The Wright stuff: Former WC coach elected to national coaches hall of fame

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 18, 2004

After just two seasons in Gilmer, it was time for Wright to come home. Warren Central was looking for a coach, and he was looking for a challenge.

In 1971, Wright took over a program with loads of potential but little success. WC had been a doormat since it opened six years earlier, but it wouldn’t be for much longer.

Using an organized, no-nonsense approach, he brought a new attitude to WC and led the Vikings to a 9-2 record in his first season. It also didn’t hurt that two of his sons, Lum Jr. and Keith, were talented football players who went on to play college football at Memphis.

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“One of the biggest things he did was bring two pretty good football players with him. They were both used to winning,” said current WC coach Robert Morgan, who was an assistant under Wright in the early 1970s. “They were an immediate impact on Warren Central, along with the coach, and that helped get the junior high started and it went from there.”

In 1972, Lum Jr. and Keith graduated and the elder Wright “got hung up with a bunch of rowdies,” as he put it. The Vikings suffered several close losses and went 3-5-2 that year. It was Wright’s only losing season at WC.

He dealt with the troublemakers by making them run laps until they quit. He lost 17 players in the process, but laid the foundation for a run that literally changed the image of the program forever.

In 1973, WC’s trademark all-red uniforms were introduced. The red pants and jerseys accompanied a 27-game winning streak that heralded WC’s arrival as a perennial football power.

The 1973 and 1974 teams included nearly a dozen players who went on to play college football.

The Vikings ripped off another 27-game winning streak later in the decade, and won eight conference championships under Wright. After having just five players including Keith and Lum Jr. at his first team meeting in 1971, Wright won 126 games in 14 seasons at WC before leaving in 1984.

“We knew we had potential, and there was no doubt he gave us leadership and got us going,” Morgan said. “He got it going quicker than it probably would have, just because of know-how and determination.”

Wright went to Port Gibson in 1985, and continued his winning ways. He guided the Blue Waves to 66 wins in eight seasons, including eight straight playoff berths and one stretch of 44 wins in four years.

In September 1991, he earned one of his most cherished game balls when he led the Waves to a 50-6 rout of Crystal Springs for win No. 300. The victory put him in a select fraternity of coaches who have achieved that milestone.

“He did a great job everywhere he’s been,” said Ennis Proctor, executive director of the Mississippi High School Activities Association. “Just in Mississippi, I don’t think there’s a coach that’s won that many.”

Wright retired in 1992, but didn’t stay off the sideline long. Like in Texas 40 years earlier, he moved up the road and found another team and a new challenge.

This time, it was a moribund program at Chamberlain-Hunt Academy. Wright brought stability and success, winning 35 games in his first five seasons more than the Wildcats had won in the previous 22 years combined.

His coaching staff included another son, Bo now the head coach at Port Gibson and Wright was having the time of his life.

“In a small situation like that, we probably got closer to the people and the kids than any group we ever had,” Lum Wright said. “I have fond memories of that place.”

Unfortunately, Wright’s tenure at CHA didn’t have a fairy-tale ending. Unhappy with the increasingly temperamental treatment of his players by the military school’s administration, he resigned on his own terms at the end of the 2000 season.

Some players transferred to St. Aloysius or Porters Chapel, while others stayed another year or two to graduate from CHA. Two years after Wright left, the Wildcats suffered the first of back-to-back winless seasons and are currently mired in a 20-game losing streak.

“It breaks my heart, because the kids are either at St. Al or Porters Chapel,” Wright said. “A man hugged me the other day and he said, they can take a lot from us, but they can’t take our memories.'”

These days, Wright is enjoying his memories and his retirement.

He has traveled to Oklahoma to see Bobby Jack coach the Sooners and often watches high school football games from the stands without any desire to get closer to the action again.

“It doesn’t bother me. I can sit there and just enjoy the ballgame. I promised myself I wasn’t going to be critical. I’m a spectator, and I clap for the kids,” Wright said. “I think I conditioned my mind to be that way.”

His sons also helped condition him. Wright joked about what they would do if he ever considered a return to coaching.

“My boys would absolutely shoot me if I did, because I’ve spent more time with them in the last few years than I ever did before,” he said.

This summer, all of Wright’s sons Lum Jr., Bo, Keith, and Tim and two dozen other friends and family will take a trip to San Diego for an honor three years in the making.

That’s how long ago Proctor started the nomination process for the elder Wright to get into the NFHS Hall of Fame. The nomination went through a screening committee before it was voted on by a separate selection committee.

The drawn-out nature of the process had begun to wear on Wright, and he was wondering if anything would ever come of the nomination. Finally, an answer came in the form of a photographer.

“They called me last fall and took a bunch of pictures, and all of a sudden there it was,” Wright said. “I almost gave up, and (Proctor) kept telling me to hang in there, I was going to make it.”

To those who have worked or played for Wright, the honor is well-deserved. All have been influenced in one way or another by his approach to the game. Wright’s longevity allowed him to instill that approach and a winning attitude into three generations of football players and coaches.

“Am I a better coach because of him? I sure am. I think he had a great impact on every coach who ever coached with him,” said Morgan, who still runs many of the same basic plays that Wright did at WC. “Over a 10-year period you’re not going to influence that many people.

“He’s gotten to influence more players than an ordinary coach and been able to help them on their way.”