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No. 38

With Ron Cherubini

Jerry Tolley:
A Pirate Prodigy

Stas-era star may be the greatest
football coach to emerge from the
ranks of East Carolina players

Editor's Note: This "Pirate Time Machine" feature article was originally published exclusively in print in last summer's Bonesville Magazine. This is the first time the article, which is reproduced here with permission, has appeared online. Click the thumbnail image (left) to view an enlarged screen-capture of the magazine's cover.

By Ron Cherubini
©2005, 2006

Photo: ECU SID

As a Pirate football player in the early 1960's, Jerry Tolley was an extraordinary kick returner, a wingback in the vaunted Stasavich Single Wing, and a mainstay in a defensive backfield that still holds two all-time records at East Carolina and a seat in the school's athletics Hall of Fame.

As a collegiate coach at Elon, he led the Fighting Christians to two NAIA National Championships.

As a pioneering author, he has penned several football coaching and strategy books.

Along the way, he has managed to squeeze in a term as mayor, lead an effort to build a unique handicap-accessible environmental park, serve as a corporate vice president and lead the effort to build a foundation at Elon.

In his free time… he is an avid tennis player and landscaper.

If you get the sense that his motor is constantly revving on the high side, you have pretty much figured out Coach Jerry Tolley.

Though the town and college of Elon, North Carolina, have been the largest benefactors of Tolley’s lifelong effort, there is no mistaking where this born leader honed his skills, philosophies, and gumption. He is a Pirate in every sense of the word and is the first to credit his experiences on the field, among the coaches and within the Pirate family for making him the effective leader he has been for the 40+ years he’s been away from his alma mater.

Hailing from a small community in Edenton, NC, Tolley’s life has been dedicated to making a difference in small communities like then-East Carolina College and Elon where he has been a mechanism for change since settling in back in 1967 when he became an assistant coach of Red Wilson’s Fighting Christians football staff.

With all of his accomplishments following his career at East Carolina, it is easy to forget that Tolley, as a player, was a talent in his own right.

Football and growing up in Edenton

Growing up in a small town like Edenton, where at the time the population hovered around 5,000, suited the young Tolley who thrived athletically in the tight-knit town.

“Well, Edenton was a very small town and it had a small high school – John A. Holmes High School,” Tolley said. “We had Edenton Elementary School and I guess I got started in sports there in baseball in a little summer league they had. We had the Lions and the Tigers and the Cubs and the Bears. Everybody divided up on those four teams and we showed up at the ball field behind the high school all summer. They had a little schedule and we all had coaches and I think I was a Tiger one year, but it seemed like I was a Cub mostly.”

While he played sandlot baseball and football, Tolley pointed to eighth grade as the year he found organized football and after that, it had his heart.

“I really started getting involved in sports, I think, in the 8th grade,” he said. “That was when we had our first basketball team and our first football team. I really took a liking to football mainly and I think that was our big sport back home.”

Though his actual coaching career was merely a future calling he was yet to hear, it was a coach to whom Tolley gives the credit for a stellar prep career at John A. Holmes High School.

“I was fortunate to play for an outstanding coach – Bill Billings – and play on two state championship teams,” he said. “The other two years we lost in the Eastern Regional Finals. I guess our best year was my senior year for me. We won the state title at the 2-A level. We went undefeated at 13-0. It was the best team, they say, that Edenton had ever had up to that point. But it was just a real, real excellent team and an excellent coach.”

Not only did the small town of Edenton afford Tolley to be a multi-sport start at his high school (he was a standout in basketball and track as well), it allowed the town to part-take in the prep program’s success in a way that just doesn’t happen in larger towns.

“Usually on Thursday evenings about 6 p.m., the high school band would start downtown and they would march down to the high school and there would be a big pep rally. Then the team would practice Thursday night and then come Friday night for the game, the whole town would shut down and go to the ball game either in town or out of town, it didn’t matter. It was just a great following for the program.”

On the football field, the smallish Tolley was a bonafide small-town star. Along with the state titles, Tolley capped his prep career in 1960 garnering all-Albermarle Conference, all-East, honorable mention all-State, and Sporting News All-America recognition. As a player, he set state records for career yards per TD carry from scrimmage (33.4 ypTD on 21 TDs), season yards per TD carry from scrimmage (42.3 ypTD on 12 TDs), season total kick returns for TD (6), season most punt returns for TD (5), seasons most interceptions (12), season most games intercepting a pass (10), and most punt returns for touchdowns in a single game (2) – a record that still stands today.

“Well, I was never very big. I think in high school, I was maybe 5-8, 135 pounds,” he said. “At East Carolina, I finally got up to 155 or 160 pounds and was about 5-9½ but I was always pretty fast on my feet and could always catch the ball pretty well and was usually about the fastest guy in the high school. In a small town, you know, everybody makes the team. We only had about 22 – 25 guys on the team. Everybody made the basketball team or the baseball team. There were just enough boys in school to fill all the teams. It was really neat.”

With just 25 guys on the team, the better players played, and played, and played.

“Everybody played both ways in high school,” Tolley said. “I played defensive back and running back. Well, I don’t know what was (the most thrilling thing about the game was to me). We just had outstanding offensive teams. My senior year, I think we averaged about 42 points a game and averaged giving up about 5 points a game.

“Our offense had a big old fullback Bubba Hopkins– by our standards – who was about 190 pounds and had a real good quarterback and had probably, for us, about five guys who all ran pretty fast. We had a tackle who ran – and back then these were fast times and I probably ran about a 10.2 – and one of our tackles ran a 10.5 and another guy ran about a 10.4 in the 100. We just had a lot, a lot of speed on that team. But it was a close-knit bunch of guys who played together and had a great time.”

While the town took note of his exploits on the field, at home it was a different story. In the Tolley household, academics ruled the day.

“My family wasn’t all that interested in sports,” Tolley recalled. “I had an older brother who didn’t play sports. My sisters, you know, didn’t play sports…I had two older sisters. And then I played and then my brother younger than I – we had six in the family – he played a little basketball – but he was the manager of the teams that I played on. And then my very youngest brother Rudy, I think he went out for football a little bit but I was probably the only one that ever played. Now my family, sisters and brothers, were very supportive but my mother …she didn’t like it like my father and they just didn’t like it that much. My mother saw me play, I think, one time in college.”

Though football was the mechanism by which he went to college, Tolley’s collegiate experience served as an inspiration to his siblings.

“My sisters, both my sisters Elva and Beth, were outstanding students in high school,” Tolley said. “Coming from a family with modest means, they didn’t have a chance to go to college. My oldest brother, when he graduated from high school, he joined the Army. Then I went to East Carolina and graduated and then my brother younger than I was went to East Carolina and graduated and then my youngest brother went to East Carolina and graduated. And my oldest brother who didn’t go to college, when he got out of the service attended a junior college out in California and then completed some classes at East Carolina.”

His siblings excelled school and Tolley points to Roland, the brother just younger than he (who is now deceased) as “graduating with more honors from East Carolina than all of us.” Tolley acknowledges that as a young man, most of his learning came on the football field.

“I just think football gave me a lot of confidence as a young man,” he said. “ A lot of people in town followed football and knew my name. They were all very supportive. We had a club in town of men. It was the Varsity Club – that was what they called themselves – and most of them had been high school or college athletes. There were about 30 in the club and they just really supported athletics and they gave us a big banquet every year at the end of the season. It was just wonderful growing up in a small town like that.”

So impacted by his prep experience, his high school coach was one of those mentors that Tolley called on his former coach Billings for his forthcoming book.

“It was interesting in the book that will come out next, I dedicated it to my high school football coach and my college football coach Clarence Stasavich and to Red Wilson who mentored me at Elon before he moved on to Duke,” he said. “And, I remember saying about Coach Billings that he just taught me the love of football. And that hard work – he made you work hard – that if you worked hard, than good things happen. Bill Billings won 4 state titles at Edenton and then moved up to Delaware and coached up there in a town called Middletown and actually had a 69-game winning streak up there and probably won 7 state titles up there. But he was just an outstanding coach. He worked the players hard and he taught them well…he talked about dedication and motivation and all those things. He just taught me the love of football, I think.”

Tolley cherishes to this day, his Edenton football years and says football is – more than anything – a context by which memories are framed.

“Well, you know, I think football and sports in general, what they do is they give you a lot of memories and especially team memories,” Tolley said. “Of course, they also give you a lot of life-long friends. But as I was thinking, some of the records I held at Edenton High School, I didn’t realize I held those records until about 25 years later because, you know, Edenton just didn’t keep them.

“One day I was looking through a scrapbook that someone had given me in high school and the guy at Edenton at the old Chowan Herald, he wrote down every single play and gave you an analysis on it. Now, I think I always knew I scored 22 touchdowns but when I started reading through that book, it told you exactly what you did to score each of those touchdowns and things like that. Something I don’t brag about but there was a great football player – Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice – and I broke two of his most coveted records and didn’t realize it until 30 years later. It was one, I think, was career yards per carry from the line of scrimmage (33.4 ypc) and yards per carry for a season (42.3 ypc). Both of those were Charlie’s records. Now one of those, somebody else has since broken my record, but I felt good about that. You know a couple of the state records I hold might be two of the oldest they have. I set them in 1960 and here it is 2005 and 45 years later, they are still records.”

Tolley is quick to point out that his lasting exploits were as much a result of his coach’s ability to coach, as it was his stellar abilities.

“Bill Billings just knew how to run an offense. He just did,” Tolley said. “We had a big fullback that ran up the middle, we had a great quarterback Carroll Frehand and we had two running backs and I think I just didn’t carry the ball too many times and was fortunate that when I did, there was always a big hole.”

Visions of collegiate football

“I always had visions of going to Duke … I just wanted to go there for whatever reason,” Tolley said of his dreams of college football when he was a teen in Edenton. “There was a great football player and then he was a coach at Duke named Ace Parker. Ace Parker after our senior season – one where we won the state title and we were 13-0 – and I had made the All-East team and the All-Conference team and scored a lot touchdowns. I figured I was destined for Duke University.

“So Ace Parker came to town and he met with the coach in his office and he didn’t meet with me or any of our players. After Ace Parker left, I go in very excited about going to Duke University. Coach Billings was shaking his head, he said, ‘Jerry, Bill Murray (then-head coach at Duke) told Ace Parker not to bring in any running back unless he was 6-0, 185 pounds.’ Well, there I was at 5-9, 145 pounds so I never had a chance (to go to Duke).”

Though his dream of being a Blue Devil was dead, his dream of being a big-time college football player was not and the Pirates of East Carolina College made that happen.

“What sold me on East Carolina was that I didn’t have too many choices,” Tolley said. “Off our team, there were four of us who signed scholarships to East Carolina University off that team. A fullback, my roommate Jimmy White who was an offensive guard, and Leroy Spivey who was a running back.”

Though East Carolina had never been in the forefront of his mind, it quickly moved there.

“I loved East Carolina from the first day I went there,” he said. “I think like all athletes I was thinking about the University of North Carolina and Duke University (in high school). I remember I got a letter from Davidson College and that is so far west from Edenton that I didn’t know what Davidson College was and that might have been a wonderful choice to go to. They were scholarship (program) at the time and an outstanding college. Now East Carolina always had a wonderful reputation around Edenton. Some of my older classmates went to East Carolina – Robert White – and others I just thought the world of. The only time I ever visited a college was when I went to look at it for football…to play football. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college and I didn’t know much about college life. I was more concerned about football than getting a college education I think.”

He recalled heading up for his first days as a Pirate.

“I went up there with my buddies and in those days, they’d run you and time you,” he said. “I remember we talked to a couple of the coaches afterwards and between me and you I don’t remember who I talked to. When I came in I played under a Jack Boone who recruited me and I played the first year under him and we were all red-shirted. And then the next year Clarence Stasavich came in. But I remember they were talking about partial scholarships. They were talking about getting you a job in the cafeteria so you can eat. And they said they had a book library they could help you out with. I always had a wonderful relationship with all of the coaches there.”

And football itself was quickly redefined for the young prep star.

“When I got to college at the time, everybody was so much bigger than I was,” he said. “I weighed about 142 pounds and was about 5-9 and one of my best friends on the team was Bill Cline who was an all-American and played Canadian ball and everything and I think he outweighed me by five pounds – he was about 147. When we saw all of those big guys…I mean one of my all-time favorite football players at East Carolina was Tom Michel. He was about 6-3, 220 pounds and could outrun me.

“The first day there, I am looking at him and I am thinking he must be an offensive tackle, and they said, ‘Nope, that guy’s a running back.’ He was a great one. When I was a freshman I was red-shirted and Tom I think was a sophomore and I remember I watched him play against the University of California at Pennsylvania and I watched Tom play and he scored three touchdowns. At the time, I had to write a paper for a freshman English class and I wrote about his performance that day.”

A red-shirt freshman season begat big changes in the Pirates program and Tolley noted it closely.

“You know, the whole freshman year we were red-shirted under Coach Boone,” he retold. “I remember we were playing Lenoir-Rhyne and if I remember we had Lenoir-Rhyne beat, but then they got the ball in the last two minutes of the game and they drove it down the field and won the ball game. Nobody at East Carolina liked Clarence Stasavich. They just…Lenoir Rhyne…he always came over and they always beat us.

“The next thing we knew, Jack Boone was out, and Coach Clarence Stasavich came in and we figured he must be the sorriest, meanest guy in the whole world. And we had our first meeting and he comes in serious as all get out and he said, ‘Fellas, let’s start this out with a prayer.’ And you know, he prayed and you could hear a pin drop in there. And from that point on, I said, ‘This guy knows what he is doing.’ Now he was a tough coach, a great disciplinarian. He had every drill and everything he did down to a science. It was a certain way that you did it every time. I just had so much admiration for him. He took one of those little test booklets – the ones in college you call blue books. He had his game plan out there every day in that blue book. He had a new one every day. He said he always saved those blue books so he could go back year after year so if he was having a tough time, he could go back and look at the blue book from a time when things were going well so he could see what he was doing different. Of course he had some great coaches who bought into what he was doing. And he ran that Single Wing and I had never seen that before. Wingback was probably a perfect position for me at about 165 pounds and 5-9 and you can get by with that when you are playing defensive back.”

Under Stasavich, Tolley came out of the gates flying high and looking like the next great wingback in Stas’ electrifying Single Wing.

“I had an outstanding offensive year my sophomore year. I started every game,” Tolley said. “Most of the games I was playing 50-60 minutes a game. I’d just come out a couple times. I was on all the punt return and kickoff return teams. One of the things I achieved at ECU is that I still hold the record for career kickoff return yardage for average and for season, especially that sophomore year.

“My best overall season was my sophomore year. I think as a team we were 5-5, but that was actually my best year individually. The way I remember it, I was having a pretty good practice year my junior year and I hurt my knee. I played sporadically…I remember we opened up against Wake Forest and I only got in on one play because I was hurt and I think Stas put me in at the end of the game when we had it won, so that I could say that I played in the game.”

Though he was injured, it didn’t prevent him from electrifying the Pirate crowd now and then and when Tolley got his hands on kick for return, the fans took note. One of those touches is still in the Pirates record book as one of the longest kickoff returns…with a twist. It came on a 92-yard kickoff return against Western Carolina.

“Now that is my most dubious record,” he laughed. “That is the longest non-scoring kickoff return in the history of East Carolina, I believe. Well, I don’t know what happened. I was limping the whole way. It was against Western Carolina. I was running down our sideline and some old cheerleader was waving me on ‘Come on Jerry, come on.’

“Now, I am quick to point out that it was a male cheerleader not a female cheerleader. It was Scotty Scott, who was our mascot cheerleader I think. But that is one of my most dubious records. I am sure a guy had an angle on me or something…I don’t know what happened, really. I loved kick returning…I loved every minute of it.”

His junior season saw a marked shift in his responsibilities on the football field. His sophomore season would mark the last time he would regularly tote the football for the Pirates offensively.

“I moved to defense,” he said. “I would get in every now and then on offense, but not very often. It probably helped me become a good coach because I really studied defense and defensive backs. In fact, I’m thinking as early as my sophomore year at East Carolina, I started thinking about coaching. It had a lot to do with my understanding of the game. After I graduated I stayed on as a grad asst under coach Stasavich and helped Coach Henry VanSant with the freshman and helped coach his defense. I think East Carolina made me want to be a coach and helped teach me how to be a coach.”

By his junior season, Tolley had a sort of plan mapped out for his future.

“If I had ever quit playing football, I would have continued to go to East Carolina,” he said. “About my sophomore year, I noticed a couple of senior players would always stay around and help coach the team. I decided that I wanted to do that as well. It was very helpful because you got to sit in the coaching sessions and you learn it from a coach’s standpoint. I was never one of those players who after I gave up playing that I felt like going back and playing. I felt like I had done all I was supposed to do.

“I always tell the story about when I was doing my practice teaching in Kinston – about 30 miles from Greenville – and I came back during the spring to spend the weekend. I was over at the Student Center and somebody said, ‘Hey let’s go over and watch them play football.’ And I was like, ‘No! I didn’t ever get to go to the Student Center in the afternoon when I was playing. I want to go over here!’”

While at East Carolina as a player, Tolley also competed in track as a two-sport athlete.

“I loved football and I liked track,” he explained. “But I might not have gone out for track except that the offensive line coach Odell Welborn coached track. Coach Stas encouraged all of the guys who could, to go out for the track team. I imagine about a third of the track team were football players. It kept you shape. But I wasn’t all excited about running track. Coach Welborn, bless his soul, would make you do all the events and I was running the 100, the 220, the triple jump, the broad jump, the 400 relay and every once in awhile he made me run the mile relay. Now that is six events…that’s a lot of running.”

Tolley reflected on a number of his favorite personal moments as an East Carolina football player.

“The first kickoff I returned for a touchdown was my very first game as a sophomore,” he told. “It was an 82-yard return against the University of Richmond and that was a great thrill for me. As I remember it today, I tell people, I say, I don’t even know if I opened my eyes until I got to the 50-yard line. All of the sudden I remember seeing a kicker there and the goal line 50 yards away. And for some reason I got past him and that was a very, very thrilling moment.

“Another was in the Tangerine Bowl my senior year. I intercepted Greg Landry – who was at the University of Massachusetts and went on to play for the Detroit Lions. I intercepted his pass and ran it back for about 25-30 yards and set up a touchdown, which was a pretty high-water mark for me.”

His best game as an individual?

“The best game I ever played was against Elon – which we lost,” he said. “I had never been so tired after a game. I played the whole game on defense and had a touchdown run for about 41 yards.”

Tolley also reflected on a few of his teammates.

 “My favorite player…surely Dave Alexander, who was my roommate,” Tolley said. “He was an All-America who played a year after I did. He is a wonderful person and was a truly great, great fullback. I mean he could pass, he could run, he was just outstanding. Of course there was Bill Cline was an All-America tailback when I played wingback my sophomore year.

“Another one of my favorites was Dinkie Mills, who actually played wing back after I got hurt and started the last to years at the position. Another person I think the world of was Jim Martin who was a backup fullback who was a hard worker. Last year we had the 40th reunion of the three bowl teams and it was just like it was yesterday seeing all of those guys!”

Tolley’s senior season culminated in winning the 1964 E.E. Rawl Award for the senior athlete who best exemplified academic excellence and outstanding character. It was a foreshadowing for Tolley

Life after Pirate football remained football

Though he had some offers to play post-collegiate football, Tolley never bit on anything that would have been less than a legitimate pro league.

“I would have liked to have played, but I never played at a big-time level,” he said. “I got a letter from some little team over in Charlotte, but I didn’t want to play for a team like the Norfolk Neptunes or whatever. I didn’t want to be one of these where you are a weekend player. I was never excited about that. I never got a whisper from the NFL or CFL.”

As he decided as a sophomore, Tolley stay at East Carolina in the year after he graduated.

“I was a graduate assistant coach for one year, the immediate year after I graduated,” he said. “After my Master’s program then I went to Fayetteville Senior High. There was a Red Wilson there and he ran the Single Wing and he was looking for someone who had run the Single Wing before. So I went down there to coach with him. Well just six months later, he got the job at Elon (College). He invited me to come up with him which totally surprised me because he could have got anyone to go with him, but we had ran the Single Wing a lot of years at East Carolina and he asked me.”

The step over to Elon was one that in retrospect was seemingly nothing more than a young coach taking an opportunity that fell in his lap. It turned out to be an opportunity that when set the stage for a greater than stellar coaching career.

 “Red Wilson was at Elon for 10 years,” Tolley said. “He left and became head coach at Duke. He had built a good program at Elon. He had won five conference titles in 10 years and had played in the National Championship series three times but we came up short each of those. But he was a great mentor and he left me a lot of good players. He left and they elevated me and I wasn’t sure that I wanted it. I was right in the middle of my Doctoral program and I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to coach much longer. They offered me the job and didn’t have much choice so I had to take it.”

He had been with Wilson for his entire tenure at Elon and recalled a moment when he almost left. It was a moment that solidified his fate.

“I had had an offer to go somewhere else,” Tolley recalled. “It was a lateral move with a different caveat than at Elon. At Elon – in all small schools for the most part – you taught half and academic load and coached football and then you also coached a minor sport. I coached track and tennis – for seven years. You had to do that at a small school. I had a chance to go to Gardner-Webb with the promise that I wouldn’t have to teach or coach a minor sport. All I had to do was to coach football.  I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to coach but I went to our president, Dr. Fred Young and I said, ‘I got this chance to go to Gardner-Webb. I don’t think it is a better job than at Elon, but I don’t have to do anything but coach football.’ So I said, ‘If I wanted to stay at Elon, what would I have to do if I wanted to stay and not coach football?’ He said, ‘You got to get the Doctorate.’

“That was on a Friday and on Monday, I was enrolled in classes at UNC-Greensboro in a doctoral program. And 7½ years later, I got the Doctoral Degree and three months before that I had resigned my coaching position. I had always thought I would be out by age 40 and I got out at age 39.”

By age 39, Tolley had become a legend in NAIA football and cemented himself among the great coaches of all time.

“I guess the last four years (before becoming Elon Head Coach) I was designated as the Assistant Head Coach under Coach Wilson,” Tolley said of his rise to head coach for the Fighting Christians.” I had always figured that I would probably be the next head coach. When I first came to Elon there were 1,300 students. There was a Dr. James Earl Danieley that hired me. Then in 1973, they brought in Dr. Fred Young. Dr. Young over the next 25 years really moved that college to the forefront. And believe it or not, he gives our football program a little credit for it because in the 1970s all the way through 1981 we were playing for a national championship – six times in the 10 years. All the admission recruiters and regular students said people would just line up to talk to them about Elon because they had heard about our great football program. Dr. Young credits a lot of our success in those days to having a championship football team. It is amazing what has happened at Elon in the last five years. I was just looking a report the other day – our average SAT scores next year might be 1250. It is amazing. When I was Head Football Coach, if a person made 850 or 900 on the boards, we felt like we could get them an academic scholarship.”

Though he always expected he would be the next head coach, when it happened, he was very pleased that the entire Red Wilson staff greeted the decision positively.

“It was interesting…the oldest coach in the barn was Don Kelly, who I really admired,” Tolley said. “After I was named head coach, he came in and said, ‘Jerry, you were the only one.’ Well you know I was already the assistant head coach. And then there was another one who was my best friend, he said, ‘Jerry?’ and I will never forget it, he said, ‘You know what is wrong with you?’ I said, ‘Oh no, what’s wrong with me?’ and he told me something that was true…I was always very…when I was a defensive backs coach; I was very close to my players. We played hoops together and we played racquetball together and he said, ‘Jerry, you are just too close to your players. If you’re going to be a good head coach, you just can’t be that close to your players.’ And, he was right…he was right.”

He took it to heart and thus took on more of stoic face to his team.

“I think I figured I had to be removed from the players,” he said. “As soon as I became a head coach, it might have been because that coach came in and told me…I just never again did and I just didn’t have time and of course when you are the head coach, you don’t have time to do that stuff but I did make a conscious decision not to be too close to my players.”

Tolley took Red Wilson’s good program and elevated it to elite status, leveraging a coaching staff that rivaled many in college football for tenure and cohesion.

“Of course we had good players and didn’t have any turnover in coaches,” he explained. “(The coaches) all stayed and they had been in coaching a long time – 20 years, 30 years, 15 years – and all of them had been at Elon for 10 years with Coach Wilson, every one of them. I finally did lose one; because he went two years later with Coach Wilson at Duke. It was just a lot, a lot of stability in that program.”

His staff and fielded a program that represents the greatest of times at Elon and in NAIA football.

“I will tell you how rare it is for a private school to win back-to-back national titles,” Tolley proudly stated. “Before Elon did it, Notre Dame had done it in the late’20s and the late ‘40s and then a school out of Texas – Texas Lutheran – had done it and then a school up in Ohio, I think Westminster, so Elon was only the fourth private school in the history of college football to win back-to-back national titles. If I look at all the teams we played in the national playoffs, for the most part, they were all state schools.”

Tolley doesn’t like to separate his tenure from Wilson’s when it comes to the history of Elon and won’t.

“There were two great eras of football at Elon,” he said. “One was in the 1930s. From 1932-1941 they won five conference titles. There was a coach there, Peahead Walker. He was a great coach at Elon and then he was a great coach at Wake Forest and then he was a great coach up in the Canadian Football League.

“And then when Red Wilson came to Elon. From 1972-1981, I think we won eight conference titles and played in the national championship game four times – won 2 of them – and lost out in the semifinals a couple of times. They were the two great eras of football.”

Notice that Tolley includes his own tenure along with his mentor. Those two championships came on Tolley’s watch.

 “When I coached, I tell people, I didn’t really feel the pressure to win but I felt a great responsibility to maintain the excellent football program we built. The five years I was head coach, it consumed 24 hours a day of my time, 365 days a year. When I gave up football, I promised myself that I wouldn’t let any job consume that much time. And I haven’t, I have been true to the word. Like today, when I leave work at 5:00, I am usually still the first one in the office and I am at work by 7:30 every morning but now I come home at 5 p.m. Before I would stay until I got all the work done and might be 10 p.m.”

Tolley’s tenure as the head coach in 1977 launched truly another era of Elon football that merits its own place in the hierarchy. That ’77 team posted a very respectable 9-2 mark, but missed the NAIA playoffs. Then the ’78 team made its way to the NAI A Championship game on the strength of an 11-2-1 campaign. Though the team fell in the Finals to Angelo State, the Tolley era was well under way, despite a bit of a bumpy ride in 1979.

“In 1978, we played for the national championship and the following season we had everyone coming back,” Tolley said. “I fully expected us to go back the next year. And we worked our butt off to be 5-5 (in 1979). After that year, the President called me into his office with the Athletics Director and he says, ‘Jerry, we don’t want you to be alarmed about this meeting but we just want to make sure that this program is going in the right direction.’

“Now you got to figure that the previous coach had done real well. The first year I was 9-2 and didn’t go to the playoffs, the next year we played for the National Title. The next year we were 5-5. From his standpoint, he is saying, ‘Uh oh…I’m wondering if all of (Red Wilson)’s recruits are gone now and we are going down hill.’”

Though Tolley never doubted his program, he knew that he needed to ensure that he had no cracks in the ranks.

“Well, all of my assistant coaches knew I had that meeting with the president,” he continued the story. “Here is what I really heard (the President and AD) say. ‘Jerry we want to make sure it is going in the right direction and anything we can do to help you win games that does not cost Elon a lot of money, we will support you.’ So I go back and meet with my coaches and they said, ‘What did he say, what did he say?’ I said, ‘Well, he said one thing, but this is what I heard, ‘If you don’t win, you’re all fired.’”

Enough said. Tolley and his staff went back to the drawing board.

“The very next year, we lost the first game on the road and a couple of years later the Athletics Director said he was riding back with the president after that first game in 1980 and the president said, ‘You know, I am not sure we made the right decision to hire Jerry Tolley.’”

Of course, that season, he followed the opening game road loss with 13 straight wins, culminating in the 1980 NAIA National Championship title with a 17-10 victory over Northeastern State.

 “Hard work…we always worked hard…always,” he said of the first championship squad. “Always tried to do things over and over. We’d run the same plays, practice the same schemes over and over, and practice hard all the time. Another thing you gotta have is great senior leadership because they are the ones that are on the field for you and are the captains. You have to have great continuity on the coaching staff. You go into meetings and everyone knows where everyone else stands and everybody knows how to think. Anytime you bring a new coach into the mix, it stirs everything up and everything comes out different. And then, you just have to be lucky. That year, we had all of that.”

As a coach, Tolley was a realist, recognizing that there is a certain amount of happenstance that must be had alongside preparation, talent, discipline, and conditioning. Some might call that happenstance the ability to ratchet up your game when you most need it, something that Tolley’s teams always found a way to do.

“I figured it up one time, I think I won 49 football games and 20 of them were by a touchdown or less,” he said. “Fred Young, I used to play our president in racquetball. He once said to me, ‘Jerry, I used to play you in racquetball all the time. I would be right in the game and the score would be 15-14 and all of the sudden you would run the table and that is the same way your football team played. The other team would sort of think they were in there and in the last five or 10 minutes, boom, you would just go in there and win.’

I think that I exuded a lot of confidence on the sideline and I think my players had a lot of confidence. I would always tell them, ‘We’re going to win this thing and here is what is going to happen.’ I know in one of those championships, if you can believe that your returning team turned the ball over seven times and you won the football game 3-0…no one would ever believe that. Now when I tell you the other team missed five field goals, then you would say, ‘OK.’”

It was the 1981 championship Tolley was describing… a game that netted a back-to-back National Championship.

“That 3-0 championship game they missed five field goals,” he said. “It was cold that day and the wind chill was down – well below zero. Late in the fourth quarter, we blocked a punt and we got the ball on about the 20 yard line and I remember talking to our quarterback and I said, ‘I don’t care if we don’t pick up a yard, you run that ball straight up the middle three times – of course we had an all-America field goal kicker who had made 15-of-16 that year – so I said, ‘We want that ball right in the middle of the field.’ So, I think we picked up about seven yards going straight up the middle and kicked a field goal. I was a fairly conservative offensive coach. I won mainly on defense, I think.”

That 3-0 win over Pittsburgh State to secure the 1981 NAIA National Championship was bittersweet for many of the Fighting Christians fans. The victory put the school’s football program in a place few others on any level have been. Yet, it also meant the end of the Tolley era.

 “I think 1981 could have been more gratifying because I knew I didn’t have to coach anymore,” he said. “I didn’t decide I was going to give up coaching until after the game. After that game, everybody had left the stadium and the press was gone and I walked the length of the football field and then I drove back in my car – the boys had already left on the bus – and I went and looked at the record book to see if any coach had won it three times in a row and I read that Gil Steinke had done it down at Texas A&I. I decided right then and there that I was not going to coach another year because to break his record, we would have to win it the next year and the year after that. And so, I decided right then, I said, ‘Well, you might be able to do it three times, but you’ll never do it four times, so what is it worth?’ ”

Jerry Tolley in his days as Elon football coach (Elon SID)

In retrospect, the championship games were no different that scrimmages at practice to Tolley.

“I always said this, we practiced the same way for every game. Didn’t change it for the national championship…did the same thing practice the same way Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Now one of the things I believe helped us when we got to the playoffs was... at a small school like Elon, the coach has to do an awful lot of stuff…and when you get in the playoffs there are more interviews and all. Fred Young said ‘Jerry you coach the football team. I don’t care what else is going on, we’ll take care of all of that for you. Don’t get wrapped up in all this over stuff…the most important thing for you to do is coach that team. We’ll take care of all the travel and eating arrangements.’

“I think that really helped because a lot of teams when they make the playoffs or go to a bowl game they get caught up with all the stuff going on around that they forget to do those things you need to do to win the ball game.”

You might think that walking away from the game would have been difficult for Tolley regardless of his commitment to retire by 40. It wasn’t.

“It really was that easy for me to (leave coaching),” he said. “I was just three chapters away from finishing my dissertation. I don’t boys grew up with football. One of them was born in 1974 and one in 1977 – during my first year – so they always were around the team. One of the things we always did was that my boys came on the field during practice and the other coaches’ sons and wives would always be around. It was always a family atmosphere around (the program) and my boys grew up with it and they might have wanted me to coach a little bit more so that they could be on sideline and doing things.

“I always let the administration know that I would be out by age 40, I just happened to win a couple of national titles before I did it. When I went to talk with the president he said, ‘Jerry I got two contracts over there for you. One to raise money and the other to be football coach.’ He said, ‘I wish you would look at that contract to coach football before you accept the other one.’ I said, ‘Nope. I’ll take this one.’”

“Times have changed a little bit. Now some of the bigger schools are going after some of the smaller school coaches like Jim Tressel who was at Youngstown State and now at Ohio State or the Navy coach (Paul Johnson) was down at Georgia Southern so now a lot of the small school coaches are moving up. When I was coming along, it didn’t happen that much. There just weren’t that many small-time college coaches getting big-time college jobs. (Had someone come around looking) I would have listened. Especially looking at some of the salaries these guys are making. I don’t know, I think I was tired of coaching.”

There was really no other coaching job at that point that would have kept him in coaching, but Tolley did admit that he once made an inquiry to East Carolina.

“I called down to ECU one time,” he told. “After our 5-5 season, East Carolina was looking for a coach. I called down there and said I might want to be considered for that job if they were looking for a coach with East Carolina blood who wanted to coach East Carolina. I said, ‘You’ve been bringing in these coaches like Pat Dye who are wonderful coaches, but they aren’t going to stay there because they wanted to go some where else. I was down in Charlotte at the Shrine Bowl and was calling from there and they said ‘You call us back tomorrow because we are making that decision right now on whether or not we want to get an East Carolina guy or somebody else.

“Well I called down there the next day and they said, ‘Jerry, there’s no need for you to come down.’  The next day, they named Ed Emory the new coach. Ed was an East Carolina guy. You know Ed, I am his biggest fan, I just loved him and he might have been the greatest coach they ever had except for my Coach Stasavich. Ed would still be coaching there today if they’d let him. He’d go back tomorrow if they asked him…and he’d probably win.”

Retirement after coaching not an idle time

When Tolley walked away from coaching following that second national title, he hardly walked off into the sunset. In fact, he really was just getting started.

Earlier, while he was still coaching, Tolley became a published author, writing about what he knew best, coaching football.

Photo: Elon SID

“While I was coaching football, I would write all these articles,” he said. “The first one was that we always ran the Single Wing and the title of my first article was…it was 1970, was The Swing End Offense. I was an offensive coach at Elon for the Single Wing. We had a big old tight end – Rich McGeorge – who was a No. 1 draft pick for the Green Bay Packers and we had a pretty good old tailback. So, I submitted our passing game from the Single Wing. Some basic plays and things like that and some guy with…I think it was The Athletic Journal… was an old Single Wing guy and he liked the article. He came down with his camera and took a bunch of pictures. I had a good old friend who was in the English department and I wrote this article and I had him check it to make sure everything was spelled right. Matter fact that guys is still my friend, went to a ball game with him last night… name is Dr. Phil Owens.

“I just enjoyed writing. My first book was after I had given up coaching. I got a call from Parker Publishing Company and he said, ‘You have been a pretty successful coach, why don’t you write a book. We’ll publish it for you.’ There was another old guy at Elon, a Dr. Bob McBee, who was the baseball coach and he had written a baseball drill book. And he said, ‘Jerry if you’re going to do a book, why don’t you write a football drill book?’

Some of Tolley's
books on
football drills

That was just the beginning of what has turned out to be a successful writing career for Tolley.

“When I do these books now, I edit the book,” he said. “I write hundreds of coaches and tell them what kind of drill I want and they’ll send them in and I will rewrite that drill. A lot of the coaches, their strongest suit is not writing. They can tell you everything but they can’t write it down. You really have to understand football to write down what they are trying to convey. The guy with Parker Publishing Company, he said, ‘Guess what? You do the book; I bet you could make $10,000.

“I got to thinking… $10,000? I’m going to spend two years writing a book for $10,000?’ I said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I am going to do it all.’ So the very first book I did, I wrote it, I went to the printer’s, had it printed, marketed it and everything. When I did that first football drill book, it was the only one of its kind in America… the only one of its kind.”

That first book went on to sell more than 16,000 copies.

“That is pretty good,” he remarked. “Now all my other books, I’ve gone through a publisher and they might sell a couple of thousand copies. For that first book, I went to the American Football Coaches convention to market my book. It was the only football book being marketed. Everybody bought it. The last (AFCA convention) I went to down in New Orleans when they were releasing my last book, the (publisher) which had my book, had 60 (other) books… all drill books. And another (publisher) had 60 books. You just had so much to choose from. But, the first one, I wanted to make some money and did. The ones since, I could care less about making money… I just enjoy doing the writing.”

Tolley’s second book, 101 Winning Football Drills from the Legends of the Game, published in 2003, contains successful drills Tolley has collected from the greatest football minds of the modern era. The coaches who participated for Tolley included Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, former Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne and legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant (posthumously), who is featured on the book’s cover.

"To be included," Tolley said, "a coach had to have won at least 100 games, won a college national title or have won national coach of the year honor."

The writing continued past his retirement from coaching in continues to this day. And, of course, there was the new job.

“When I got out of football, I went into athletic fundraising for one year,” Tolley said. “Then they moved me to what they called the Director of Annual Giving – the same position I have today. And I hired John Bangley who was my All-American quarterback to raise money for athletics. And then the next year we were in the middle of a capital campaign to raise, for us, a ton of money - $9 million – and I was the Capital Campaign Administrator. Then a board of trustee member – Jim Powell – owned a company right there in town and he hired me as what eventually became Associate Vice President of Training, Community Affairs, and government relations. He was one of our trustees. The company was at the time, Roche Biomedical Laboratories. Today it is Laboratory Corporation of America – the biggest laboratory in the world.”

Powell’s offer was too much to turn down so Tolley stepped away from his beloved Elon.

“I worked (at Roche) 12 years and then retired,” he said. “When I retired, Elon was building its first on-campus stadium and I came back as Major Gifts Officer for the stadium and then I moved (back) into Director of Annual Giving and I have a real good staff and we raise money. I am always goal oriented and this little fund I am responsible for when I took it over it was a $770,000 a year and this year it will be $4 million years later – we are going to be at $1.5 million so we doubled it 100%. Our goal – our New Century Goal – was only $1.25 million and we hit that five years early and they just raised it. I think (what motivates me) is the goal. When I talk to my boss I said, ‘The one thing football teaches is that you always know where the goal line is.’ The one thing I know is that when I get the weekly reports, I know exactly what our goal is, I know how we are getting there and what we need to do if we need to get there faster.

“Most people say, ‘Jerry you are the most goal-oriented guy I’ve ever seen.’ And I think that might be true. It all has to do with football and knowing where the goal line is and winning all those football games.”

And while he does not coach now, he is every bit involved in football Saturdays at Elon, attending the games, pressing the flesh, and taking part in what he considers the greatest fun.

“All of my players come back to tailgate every Saturday,” he said. “One of them – a president of a company here in town – has a suite up in the sky box area and I usually stop by there during games. One of the things they allow the old football coach to do is that I have an all-access pass and I can go anywhere I want to and I spend most of my time in the Press Box because mainly I just don’t like to be down with the fans because sometimes they try to get me to criticize the coach and I don’t like to do that. But I love to go to the tailgate parties before and after the game with the old players…it is really neat.”

Tolley has always been a people guy so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that among his interests has always been community involvement. It makes since, giving what he does for a living. And, so he dabbled a bit in politics throughout his life. Well, maybe a little more than dabbling.

“When I was at East Carolina, I ran for Student Government President and Inter-Dormitory Council and was into all those things,” he said. “When I gave up football, the (Elon) President called me in and asked, ‘Have you ever thought about running for the Board of Alderman in town?’ He said, ‘I just think you would make a good Alderman and if you run, I wouldn’t expect any favors for the university or anything. I just like to make sure we get some practical minded people on the board.‘

“So I said, ‘Ok, I’ll run.’ I had name recognition so I ran for the board and won a four-year term and then ran again and halfway through that one, I ran for Mayor and won. And then I ran one other time and could probably still be mayor today but there comes a time you got to let someone else take over. It was a great experience.

I always tell this about Fred Young who told me he didn’t want any favors, Any time we were voting on any issue that had to do with the college, which was fairly often because the town and the college are almost one, he wouldn’t come within 50 feet of my office because he didn’t want any perception that anybody could say, ‘Jerry voted for something and Fred Young was in his office last week.’ It worked out real good and I enjoyed being mayor.”

Through it all, Tolley has had a strong wife, Joanie, standing by him while he pursued all of his dreams and raised his two boys.

“My youngest son had 15 letters in high school,” Tolley proudly said.” He played soccer and football. Both my boys were soccer players and both of them kicked for football. But the youngest one was a pretty good track star, pretty good basketball player and kicked for the football team. My oldest one, he kicked on the football team and kicked for the U.S. Naval Academy and started two or three games there. He played for them three years and had a good career. The oldest one was an all-state tennis player in doubles.

“Both (sons) are very smart and one was a finalist and the other a semifinalist for the Morehead Scholarship. The older one is getting his MBA at Harvard. My youngest went to the University of North Carolina and works right here in town at a textile mill and is an Assistant Vice President and Comptroller.”

And now that he is getting home earlier after work, he has time to partake in a couple of his favorite activities.

“I love to do yard work,” he said. “I usually come home at lunch every day – my office is only about two miles from here. And, I play tennis every Sunday afternoon indoors and on Wednesday evenings when it is warm outside. I love doing that.”

Always a coach at heart

Tolley admits that of the titles he has had the honor to own, there are none better than that of coach.

“I just love being called coach,” he said. “I talk to the assistant to the president and she always calls me coach and I say, ‘You know, I really appreciate that.’ And one of the things I do is wear a baseball cap all the time and it says Elon-something on it. I only wear it during the winter because it keeps my head warm. And she always said, ‘You always wear that hat so I call you coach.’ (Wearing the hat) brings back a lot of memories all the time.

 “What you can never get away from and it embarrasses me a little bit but you have to get used to it, every time I get introduced at Elon, it is ‘This is Coach Tolley who won two national titles.’ As if it were yesterday and it was 25 years ago. Happens all the time. Most of the people on campus still call me coach. The old ones know, but most of the students they don’t know anything… they weren’t even born in 1980.”

His coaching has netted him too many honors to list. Two years ago he added another, the prestigious Laurel Wreath Award, given by Governor Mike Easely for being a North Carolinian who has delivered exceptional performance in athletics.

Former East Carolina football star Jerry Tolley (right) and his wife,
Joanie, flank former ECU educator and national champion swim
coach Dr. Ray H. Martinez, in whose name the Tolleys have
underwritten an annual teaching award for the ECU College of
Health and Human Performance.
(Photo: ECU College of Health & Human Performance)

It was his coaching, Tolley insists, that landed him in the 1991 ECU Athletics Hall of Fame, an honor he is very proud of.

“It is something that you dream of. I was really delighted,” Tolley said. “At Elon, the only way you get into the sports hall of fame is to be a great player at Elon. No matter what you did in the pros or anywhere else doesn’t count. At East Carolina, while they count what you did on campus… I did not get to the ECU Hall of Fame as a player but because I won a couple of national titles, was national coach of the year and wrote a few books and stuff like that… that counts even though it didn’t happen at East Carolina. They look at what you do after East Carolina. I don’t think I would have made it on my athletic accomplishments at ECU. If you said I was a greater coach than a player…

“I would have said, ‘Yes, I was a better coach than a player.’ ”

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Jerry Tolley Bio Box

Jerry Tolley



Years at ECU:



Defensive Back/No. 21


Edenton, NC

Currently Resides:

Elon, NC

  • Director of Annual Giving, Elon University

  • Retired Head Football Coach, Elon University

  • Author


  • BA, East Carolina University
  • MA Education, East Carolina University
  • ED. D Education, UNC-Greensboro
  • Program of Manager Development, Duke University
Marital Status:

Married - Wife, Joanie

  • Jay Tolley, 30

  • Justin Tolley, 27


“I will tell you how rare it is for a private school to win back-to-back national titles. Before Elon did it, Notre Dame had done it in the late ‘20s and the late ‘40s and then a school out of Texas – Texas Lutheran – had done it and then a school up in Ohio, I think Westminster, so Elon was only the fourth private school in the history of college football to win back-to-back national titles.”

— Jerry Tolley



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02/23/2007 02:16:04 PM

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