This was “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” long before there was Ferris Beuller. It was Friday in early March of 1968 and three of us were skipping school to spend the day at Florida Gym watching the eight semifinal games in the state basketball tournament. The man watching the back door of Florida Gym knew me and he let us in without a ticket so we all three had a couple of extra bucks that we would use for lunch over at the College Inn on University Avenue. When Neal Walk came over to our table and said hi to me, we knew we were living large. It just didn’t get any better than that.
Back at Florida Gym after lunch, we were having a great time watching Lake City battle it out with West Palm Beach Roosevelt, which featured Gregory Lowery, the leading scorer in the state. Lake City had only one loss and that was to the Gainesville High School team I played for back in February. Their leading scorer was Scooter Houston, who would sign a scholarship to play for the Gators.
Just before the fourth quarter started, right after Lowery knocked down two more of the 38 points he would score that day, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Not just any hand, mind you. This was a meat hook. I froze in my seat. Then I heard the voice.
There was only one voice like that in the world. It was Coach Niblack. We were doomed. Jim Niblack, the football coach at GHS and the dean of boys, had caught us in the act of skipping school. I turned pale and felt my stomach sink to the bottom of the ocean.
“Damn good game isn’t it?” Niblack asked me.
I kind of nodded my head, wondering how I was going to explain all this to my dad. It was bad enough to get caught skipping school, but getting caught by Coach Niblack made it worse.
“How many points that boy from Roosevelt got right now?” Niblack asked. “Anybody know?”
I told him he was over 25 by now. I wondered when he was going to mention that he had caught me skipping school.
“What’s he averaging … 30-32?” Niblack asked.
I told him he was averaging 33 a game. The shoe was going to drop any moment. I knew it.
“Somebody wanna go get me a cold drink?” he asked. “I think the fourth quarter’s gonna be a humdinger. I need me a cold drink.”
Back in those days you didn’t have a choice at Florida Gym. A cold drink meant a Coke. I jumped up and said, “I’ll be right back Coach!” I sprinted to the concession stand and came back fast as I could.
I brought him that Coke and we sat there together, watching Roosevelt pull off an 86-83 win. Houston had 35 for Lake City in a losing cause. The real difference in the game was Ronnie Nicholson, whom I believe went on to play at Wisconsin.
Jim Niblack never said one word about the three of us skipping school that day. He had fun watching the game with us and he kept telling me he couldn’t wait to get me in the weight room to put some muscle on my skinny arms. Back in those days, believe it or not, I re-defined skinny.
After the game, Coach Niblack saw Coach Ray Graves. Graves waved him to come over to where he was sitting, so Coach Niblack politely excused himself and told us he would see us Monday morning.
Monday morning I went to the dean’s office at GHS to face Coach Niblack. There was no need to offer up a phony excuse or a note from my parents. Niblack had caught me personally. I summoned all the courage I had to walk into his office to face the music. I figured if I was lucky I would get a two-day suspension from school. Skipping school wasn’t a hanging offense in those days, but the consequences were pretty tough. When I walked into Coach Niblack’s office, he just looked up at me and smiled.
“You had the flu Friday?” he asked me.
Something like that I told him.
“Nasty stuff,” he said. “Hope you’re feeling better now.”
He signed the admit slip and handed it to me.
“Get on to class,” he said with a laugh.
It’s funny the things you remember when one of your heroes dies. Jim Niblack was one of my heroes. He died Sunday at his home after a long illness.
Most of you probably never met nor heard of Jim Niblack so let me tell you about him. He was a very big man. He was 6-5 and most of his life, he tipped the scales at 300-plus pounds. You could dress him up but as soon as he could, he was back wearing what made him comfortable — sweat pants, sneakers and either a pullover or a T-shirt. He is best remembered as the football coach at Gainesville High School but he also coached more places and in more leagues than anyone in history except maybe Perry Moss. Perry Moss was Niblack’s buddy. If there is such a thing as tag team coaching gigs, then they are the all-time tag team champs.
In addition to coaching at GHS, where he led the Purple Hurricanes to their only state football championship in 1980, Niblack coached in the World Football League (Jacksonville Sharks and Jacksonville Express), the National Football League (Buffalo Bills); the USFL (Orlando Renegades); the Canadian Football League (couple of teams); NFL Europe; the Arena League (Detroit Drive and a couple of others) and in some other leagues that I don’t remember. He also was an assistant coach at the University of Florida under Doug Dickey and Charley Pell and he was the offensive line coach at Kentucky when the Wildcats actually won the Southeastern Conference Championship.
Niblack was a coaching gypsy. Wherever there was football to be coached, he was there to coach it. You have to be a pretty darn good football coach to coach in as many leagues as he did. I could tell you a lot of stories about his football coaching career, but I think I would overlook what he did best if I spent all my time talking football with you.
What Jim Niblack did best was shape the lives of boys and turn them into men. He used football to lift kids out of the gutter and put them on track to be somebody. He taught you how to be tough. He taught you how to be responsible. He taught you how to be accountable for what you did and don’t blame anyone else for the things you did wrong. He taught you to work hard and when you think you’ve worked as hard as you can, reach down and find something more within you to keep going. He taught you to discipline yourself. He taught you to be a part of a team. He taught you that color doesn’t matter, that the blood is still red and the sweat is still colorless no matter what hue you’re packaged in.
In 1966, Jim Niblack took a skinny sophomore named Eddie McAshan and made him the starting quarterback at GHS. Eddie McAshan became the first black starting quarterback of a previously all-white high school in the state of Florida and that didn’t settle well with some of our locals here in Gainesville. There were death threats to both Eddie and to Coach Niblack. Eddie never showed any fear. That was because Eddie knew that anyone that wanted to do him harm would first have to go through Jumbo Jim and that was a lot easier said than done.
When the KKK tried to burn a cross in the front yard of Niblack’s northwest Gainesville home, he grabbed a baseball bat and charged out of his house swinging. The KKK guys ran as if life depended on it. In reality, it did. Niblack would have killed them all and I can guarantee you there wasn’t a jury in this county that would have convicted him. That’s how well Jim Niblack was respected in this community.
When GHS went to Greenwood, South Carolina to play a football game Eddie’s sophomore year, a hotel manager told Niblack the white kids could stay but the black kids would have to find some other place to stay. Niblack basically told the manager he could stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, boarded the charter bus and ordered the driver to drive to Florida. Before the two GHS buses got to the county line, the Greenwood High School coach and the sheriff pulled the bus over and told Niblack to come on back to the hotel, that the manager had just had a “change of heart” and the whole team was welcome to stay.
The Purple Hurricanes lost that game to the eventual South Carolina state champs. GHS may have lost the game, but Jim Niblack won the hearts of every kid on that team and everyone in the Gainesville community. He was more than a coach. He was someone that stood for all things that are right. You want to know why nobody wanted to play the Purple Hurricanes during Niblack’s era? It’s because every kid on the team would fight till the death if necessary for Coach Niblack. Black kids, white kids … they were just kids to Big Jim and they loved him with all their hearts. You take a well coached team — and believe me, the Purple Hurricanes may have faced teams with more talent but nobody ever out-coached or out-prepared a Niblack team — that would die for the coach and you have a fight on your hands that is more than you ever bargained for.
Boys became men under Jim Niblack and the men became successful in whatever they did. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t run into someone in Gainesville whose life was permanently shaped by Jim Niblack.
A couple of years ago, I was sitting at Ryan’s Steak House (now closed) in Gainesville along with Jack Hairston and Niblack. We were having lunch and talking about this newfangled coach of the Gators, Urban Meyer. I’m guessing our conversation was interrupted 10-15 times as one by one, men came over to shake Jim Niblack’s hand. Niblack would ask how their wives and kids were doing and they would all glow that the coach still knew everything about them.
When it came time to go, they all had the same thing to say: “Coach, thanks for all you did for me. Thanks for making me a man.”
Jim Niblack took boys just like me and helped make men out of us. Gainesville’s a better place — the world’s a better place — because of Coach Niblack.
The football gypsy has found his final coaching gig. My guess is he’s already in the weight room encouraging some skinny kid to pump that iron one more time. He always had a way of getting more out of you than you knew you had. That’s how I will choose to remember him.