By Rubin E. Grant
The news came out of nowhere for me on Monday. My longtime friend Buddy Anderson is retiring as head football coach at Vestavia Hills High School at the end of the 2020 season.
And yes, I said friend. Anderson’s second year as head coach, 1979, was the first year of my professional sports writing career in Birmingham.
At first it was a reporter-coach relationship, but it evolved over time into a friendship of mutual respect and admiration, although I did most of the admiring. I might have called him Buddy to other folks, but whenever I spoke with him it was always Coach Anderson.
I had no idea he was considering retirement. I always figured he would coach until the Lord called him home. His relationship with Jesus Christ is what cemented our friendship because we are brothers in Christ.
When we finally talked by phone Tuesday afternoon, he told me once again, “God called me to be a coach on January 12, 1968. He spoke to me in my heart to be a high school Christian coach. It doesn’t mean I’ve been perfect, but that’s what I’ve tried to be.”
“I’ve had opportunities to go other places and even coach in college,” he added, “but I believe this is where God wanted me.”
As the years passed, Anderson, who recently turned 70, continued coaching at Vestavia Hills. The 2020 season will be his 43rd season as the Rebels’ head coach. He arrived at the school in 1972 as an assistant before being elevated to head coach in 1978. His dad, Dovey Anderson, coached for 31 years at Thomasville High School.
Buddy Anderson is the winningest coach in Alabama high school football history, with a record of 342-154. He guided the Rebels to state championships in 1980 and 1998, both in the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s highest classification, and to 31 state playoff appearances, including last fall when Vestavia Hills finished 7-4.
He was inducted into the National Federation of State High School Associations Hall of Fame in 2018 and is a member of the AHSAA Hall of Fame. He received the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame’s Frank ‘Pig’ House Award in 2014.
Anderson has been more than a coach to his players. His biggest impact has come off the field, especially when he’s held Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings at his home, sharing his faith and helping turn boys into responsible adult men.
Anderson said he considered retiring at the end of the just-completed school year, but his wife, Linda, three daughters and Vestavia Hills school Superintendent Todd Freeman had an effect on his sticking around for the 2020 season. But the biggest impact might have come from one of his returning players.
After schools shutdown in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a player came to him with a question about the FCA meetings.
“I had prayed, but I didn’t have peace about going ahead and retiring,” Anderson said. “When one of my kids came up and asked me when we would restart our FCA meetings, that was nail No. 1 in me deciding to coach this season.”
His wife, daughters and Freeman had mentioned to Anderson that the pandemic had already interrupted enough of his players’ lives, and they didn’t need another major disruption.
So, as he’s done throughout his legendary career, Anderson decided to do what’s in the best interests of his players — even telling them on Monday after the Rebels held their first workouts since the COVID-19 shutdown that he was retiring.
He said it was going to come out Thursday during the Vestavia Hills Board of Education meeting that 2020 would be his final season.
“I didn’t want them to find out that way. I wanted them to hear it from me,” Anderson said. “It was very emotional for me, my wife and my daughters.”
But not for his players? “Boys don’t say anything, they just sit there,” he said with a laugh.
A deliberate, thoughtful man, Anderson’s decision came after much soul-searching.
“I knew this day was going to come one day,” he said. “I had been thinking about it and praying about it for a while. I’m at peace that this is going to be my last year.”
Anderson doesn’t know what to expect for his final season nor how the pandemic will affect it. But he knows one thing.
“I don’t want it to be a parade about me,” he said forcefully. “I want it to be about the kids. Every season since I’ve been here has been about that particular team that season.
“I don’t know how much I can control that. I know it will be different, but this season needs to be about this team.”
As long as I have known him, Coach Anderson has always preferred that the spotlight shine elsewhere, so why would his final season be any different?
That’s the man I’ve come to admire and respect.