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Cuthbert native, Tift County coaching legend elected to GACA Hall of Fame

TIFTON -- When Emmett W. Bowers Jr. and his future wife, Pendy, graduated from the University of Georgia in 1975 and headed for Bowers' first job out of college at Tift County High School, he remembers clear as day what Pendy told him.

"She said, 'Well, this will be fun, but I doubt we'll be here too long,' " Bowers recalled. "As it turned out, we never left."

And nearly four decades later, Bowers will also never be forgotten.

The Cuthbert native and former longtime head golf coach at Tift County found out late last week that he'll be part of the 2012 Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame class after an amazing career with the Blue Devils that included three state titles (1995-97), one runner-up finish (1998) and staggering 15 region championships.

"It's overwhelming," said a choked-up Bowers, 58, during an interview this week with The Herald. "It's great to look back on all the wonderful times, but it's also tough because when it's over -- as a coach all your life -- you wonder sometimes if you could still walk back out there and do it all over again, make an impact in kids' lives and win still like you once did. I know one thing: I had a heck of a time doing what I did, and I'd never trade it for anything."

Being inducted in June alongside Bowers, known by most simply as "E.W.", will be former Albany High, Dougherty and Thomson football coaching legend Luther Welsh, Northeast Macon girls basketball icon Alvin Copeland and former Thomasville and West Rome state-title winning football coach Mike Hodges.

Welsh, who died earlier this year at the age of 79 after losing his battle with cancer, coached football for 55 years, his final stop coming at Thomson High School, where he won three state titles in 19 years. He retired after the 2010 season.

Welsh coached at Albany High and Dougherty for 15 years and left Albany almost two decades ago. Welsh won 333 games during his career and three state championships.

Hodges retired in 2005 after becoming one of just a handful of Georgia high school football coaches to win state titles at different schools. He won three state championships -- including two at West Rome (1980 and 1982) and one at Thomasville (1988). He also had head coaching stops at Brookwood in Thomasville, Miller County and Commerce, and -- like Welsh -- won numerous Coach of the Year awards along the way.

Copeland's career, meanwhile, more mirrors that of Bowers' in that once he landed in Macon, he never left. He retired last season after 39 years on the job as Georgia's all-time winningest girls basketball coach with a record of 862-216, which included 16 region titles, five state titles and two state runner-up finishes. He also won 13 state track & field championships as Northeast Macon's coach, but -- again, just like Bowers, who also coached and achieved success in basketball and football at Tift County, but is being inducted for golf -- Copeland will enter the Hall of Fame on his hoops merits.

GACA Executive Director Terry Rogers said Thursday he couldn't be more pleased with this year's class.

"They're all very deserving, and they're all great coaches," said Rogers, who added he can't wait to see Bowers, Welsh, Hodges and Copeland join the other 58 names and faces on the HOF wall at the Northwest Trade and Convention Center in June in Dalton.

Bowers can't wait either.

"I feel like Bull Durham working on my cliches, but it really seems to be great validation for your career when you're recognized by your peers," said Bowers, who was outside cutting his grass two weeks ago when he got the call from good friend Russ Rainey, who nominated him. "Being inducted as a golf coach is really a tribute to this whole community and to people like (former golf pro) Stan Moore and to (former Tift football coach/AD Gene) Brodie. A lot of coaches gave lip service to the minor sports, but coach Brodie cared about all of them, and he really wanted the teams to do well.

"It's just a great honor to be recognized when it comes from your peers in the profession."

Bowers' father, Emmett Sr. -- who lives in Albany these days with his Jr.'s mother, Sarah -- owned a farm in Edison when Emmett was born. But they didn't stay long because Sr. was a marine who moved the family all over. Bowers, who would come back to Southwest Georgia briefly as a freshman in high school at Calhoun County, eventually graduated from Thomas Edison High School in Alexandria, Va., before winding up at UGA in 1971.

He came to Athens as an accomplished golfer, basketball and football player, but gave those up as he pursued a career in health and physical fitness.

And when he left, he aimed to make a difference.

"I wasn't any kind of prolific athlete in high school, but I felt I was above average," Bowers said. "More than anything, I was a learner and an analyzer and I loved to soak up everything there was about the sports I played."

He went on to learn from one of the best.

"My senior year, I did my student teachings under (legendary Southwest Georgia football coach) John Reynolds, who taught me that you didn't always need the best weight room, or the biggest team; as long as you were tough and worked harder than everyone else, you'd win," Bowers said.

And Bowers carried that philosophy straight to Tift County in the fall of 1976 when he was offered the job to be the A.D. and head football coach at the 8th- and 9th-grade school.

"It was a lot to undertake right out of school, yes, but I never had any doubt in my mind we would win," he said. "No matter the sport, no matter the obstacles, I just had the confidence we would win."

And win he did.

By 1979, Bowers was called up to the varsity level by Brodie and joined his staff as an assistant football coach, while also taking over as golf coach. Immediately, Bowers had an impact everywhere as Tift County's football team won the region title in 1979 and finished state runner-up, before winning it all in 1983. On the golf course, the results were no different as the Blue Devils won region titles in 1979-80, '82, '84-88 and then put together a string of seven in a row from 1992-98.

But Bowers doesn't attribute his coaching success to translating over his own stellar play on the golf course -- he's still a 4-handicap these days -- but rather his ability to be tough as nails on his kids, while nurturing them and building their confidence with every stroke, during every practice and before and after every tournament.

"I was a (toughie) on my kids on the golf course the way a football coach would be and I made sure we handled ourselves with class and always represented the school well. There'd be no throwing clubs or making excuses. It was always a source of pride of mine that we went out, handled out business and didn't show a lot of emotion," said Bowers, who certainly wasn't devoid of emotion when it came to motivating his players. "But I also treated each one like they were my own kids. Each year before the region tournament, I would mail each of my players a hand-written letter and tell them how proud of them I was and how much they meant to me. I always encouraged them.

"These days it's all e-mail and stuff like that, but nothing could ever replace what it meant to these kids to get a hand-written letter. I learned that from my daddy, who used to write me letters when he was away (serving in the military). And I still have almost all of them."

That string of seven region titles in a row also included three state crowns and the unseating of longtime state power Glynn Academy's hold on the throne of Georgia prep golf.

"It was such a special time that three-year run," recalled Bowers, who won all three with his son, Worth, as one of the team's top players. "We got the monkey off our backs in 1995 when we beat them on their own course, then did it again and again. We lost the fourth year -- Worth's senior season -- in a sudden death playoff, otherwise it would've been four straight, and Worth and his teammates would've run the table as state champs from freshmen to seniors.

"Still, it was a wonderful stretch."

In 2003, Bowers stepped down as golf coach at Tift after 24 years and became the school's assistant A.D. and the football team's offensive coordinator until retiring in 2005.

After retiring, Bowers started a recruiting service called "National Athlete," before eventually going into real estate with longtime friend Joe Kunes, who hired Bowers to work at his business at Tifton, Kunes Real Estate and Appraisal, where he's still showing up bright and early every day.

And while he's no longer coaching, the most important part about the direction his life has taken these days as he prepares to be enshrined as one of Georgia's all-time greats is that Tifton, even in retirement, continues to be his home.

"When you do something for 30 years and in the same place, it becomes a part of who you are. And Tift County is who we are," Bowers said. "I didn't start coaching thinking, 'One day maybe I'll get into the Hall of Fame.'

"But it sure means a heck of a lot to know that I did."