Jim Chafin, a giant of a high school coach and athletic director in central Alabama for five decades, passed away on Saturday at a nursing care facility in Tyler, Texas. He was 92.
The former Robert E. Lee High coach and Trinity Presbyterian athletic director who was inducted into four halls of fame was remembered by area players and coaches as a father figure who weathered the integration era in the early 1970s and transformed a small private school into a championship-caliber athletic program two decades later.
“Coach Jim Chafin was a major positive influence on the lives of so many, especially in Montgomery,” Alabama High School Athletic Association executive director Steve Savarese said. “He was a leader that led by a life of Christian example. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his wife of 69 years, Joan Hackney, their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, their extended family and friends.
“He was an outstanding coach who dedicated his life to teaching the merits of hard work and determination to the student-athletes entrusted in his care and teaching values that helped them become outstanding adults.”
James Robert Chafin, or J.R. as his wife called him, was born in Albertville on April 1, 1928 (leading to his induction in the Marshall County Sports Hall of Fame in 2009) and later became a football star at Jacksonville State, where he met Joan. He was later selected for the Jacksonville State University Distinguished Award in 1995.
He went into coaching and teaching at Isabella High School in 1949 (while still at Jacksonville State), but when the Korean War started Chafin joined the United States Air Force and was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery where he coached the military athletic teams.
In 1954, he resumed his coaching career at Sidney Lanier, becoming an assistant football coach under Doug Moseley and head baseball coach for the Poets. The baseball team won the state championship.
By the next year, a new school in east Montgomery was opening on Ann Street and Chafin took his talents to Robert E. Lee, coaching the Generals’ baseball team and serving as a football assistant under Tom Jones. During the school’s first 11 years, the pair teamed up to compile a remarkable 92-12-5 record on the gridiron, including five state championships in the pre-playoff era. Five of those 17 setbacks (three losses and two ties) came at the hands of the Poets.
By 1966, Chafin took over the reins of the Generals and compiled a 51-13-2 mark, making history along the way. While four of those losses were in his first four meetings with the Poets, the battle between the top two ranked teams in the 1966 regular season finale drew a sellout crowd of 25,000. Lanier, which won 10-0, hosted the first AHSAA playoff game in history the following Friday with a 47-7 win over Shades Valley, while Lee won the second playoff game a day later by crushing Huntsville 46-7.
The televised rematch, staged in front of 23,000 fans, was won by the Poets 9-7 after a last-second field goal attempt by the Generals fell short to give the Poets the 4A state championship.
One of Chafin’s players in that game, who went on to an AHSAA Hall of Fame career of his own at Lee, credited the coach’s leadership for his later development as a coach in central Alabama.
“I’ve never known a man as consistent living his life the right way as Coach Chafin,” said Spence McCracken. “I learned to coach by watching him teach. I am a better man because of him.”
By 1969, Chafin broke his Poet jinx by routing Lanier 35-0 in front of 22,000 fans on the way to the 4A state championship, beating Berry in the title game at Legion Field.
Chafin, now the king of the hill in the state, faced his next obstacle a year later when a state championship team returning much of its talent was forced to integrate. In his usual firm but level demeanor, Chafin won that battle as well.
“When I integrated to Lee in 1970, he was one of the first that I met,” said George Pugh, a quarterback at Booker T. Washington who became a receiver at Lee and went on to star at Alabama. “The way he embraced me, my entire family and brothers, he became my second father. He meant so much to me as a total person, both on and off the field.
“Coach Chafin and the staff and the entire Lee administration made the transition very easy because of the man he was. It was a transition as if it was an everyday thing. My teammates – Ricky Stallings, Lee Gross, Mike Washington, Knute Elmore, Lee Gross just to name a few – didn’t know the difference. We knew we had to be good people first. The rest of it was easy. We did what we had to do. The people around me made it easier.”
Elmore’s relationship with the coach continued throughout the remainder of Chafin’s life.
“He was a very special person,” Elmore said. “He was like another father to me. If I had any problem or needed anything, all I had to do is call him and he’d do his best to help you out.”
Just as the Generals had challenged Lanier’s supremacy, Lee had a new challenge in 1970. The Generals defeated Jeff Davis High 12-0 in front of 18,000 fans and rolled through the playoffs unbeaten to win the 4A state title, becoming the first 13-0 team in AHSAA history.
Chafin carried a 32-game winning streak into his final season, 1971, then stepped away from coaching to become the first athletics director for the Montgomery County school system. He was inducted into the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 1992, the Montgomery Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Robert E. Lee High Hall of Fame in 1995. He was awarded the Alabama Football Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
St. James coach Jimmy Perry didn’t get a chance to play for Chafin, suffering a season-ending knee injury prior to Chafin’s final season, but knew the coach through his reputation and his strong affinity for high school football.
“He was a great guy, super respected by everybody, highly thought of by everyone in the profession,” Perry said. “He was just a great man.”
By 1982, Chafin was itching for a new challenge and was brought out of retirement to serve as athletic director at Trinity Presbyterian School. The school had been a member of the Alabama Private School Association before becoming an AHSAA-member school in 1977-78. Chafin was hired by then-headmaster Brian Willett in 1982 to take the school to another level.
“Boy, we had some horrible issues,” Willett recalled. “The year before Chafin came, we had a football team of 13 players. Parents were unhappy. We had a great coaching staff and good athletes who really, really wanted to do right, it just wasn’t coming together. After that football season, it became very apparent that things had to change.”
The late Skip Skipworth was the loudest voice Willett heard in ensuing discussions, repeatedly suggesting that Willett should talk to Chafin. So he did.
“I basically just said, we need somebody who can take hold of what we’ve got and take it to the level we need to be to compete in the public-school league,” Willett recalled. “He got up and said, ‘Yeah, I think the job’s for me.’ I just remember him being so matter of fact. Literally, almost from the day he stepped on campus, there was a difference in the athletic program.”
The young coaches, now older and wiser, look back on the era and realize Chafin was exactly what was needed, even if they didn’t know it at the time.
“We were in the beginning stages,” recalled Elisa Bowden, who was hired by the school in 1976. “I was hired to get the girls’ sports going. I was the only female on the staff and not that many guys were fulltime coaches. Coach came in and I wouldn’t say we were floundering, but he brought knowledge, he brought expertise, he brought structure, he brought work ethic.
“He stayed in the background, but he made us all look good.”
Chafin’s persuasive leadership was inspirational to watch, Bowden added, particularly when he approached the school’s booster club to raise funds for the football stadium.
“We had old wooden bleachers and he sold those parents that night,” she said. “They were telling him they’d give $200, they’d give $500. I sat on my hands, I was scared to scratch my nose that night. I was too young to have the money, but old enough to know not to move because he had them all excited. But he did it all so graciously. He said first we’ll start little and put the concrete pad down, then with the next phase we can get the bleachers in. They raised that money fast. Because of him.”
Throughout his life, Chafin stayed true to his Christian convictions, serving as a deacon at Morningview Baptist Church and teaching Sunday School for more than 50 years.
“That man was my Sunday School teacher at Morningview Baptist Church,” said Trinity baseball coach Ken Whittle, who had been with the Wildcats for four years before Chafin joined the athletic department. “Beckie and I were a young couple and Joanie didn’t come to class but she was there when he needed her. They guided us as a young couple on this trip through coaching and being married to a coach. She guided Beckie in areas and Coach Chafin guided me in areas that only Coach Chafin could guide. I was blessed to see a man who was very, very tough but very, very loving. I saw a man that lived it on Sunday but also lived it during the week at Trinity.
“I have a fantastic dad and I love my dad, but Coach Chafin was kind of a father figure as well because he had been through things as a coach and he could share those things with me on how to handle those things.”
Whittle started the Wildcats’ baseball program in 1982, going 1-9 with a group of underclassmen.
“We were in a transition time of understanding the competition we had gotten into,” Whittle said. “We’re getting hammered left and right in basketball and football. That guy (Chafin) had won a state championship in baseball and football and knew what to do. I was clueless. I was just trying to survive. You know what? He never chastised me. He just shared with me how to go about it – how to teach it, how to love on the kids, how to work hard and how to show up earlier than everybody else.”
Chafin made his biggest hire in 1989, bringing Randy Ragsdale in as the Wildcats’ new football coach. Chafin would step down from his job three years later, handing over the reins of athletic director to another former Lee coach, Jim Tuley.
“He and Joanie made the choice to allow me to move in with them on Sunday night through Friday afternoon for three months,” Ragsdale said. “They gave me a key to their house. He didn’t know me, I didn’t know them, but they were willing to open up their home to me for three months until our house sold in Dothan.
“If you came to him with something, he would always ask you questions back. As a young coach, you’re always wanting somebody to give you the answer. He was always one to come back with questions to get you to think, to get you to study it. He had a vision of what Trinity could become and the work ethic and the ability to be able to put it into place.”
Through it all, Chafin remained a constant source of inspiration and guidance. Even Willett, who worked alongside Chafin as his boss, was treated differently when it came to his daughters, who excelled in athletics for the Wildcats.
“He’d call me down (to his office),” Willett said, “and say, ‘OK, Willett, you’re not the headmaster anymore, you’re a parent. I’m going to tell you like I tell all the other parents.’ He would lay into me about my own daughters. He was phenomenal, always was positive. Even the most painful, difficult situations, I always felt people left feeling as good as they could about it. He was just exceptional.”
Chafin and Joanie moved to Tyler, Texas in 2013 to be closer to family, where their daughter Cindy Dykes and her husband David could take care of Chafin’s health needs. In addition to Joanie, Cindy and David, Jim Chafin is survived by son Jim Chafin Jr.; granddaughter Jenni Holman and her husband Jason; granddaughter Laura Grace Dykes; grandson Robby Chafin and wife Erin; and great grandchildren Lizzie Holman, Caroline Holman, Ada Liner, Grant Holman, Cecilia Chafin and Robert Chafin.
Services will be held in Tyler on Tuesday morning, followed by a memorial service at the Chapel of Green Acres Baptist Church at 2 p.m.