By Blake Ells
Buddy Anderson still remembers the night his life’s path became clear to him.
It was Jan. 12, 1968, and he was sitting in his father’s old pickup that he had driven to play in a high school basketball game.
“It wasn’t completely overcast, but there were clouds,” he recalls, as if the date nearly 50 years ago were yesterday. “I had been struggling with something in my life. It was a moonlit night, but you could see clouds rolling above. And at that point, I felt God talking to me in my spirit and in my heart. He wanted me to be a Christian coach.”
Fifty years later, he is not just a coach, he is the winningest high school coach in Alabama, with a record of 325-140.
Anderson, now 67 years old, begins his 40th season as head coach at Vestavia Hills on Sept. 1 in a game against Homewood.
“Records are made to be broken,” he assures. “When I leave here, people won’t remember who I was. Seven or eight years after (baseball) coach (Sammy) Dunn passed away, I had a class on CPR. I was telling a story about coach Dunn and all of these kids stared at me. Out of 25-30 kids in that classroom, one raised their hand and recognized him.”
A humble man of humble origin, Anderson is the son of coach D.F. Anderson of Thomasville, a rural community on the fringes of the black belt that is now home to 4,209 citizens. The field where Buddy played now carries his father’s name.
He played football at Samford University, and he met his wife there, too. In December 1970, he and Linda married and he began searching for a job. He interviewed in Pensacola, where the superintendent had played and coached for his father. He talked to people across Birmingham, and doors continued to close at every turn. He began thinking graduate school might be the best solution.
While this was going on in Anderson’s life, a tragic accident occurred.
Vestavia Hills head football coach Mutt Reynolds was returning from lunch to Pizitz Middle School with three assistant coaches in August 1971. An 18-wheeler lost control of its brakes as it descended the hill on U.S. 31 and collided with Reynolds’ vehicle. All three assistants were killed.
Anderson faintly recalled the accident, the commotion of ambulances and police cars that he could hear careening from Lakeshore to 31.
A year later, as he sat in a Samford financial aid office completing his graduate school application, John Lee Armstrong, his Samford coach, reminded him of the accident and offered to connect him with Reynolds.
“(Reynolds) never asked me what I knew about offense or defense,” Anderson said. “He asked me why I wanted to be a coach. I told him that God had called me. Five minutes later, he asked me the same thing, and I gave him the same answer. Then he asked me, ‘After five, 10 years of doing this, when you realize that you’re not going to make any money, what are you going to do?’ And I told him that I planned on coaching because that’s what God called me to do. And he said, ‘You’re the person I want coaching.’”
Reynolds never really recovered emotionally from the accident. After the 1972 season, he stepped out of the coaching job to become the assistant principal. He’d later coach at Pizitz for several years, and the Rebels’ stadium still bears his name. The Rebels were led by Doug Wheeler in 1973-74, Larry Blakeney in 1975- 76 and Alvin Bresler in 1977. Anderson loyally remained an assistant throughout each change and in 1978, he was given the reigns of the program.
“During my senior year at Samford, Linda and I went to see her alma mater, Mountain Brook, play at Vestavia,” he said. “There was a girl giving a devotional before the game, which I clearly recall stating, ‘If our life is not anchored in the spirit of Jesus Christ, our life will not weather the storm.’ I didn’t have an allegiance to either team playing in that game. But I had this feeling. And as we were walking back to her parents’ house, she said, ‘I had the funniest feeling tonight. I graduated from Mountain Brook, but I felt like I was rooting for Vestavia.’ I never thought about it again until I first met with coach Reynolds.”
Generations of Players
Forty years passed, Anderson has coached fathers and their sons.
“I haven’t coached any grandsons yet,” he joked. “I don’t know if there are any in the pipeline.”
He’s had loyal assistants. Peter Braasch was his defensive coordinator for 38 years before retiring in 2014. This year, Braasch was inducted into the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. Bruce Evans and Rick Grammer spent years as assistants to Anderson. Even Dunn, whose legend is etched into the baseball diamond, served as an assistant football coach, a role that Anderson assures was greatly overshadowed. Vestavia Hills Athletics Director Jeff Segars played for Anderson and served as his assistant until taking over his new role in 2015.
The people – both around him and by nature – haven’t changed much.
“A lot of what I have learned (about people), I learned from my dad,” Anderson said. “He said that everybody’s different. No two people are alike. And you’ve got to treat them all the same, but differently. What motivates one person may not motivate the next person. You’ve got to let them know that you love them no matter what. And while they may disappoint you, you’re not going to stop loving them.”
One week before this season’s fall camp began, Anderson received a call from a former player who is now turning 50; it’s a call he’s gotten every year for the past several years.
“I never dreamed that I would still be here,” Anderson said. “I’m a very blessed man. I’ve had an opportunity to work with a lot of great men and to coach a lot of great kids. Vestavia became home to me; we raised our daughters here and now our grandchildren are here, too.”