Who remembers the spring of 1980?
Hostages were being held in Iran, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and much of the world couldn’t wait to find out who shot J.R. Ewing.
And Rick Grammer won his first game as head coach of the Vestavia Hills High School boys’ soccer team.
After 34 years, five U.S. Presidents and a “Dallas” reboot later, Grammer is still guiding the Rebels to victories. He claimed his 600th career win when Vestavia routed Pelham 6-0 on March 20.
While Grammer was characteristically modest and gracious about the achievement, the milestone was probably bigger than he knew: According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, he is one of only 10 boys’ soccer coaches to achieve 600 or more wins.
Grammer’s arrival to the summit of 600 victories was greeted with an appropriate celebration after the game, but the veteran coach was eager to toss the credit in other directions.
“I’m fortunate to get good players to play for me,” he said. “God has blessed me in so many ways. These wins are not a tribute to me. They are a tribute to all these players. I always seem to get good players who are also good kids.”
Grammer’s resume also includes Class 6A state titles in 1991, 1995 and 2013. The Rebels are among the favorites to claim the title in the new season.
Grammer’s span of victories began 11 years before soccer was officially sanctioned as a championship sport by the Alabama High School Athletic Association. While he has seen much in 34 years, he said the biggest change has been the improvement in the overall quality of soccer in the state.
“Now with kids playing one sport all year, there’s more specialization and they have more expertise in their particular sport,” he said. “That’s kind of reflected by the fact that you are now seeing players from Alabama get college scholarships for soccer.”
Vestavia’s trophy case may be jammed with soccer-related hardware, but Grammer said the most satisfying achievements come in flesh and blood.
“I really like it when a former player from two or three or five years ago comes back to see a game and talk,” he said. “It’s great to learn how they are doing and think maybe our program had something to do with getting them prepared for life. That’s what it’s supposed to be all about. It’s really nice when they come and visit.”
If Vestavia alumni come back to see the current Rebels play, they are in for a treat. Grammer likes his 2014 team.
“When we are clicking on all cylinders, we are a very good group,” he said. “We are certainly beatable. But when we are focused, we have a chance to be a very good high school soccer team.”
As much as Grammer would love to add a fourth state championship to his collection in May, he’s not aiming to reach the even more exclusive 700-win plateau.
“I’m going to retire after next season,” he said. “Thirty-five years is long enough.”
The longevity of Grammer’s tenure at Vestavia is a typical example of the continuity that has served the Rebel program so well for decades.
Buddy Anderson, the football coach since 1978 and athletic director, has 308 career wins. George Hatchett, the boys’ basketball coach since 1981, has nearly 600 wins to his credit. Add Grammer’s 600 total, and that’s three coaches combining for nearly 1500 wins. Where–at any level–can you find a number like that?
Much has been written about why Vestavia has had so much stability and success over the years, and certainly the continuity of coaches and programs has been a tremendous factor. And it’s not just with the head coaches. Grammer has also worked with the Rebel football program since the 1970s, and longtime assistant Peter Braasch has been at Anderson’s side for every game since 1978.
Vestavia’s coaches often talk about the spirit of camaraderie at the school, saying that there is none of the inter-athletic program infighting that is characteristic of some places. The long answer, however, may be more basic: Vestavia Hills High School is simply a good place to work.
The system’s administration, with athletic director Anderson as the point man, creates an atmosphere that’s conducive to success. That winning combination isn’t unique to Vestavia, but nobody does it better in terms of keeping first-rate coaches in place for decades than the Rebel brass.
And maybe there’s another reason that isn’t so apparent. No coaching staff anywhere works any harder than Vestavia’s, but the coaches, like the athletes, are allowed to have a life outside of sports. During the summer months, for example, Anderson’s football players are excused from off-season work to go on family vacations or church mission trips.
Even Grammer, in the wake of his historic victory, took a moment to play movie critic.
“Have you seen ‘God Is Not Dead’?” he asked a friend. “It’s a great movie. I highly recommend it. I really enjoy going to the movies–I particularly like the true stories or war movies like ‘Band of Brothers,’ ‘The Longest Day,’ ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘The Great Escape.’ But you need to see ‘God Is Not Dead.’ It’s really good.”
The fact that one of the nation’s top high school soccer coaches is also an avid movie fan may tell you everything about why Vestavia’s program is so successful.
So do you remember what you were doing in the spring of 1980? Rick Grammer surely does. He was doing just what he’s doing now–developing young men and winning.