By Lee Davis
John Rush has coached football at Pizitz Middle School for 29 years. He’s led the Pirates to many victories and numerous league championships but doesn’t know exactly how many.
For Rush, winning is important, but it’s not why he chose coaching as a profession.
“Not every kid is going to be a big star or even a starter,” Rush said during a break between football camp sessions last week. “Ninety-nine percent of the kids we coach will not play football after high school. So our goal is to see that every kid who plays here has a positive experience and the ones who choose to go on and play at the high school level are prepared to do so.”
Rush’s middle school teams have fed the ultra-successful Vestavia Hills High School program for decades, but the veteran coach said the relationship has been a two-way street.
“I can’t say enough about how great (Vestavia) Coach (Buddy) Anderson and his staff have been to all of us at Pizitz,” Rush said. “Whenever we have a question, the coaches at the high school go out of their way to help. I can’t imagine having a better working relationship.”
The training and intensity for middle school football has evolved over the years. A decade ago, the coaches rarely saw their players during the summer months. Now, middle school players have off-season workouts, just like those at the high school level. Rush said he uses that opportunity to get to know his charges on a personal level.
“To be honest, during the season we are mainly working with the kids that will be seeing the most playing time,” he said. “So I try to use the summer workouts to get to know all the kids, by their first and last names. And I almost always call them by their first name.
“If I call a player by his last name during practice, he knows I’m mad,” Rush added, laughing.
Rush credits former middle school coaches Dickey Wright of Homewood and David Knott of Mountain Brook for the creation of the Metro South League for the improvement of the game at that pre-high school level. The league includes perennial powers Mountain Brook, Simmons, Bumpus, Berry, Homewood, Oak Mountain and Liberty Park, among others.
“Years ago, we played schools we probably should not have been playing,” Rush said. “This league has been good for everybody. If you’re not ready to play, you are going to be beaten. It raised the competition for everyone.”
Although middle school students are just a few years away from high school, they have to be treated a little differently, Rush said.
“If you have to be critical of a kid in middle school, they tend to take it a little more personally,” he said. “In high school, they are more likely to understand that a coach is getting on them to try to make them a better player. That’s why we constantly remind them that we care about them and anything we do is to try to make them a better player and person.”
At age 58, Rush is probably far too modest when he says he doesn’t do much coaching anymore.
“We’re blessed with a great staff,” he said. “I try to stay out of the way and let the coaches coach their positions. Everything is a ‘we’ thing with us. I couldn’t do anything by myself.”
The Pirates’ staff includes John Wyman, Malcolm Prewitt, Tim McCaleb, Mark Woodruff, Steve Favor, Kent Fullington and trainer David McKenzie.
Rush said while he once may have had ambitions of coaching at the high school level, he now believes he has found his calling.
“Being a high school coach had its appeal, but I’ve found my niche here,” he said. “Pizitz is where I’m supposed to be.”
Coaching and athletics have been in Rush’s blood his entire life. A three-sport star at Mountain Brook, he quarterbacked the Spartans to a 7-3 record under Coach Robert Higginbotham in 1974. Rush played varsity baseball at the University of Montevallo before beginning his coaching career at Warrior Academy near Tuscaloosa. His path to Pizitz began in 1981, when he got a call from the late Thompson “Mutt” Reynolds, Vestavia’s athletic director and Pizitz’s head football coach at the time.
“Coach Reynolds asked me what I wanted to do, and I said ‘anything you want,’” said Rush, who was promptly offered jobs as assistant football coach and head basketball coach at Pizitz.
Upon coming to the Vestavia school system, the young coach realized almost immediately that he had made the right move.
“I had played basketball in high school but didn’t know the first thing about coaching it,” Rush said. “George Hatchett had just become the varsity coach at the high school, and he taught me how to teach man-to-man defense and everything else I needed to know to coach basketball.”
In 1986, Reynolds retired as head football coach at Pizitz, and Rush was elevated to the top job.
“I owe a lot to Coach Reynolds,” said Rush, who said he also considers Higginbotham and Anderson to be major influences on his coaching philosophy. “He taught me so much about football and life.”
Rush said he has no plans to retire.
“I work in a great community, with great coaches, parents and kids,” he said. “Why would I want to do anything else?”
No matter how long Rush continues to coach, a quotation from the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant will be one of his guiding principles.
“Coach Bryant said that a kid learns things from football that can’t be taught in a classroom,” he said. “As long as we’re doing that, coaching will be worthwhile for me.”
John Rush may not know his exact win-loss record, but he surely knows what’s most important.