Higgins remembered as an offensive guru

John Higgins' last stop in a remarkable 34-year coaching career was as the quarterback coach at Success Unlimited Academy.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Cramton Bowl for John Higgins, the founder of the Brewbaker Tech athletic program and an innovative offensive assistant who worked with some of the state’s top high school coaches for four decades in the central Alabama area.

Higgins passed away on April 18 after a two-year battle with glioblastoma.

“He was a beautiful character and the world was a better place with him in it,” said Bill Granger, who worked with Higgins at four different programs over that span. “And if you didn’t like him, there was something wrong with you.”

Higgins quarterbacked Hooper Academy to three consecutive trips to the state finals in 1973-75 and credits head coach George Cochran’s influence on him for Higgins’ decision to get into coaching. He went to the University of Miami, where he was part of a quarterback room that would include future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.

“He was not even on the depth chart,” Granger said. “If he was, he was No. 6, out of sight. Injuries started happening and all of a sudden he’s third on the freshman team. They played a scrimmage against the varsity and he just lit it up. He was John. And if he hadn’t had a really bad ankle injury, he was in the top three with the varsity.

“Maybe the way he treated quarterbacks (as a coach) was he saw himself in them. His hero was Joe Montana and John says, ‘he couldn’t throw it 40 yards but he had four rings. You can have an 80-yard touchdown pass and throw it 15 yards. Get it to him in the right place at the right time and let him do his thing.’ He saw physical attributes not through the same lens that others do.”

Higgins left a lasting legacy among the quarterbacks he coached, with several of them later becoming coaches themselves.

“He was one of a kind,” said Benjamin Russell coach Aubrey Blackwell, a quarterback at Robert E. Lee under Higgins in 1999. “He was just as genuine and caring as you can find. I just remember as a kid, I wanted to sit in the film room with him or ride in a car with him so he would tell me some Miami stories. He had all kinds of stories.

“My senior year, I got really close with him because when I had my season-ending shoulder injury, I went to the (press) box with him. That’s when I fell in love with coaching.”

Higgins got his start in coaching under Charles Sikes at Sidney Lanier in 1986, the first of four coaching stops he shared with Granger. The pair would later be reunited at Lanier in 1995-96 under Robert Fuller.

After his initial stop at Lanier, he went to Goodwyn Junior High, then to Benjamin Russell to work with Steve Savarese.

“He was an awesome individual,” Savarese said, “a really good coach who was really great with the kids. I’m shocked.”

It was the first of two stops at Benjamin Russell. He returned in 2005 and 2006 to work with Willie Carl Martin.

After stops at Georgia Washington, Lanier and Capitol Heights, he made a stop at Robert E. Lee, helping the Jimmy Perry’s Generals to the state finals in 1999.

“He was a great guy,” Perry said. “He had a real good offensive mind and a good grasp of the passing game. He added a lot of value to us at Lee. I’m just so sad for Melanie and the kids. John was a good man.”

Spain Park wrestling coach Matt Thompson followed Higgins from Capitol Heights to Lee.

“He had come over to Capitol Heights and I was a young guy, just starting my career,” Thompson recalled. “He was just a free spirit, always upbeat. I learned a lot of football from him and actually learned a lot of track from him. He influenced me in my coaching. You always pick up little traits that are a little bit of the way you carry yourself to all the people you come in contact with.”

By 2000, Higgins was at Brewbaker Tech, serving as the magnet school’s first athletic director and charged with determining which athletic programs to establish for the Rams. He hired Chauncey Shines as the boys’ basketball coach and planned to install football at the school, but there was a difference of opinion and soon Higgins was off to another destination as Shines took over as athletic director.

“John was definitely a free spirit,” Granger said. “There’s only been one. He was a results-driven coach. He had a way to talk to quarterbacks that was so calming. He could talk to them in a way that they wanted to please him.

“He was a great competitor and a great talent, but he never had to tell you about it. He was a good leader but you just knew it. What I liked the most about John was he treated every single person with the same amount of respect and he was kind.”

He went to Brewbaker Junior High, became the head coach at Dallas County (2007, 2008), worked at Beauregard for Smitty Grider in 2009 and later found his way to Beulah as an offensive coordinator. From there, he was an assistant at Straughn (2015, 2016), was elevated to head coach (2017, 2018), then was hired by Granger at Success Unlimited Academy in 2019, where he remained until his medical condition forced him to step down in early 2020.

Through it all, he remained upbeat and positive, an inspiration to those who knew him.

“He was right with the Lord always,” Blackwell said. “He knew where his final destination was. That’s why he had peace about it. I hate it for his beautiful wife and his kids. He had a great family and he was an awesome family man. He never let a day go by without letting everyone know how much he cared about them. That was one of the things I learned the most from him.”

Coming full circle, the last accomplishment achieved by Higgins was his induction this past fall into the Hooper Academy Hall of Honor.

“He found a way, with every kid, to find something that made his relationship with you different than the rest of the coaches,” Blackwell said. “Everybody knew Coach Hig in a different way. You were unique to him and that mattered to him.”

In lieu of flowers the family is requesting that donations be made to Brantwood Children’s Home at 1309 Upper Wetumpka Road, Montgomery, AL 36107.