MONTGOMERY – Dwight Sanderson faced what seemed to be insurmountable odds when he became the head football coach at Notasulga High School in 1967.
By the time his tenure at the school had concluded, however, the community would describe his time at the Macon County schools as “Ten Years of Glory.”
Sanderson is one of 12 individuals in the Class of 2017 being inducted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame banquet will be Monday, March 20, at the Montgomery Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center.
He graduated from Clay County High School in 1959 and from Jacksonville State in 1964. He also earned a master’s degree in administration and supervision from Troy University.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he returned to his home town of Ashland to begin his teaching and coaching career. After two years as an assistant he went to Thompson High School in the same capacity.
In 1967 he accepted the head football coach position at Notasulga High School. Few people ever started a head-coaching career under more difficult circumstances. Integration had come hard to the community. Just before the start of school in 1964, the Notasulga school was burned to the ground and the football season was cancelled.
The 1965 team failed to score a point in going 0-9. The 1966 team did score several times but finished 0-10. This was the climate Sanderson faced in 1967 – an athletic program in shambles and a community torn by racial divide. Macon County School Board member Karey M. Thompson recalled how Sanderson helped turn that bleak situation around. His first team won just one game.
“When he came to Notasulga we were in the middle of integration,” Thompson said. “As I watched 50 State Trooper cars (two Troopers per car) line the street in front of the school four years earlier as black students were bussed in, then only weeks later the burning of the high school, I never dreamed we would continue past the sixth grade. As the school was built back, we became segregated again.
“Coach Sanderson arrived as I became a sophomore. He played a major role, along with some other teachers moving into integration, displaying the people person in him. He would pick up these black kids for football practice and take them home. Remember the circumstances – 100 Troopers, burning of the school earlier – this was a big issue. Black parents had to learn to trust him…He had a major role in taking two races and molding them into one student body in full harmony.”
Thompson and Sanderson became good friends and fishing buddies over the years. They had many conversations about the needs of the students.
“I remember something he said when talking about a certain player,” Thompson said. “You have to show them you love them. This player would not have played if it wasn’t for that. This player was Gerald Williams. He played for Auburn University and went on to the pros. Thinking back over my football years, we knew a lot of different sets. Being a small school, he would have to run an offense that fit the talent – wishbone, I-formation, veer, T-formation, etc., My older brother would always say Coach Sanderson was an offensive genius, and I would have to agree.”
Gerald Robinson, who went on to become Auburn’s all-time sack leader and nine-year NFL player, also played for Sanderson at Notasulga.
“I have played football basically all of my life,” Robinson said. “Coach Sanderson helped me grow as a person and as an athlete. I was awarded a football scholarship to Auburn University…Coach Sanderson played a major part. I have had plenty of good coaches, bad coaches and mediocre coaches. However, I have only had one great and unforgettable coach and that was Coach Sanderson. “Coach Sanderson coached to win and no matter how hard we try, we can’t separate coaching from wins and losses. If you don’t win, it is hard to make the argument that you were a great coach. Coach Sanderson was a great and skillful man and had profound impact on the lives of those who played for him.”
Robinson said Sanderson taught him about much more than playing football.
“Outside of my immediate family, Coach Sanderson has had as much of an impact on my character development as anyone,” Robinson added. “He taught me how to be a man and how to win with grace and lose with grit and determination. I often thank God for putting Coach Sanderson in my path.”
Despite the healing efforts, it was a long struggle for Sanderson. His first four teams were 8-31. Then came 1971 and a 4-5-1 finish, the beginning of what some refer to as “Ten Years of Glory.” That nearly break-even season was followed by nine consecutive winning seasons and five trips to the state playoffs. The 1977 team was Class 1A state runner-up, setting a school record with 11 victories.
Sanderson’s overall record at Notasulga was 85-56-2.
Like any good coach, his influence was felt off the field and in the classroom as much as it was on the field. Another former student, Willie A. Cameron, described Sanderson’s impact on his life.
“As an educator, Coach Sanderson expressed the importance of education in a community that was economically disadvantaged,” Cameron said. “Also, he instilled in the students and athletes a sense of power and confidence. Because of Coach Sanderson, many students excelled on a collegiate and professional level through education and athletics. He has made a positive impact in the community, state and country. Personally, under his direct influence, I was the first member of my family to obtain a college degree, followed by my three young siblings who have also obtained college degrees.”
In 1981 Sanderson moved to Valley High School and coached the Rams to a 15-15 record over three years. He then spent nine years at Chambers County High in Milltown before retiring from the Alabama system. His remaining career was spent in across the state border in Calhoun, GA.
Sunday: The final installment of a 12-Part Hall of Fame series: Baker High School softball coach Tony Scarbrough.