By MIKE WILLIAMS
Back in September of 2011, this writer had the honor of interviewing Joel Hicks for a series of articles we called “Catching Up With… .”
We reprint it this week to provide some insight into who Joel Hicks was, his thoughts on retirement and Cougar football.
It’s been nearly ten years since Joel Hicks coached the Pulaski County Cougars. But every year, when August rolls around, he still gets that urge to break out the pads and helmets and begin practice for yet another season of high school football.
“Every August I still get that urge to coach, yes sir,” Hicks said. “I even schedule my vacation to go in August. It gets me away from everything. I don’t think an August ever passes that I don’t think about it really. I look back now it’s been almost ten years. It’s just flown by.”
Hicks stepped down from the head coaching job following a 5-5 season in 2002.
The five wins that season gave him 301 for his 36-year career as a head coach in West Virginia and Virginia, with 209 of his victories coming at Pulaski County.
His Cougars won 15 district titles and six regional crowns.
That final 2002 season was exactly 10 years removed from 1992 – arguably the greatest season for Pulaski County football. It was that year Hicks’ Cougars brought home the state championship following a 35-20 win in Richmond over Thomas Dale High School.
“Thinking now,” said Hicks, “I could have coached longer, health-wise. What was happening to me was I was starting to lose sleep. I couldn’t sleep. It was starting to be a stressful thing. I was so competitive. For my health it was probably better that I quit. But there’s no question I miss it (coaching). I could have done it. Sometimes I even get the urge to. I’d like to not do practice, then go out and coach on Friday night,” Hicks said with a laugh.
Returning to coaching actually was a possibility last summer. Head coach and one of Hicks’ former Cougars, Jack Turner, had resigned just weeks before pre-season practice was set to begin. Pulaski County had been hit by Virginia High School League sanctions, and Cougar football was in a state of disarray.
With so little time left before the start of practice for the 2010 season, the possibility of Hicks’ stepping in to coach the team on an interim basis at least was mentioned.
“Dr. (Robert) Becker (School Superintendent) called me and that was mentioned,” Hicks stated. “But I agreed it would probably be better not to go in that direction. It was very attractive and I appreciated even being considered,” Hicks said.
“If they hadn’t found the right guy I probably would have done it, if it had come down to they needed me to do that. But we (Hicks and Becker) both felt ‘let’s find somebody who’d want to be there and do it,”’ Hicks said.
So what’s Hicks’ take on his former players – Turner and present coach Todd Jones – who have taken over the Cougar football program since his retirement?
“They are both great people. They both have Pulaski County at their heart. Todd is a great guy, good for the kids. Pulaski County means more to Jack than anything. I wish them both well,” Hicks said.
Have they consulted with him about football?
“Oh, yeah they’ve both talked to me, but when I walked away I walked away,” said Hicks. “I’ve not watched one minute of practice. Since the day I walked out I’ve not been to one practice. I don’t think you can be hanging around. I don’t think it’s the thing to do. I just think that when you leave you ought to leave. That makes me better friends with them. I don’t want to be where I can second-guess them or look over their shoulders or say something that someone misquotes and hurt their feelings. I wouldn’t do that for the world. When I walked out of there I walked out. I did scout the first year for Jack, but I’m more interested now in how to hit that fairway wood than I am about how to block,” Hicks said with a big smile.
And speaking of the fairway, Hicks has a new passion in retirement. Golf.
“Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays I play golf. That golf has got me. I have discovered golf,” Hicks said with emphasis and a grin.
“I’m not great at it, that’s for sure. We have about 12 guys I play with, sometimes 16 even. We play down at the River Course. It takes four and a half hours to five hours to play a round of golf. I get up, take my dog for a walk, and then hit that golf course.”
He notes that, even in winter, if the temperature rises above 40 degrees, he’ll be playing golf.
Golf joins another of his favorite past-times – running and marathons.
“On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I run,” Hicks explained. “I run a lot. I’m still running as much as I ever did,” noting the runs are made – rain or shine.
Each day he runs he has a different routine. Tuesday is speed work, Thursday is a tempo run, while Saturday is a long-distance run.
“Whatever the next race is I’ll kind of run that race on Thursdays,” Hicks explained. “I won’t run as fast a pace as I’m going to try to run it on race day.”
On Saturday, Hicks and a half-dozen other guys will meet at Bisset Park in Radford for distance work.
“We stay in about half-marathon shape and that will be our long distance day. We’ll run a minimum of 10 miles, up to 14. That’s every Saturday,” Hicks said, adding that by staying in half-marathon shape, it takes less time and work to get completely ready to run the upcoming marathon.
“I don’t have to start from rock-bottom,” he said.
Hicks recently competed in marathons in Louisville, Kentucky, Galax and Charleston, W.Va. He set course records in his age group in both the Louisville and Galax runs, although he hesitated to mention the records for fear it sounded like bragging. Hicks doesn’t brag about his accomplishments.
Last Saturday Hicks and the other runners braved heat and humidity in the West Virginia capitol of Charleston for a 15-mile marathon. Hicks finished third in his age group.
“On Friday it was 101-degrees in Charleston. I got up Saturday morning early to run and at 7:30 in the morning it was 75-degrees and 97 percent humidity,” Hicks said. The Charleston run featured a steep hill at the beginning of its course, dubbed “Capitol Punishment Hill.”
“That just about go me. It was brutal,” Hicks said. “It wasn’t as much fun as some of those other races.”
Next on his race schedule is a half-marathon in Beckley, W.Va. around the first of October, and a half-marathon on Oct. 24 in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“The course there is level and the temperatures are nice. That will be a lot more fun,” Hicks said.
Outside of golf and running, Hicks still teaches. He is one of the many local retired teachers who commit to working 30 days a year as a substitute teacher in order to keep their insurance.
Hicks likes getting back to school and seeing the teachers, plus it helps fill his winter days.
Aside from golf, running and substitute teaching there is family.
His son T.J. lives and works in Newport Beach, Calif.
“I don’t get to see him as much. He has two little boys. He was 42 before he had any children. I didn’t think he was going to have any,” Hicks said. The two boys are 1- and 2-years-old.
“Amy lives in Charleston, W.Va. where she works for Progressive Insurance. They’re both doing real well,” Hicks said.
And of course there’s his wife, Melinda.
“Melinda is still putting up with me. Bless her heart,” Hicks said.
Hicks has been quoted as saying, “If it hadn’t been for Melinda, I would have probably ended up in a pool hall in Richwood, W.Va.”
Hicks points to the opportunity to coach his son in a state high school all-star game one summer as probably his proudest moment as a football coach.
“I’ve got a lot of good memories. All the district wins and the state championship. But I still go back to that game personally because of my son,” Hicks said.
Which Cougar team was his best?
“We had won the state title (in 1992 vs. Thomas Dale). That next year we had a lot of people back and we went undefeated, but got beat in the state final by Anandale,” Hicks recalled.
“The best team didn’t win the state championship,” he said bluntly. “We got upset in the state championship game, but it was such a miserable day. Minus-40 degrees with the windchill. We had lost (star running back) Eric Webb. We lost him against Indians River the week before.
“We best the best team in the state in Indian River up here,” Hicks said.
“Anandale wasn’t the best team, but on that day they beat us. I just didn’t think there was much football played in that championship game. The wind was blowing so bad. They caught a touchdown pass … the ball was 20 yards outside the field, but the wind took it right back into that guy’s hands,” Hicks recalled.
That 1993 team lost to Anandale 14-7 and finished the season with a 13-1 record, including a 24-7 win over Indian River.
“That was probably one of my better teams,” Hicks stated.
While he still goes to games, Hicks prefers watching the Cougars play away from Kenneth J. Dobson Stadium.
“It’s still hard for me to go to games. You watch those kids go down those (Dobson Stadium) steps … oh man, it’s tough,” he said.
What does the future hold?
“I’ll die right here in Pulaski County,” Hicks said emphatically. “I’ll run, play golf and just try to enjoy life here – what I have left of it. I’ll just run til the end of the highway.”