NOTE: This is the eighth installment in a series introducing the AHSAA Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2015. Look for football coach John Tatum’s profile Tuesday. Tickets for the 25th AHSAA HOF Banquet set for March 23 at the Montgomery Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center are still available to the public by calling 334-263-6994 by March 16. Tickets will not be sold at the door and mail order ticket deadline has passed.
By BILL PLOTT
A native of Sylacauga, Philip Stephen Rivers graduated from Sylacauga High School in 1967 and Mississippi State in 1971. An all-round athlete at Sylacauga, he played football under AHSAA Hall of Fame Coach Tom Calvin and also participated in basketball and tennis, captaining all three teams his senior years. He won the state tennis doubles championship in 1967 and was all-county in both football and basketball. He played in the North-South All-Star game in 1967, an event he would later coach.
He received a scholarship to Mississippi State University where he played football and was later a graduate assistant.
He started his teaching and coaching career as an assistant football coach at Decatur High School in 1972. He got his early training as a football coach under another AHSAA Hall of Famer, Earl Webb. He also served as tennis coach for four years and as assistant basketball coach for a year.
Coach Rivers got his first head football coach job at Pelham High School in 1979. In two years at Pelham he compiled a 9-11 record.
In 1981 he returned to Decatur, this time as head football coach. After two struggling years, he turned the program around, producing a 6-4 mark in 1983 and a 10-3 record in 1985. He had had additional 10 and 11-win seasons as Decatur went to the state playoffs eight times. Two of his teams advanced to the quarterfinals. His overall record at Decatur was 103-59.
While at Decatur he was instrumental in establishing the first weight room, building a new field house and installing new full-length practice field.
After 15 years at Decatur, he moved to Athens where he had four straight winning seasons and state playoff appearances. Three of those teams had double digit wins and two of them advanced to the quarterfinals of the playoffs. While at Athens he was instrumental in the installation of a new dressing room, weight room and practice fields.
In 2000 he retired from coaching in Alabama, moving to a brand new high school in Wakefield, NC. In four years he carried Wakefield from a JV-only beginning to the semifinals of the of the largest school state playoffs. His record there was 36-16 with three playoff appearances.
Also, in Wakefield, he and his wife Joan watched their son Philip, who quarterbacked his dad’s Athens team, play football at North Carolina State. Philip has spent the past several years as the starting quarterback of the San Diego Chargers in the National Football League.
An athletic family, their son Stephen has been a quarterback in the SEC, playing at LSU for three years. He earned his degree in three years and played the 2014 season at Vanderbilt while attending graduate school. Their daughter Anna is an avid tennis player.
“Current Decatur head football coach, Jere Adcock, wrote about his experience as an assistant under Rivers. “Coach Rivers’ greatest contributions as a coach were not in the win and loss column, but rather in the lives of his players and assistant coaches. His teams were known for hard hitting defenses, sound kicking game, and the ability to run the football. He took less than average players and made them play average. He took average players and made them play good and took good players and made them play great. He demanded academic success out of them and emphasized it continuously. He focused young men to play for the name of their school and not seek individual notoriety. H had a unique ability to mesh the talented and untalented into a team that played together. A plaque in the field house in his honor has the following inscription written by his former players:
“ ‘Leader, gentleman, father figure – Coach Rivers was a master at getting the most out of his players, teaching us to play as one, to love and respect the man next to you like a brother, and that life was more than football. Many of the attributes we carry today are a credit to him and his leadership. His passion and love for the game are the reasons we were successful on the field as players and in the game of life.’”
Adcock added, “He taught his coaches also. When his assistant coaches took a head coaching position they were prepared for the task….When discussing Coach Rivers we all refer to his soundness of fundamental football, his handling of players, and his competitive spirit. As he coached players he also coached us. We marveled at how he handled players. He knew when to press and when to back off. He taught us the responsibility of a teacher and to respect the authorities that had given us our jobs. Just as he taught the players that there was more to life than football, he taught coaches the same thing.
“One of my favorite stories occurred when one of our coaches did not stop to greet his wife after a frustrating loss. Coach Rivers told him to go back and see her. He impressed upon him the importance of family over football. Another time we suffered a frustrating loss that occurred because a player decided to go against a play designed to stop the clock. In the Sunday film session and team meeting, Coach Rivers talked about seeing one of our players as an altar boy at church and the importance of things like that over football. That young man later became a priest.”