Fame coach.
“The best indicator is the love and pride he had for all his players and the love and devotion they still have for him to this day. Yes, he was a winning coach, but he was so much more than that. He was a father figure for hundreds of young men who became better adults because of his love and quiet leadership by example.”
This story originally appeared on the Alabama High School Athletic Association website.