Longtime Tallulah coach Holstead dies at 81|[03/06/08]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 6, 2008

Lillie Holstead remembers the phone call well.

It was sometime in the early 1960s, and her husband Racer Holstead was in the middle of an incredible run of success at Tallulah High.

The Trojans had won four Louisiana state championships in a five season span from 1957-1961, and Holstead’s coaching ability drew a tremendous amount of interest. This time, it was Jimmy Davis — the famous “Singing Governor” — on the other end of the line. The state’s top political boss wanted Holstead to leave the tiny northeastern Louisiana town for the bright lights of Tiger Stadium and an assistant coaching position at LSU.

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“He took the phone and said, ‘I thank you Governor, but that’s not where I mold ’em,'” Lillie Holstead recalled, before adding with a laugh, “I didn’t speak to him for two days after that.”

Holstead had several other chances to leave Tallulah, but never did. He coached at Tallulah High and then at Tallulah Academy for more than four decades, racking up 309 wins and eight state championships along the way — along with one state basketball title and three Louisiana Independent School Association golf championships.

He retired in 1996 as the 18th winningest coach in the country, was inducted to the Louisiana High School Activities Association Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Louisiana Tech Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995.

Holstead died Tuesday, in his longtime home of Tallulah, at the age of 81. A wake will be held Friday, from 5 to 7 p.m. in Tallulah Academy’s gym. There will also be a memorial service on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the school’s football field.

“Tallulah became home and he didn’t want to leave home,” said I.T. Crothers, who served as Holstead’s assistant for 37 seasons before succeeding him as Tallulah Academy’s head coach in 1997. “He just liked Tallulah, and Tallulah has always been a football town.”

Holstead, a Ruston native whose real name is Robert Andrew Holstead (Racer was a childhood nickname that stuck) started his coaching career in south Louisiana at Plaquemine High School. He took that school to a state basketball championship in 1952, then moved to Jena and led them to a runner-up finish the next season. Two years later, he was hired as Tallulah High’s football coach and settled in for a long run of success. The Trojans won state titles in 1957, ’58, ’60 and ’61.

He left Tallulah High in 1970 to become the head football coach, principal and athletic director at the just-opened Tallulah Academy. Under his tutelage, Tallulah won LISA championships in 1972, ’79, ’80 and ’92.

“He was the type of coach that used whatever he had,” Crothers said. “If we had speed, we used speed. If we had a big, bruising line, we ran behind it. He wasn’t the type of coach who tried to make his players fit into his system or else.”

Over the course of his career, Holstead developed a reputation for his superstitions.

His daughter, Heidi, said after the family’s cocker spaniel Trojan rode with the team on the bus to a playoff victory, the dog had a seat on every road trip thereafter. Before every game, Holstead stopped at home to change clothes. On his way out the door, at exactly 3 p.m. each Friday, his family would line up to give him a good luck kiss on the right cheek.

“He wore the same pair of pants, same underwear, same shirt every Friday of football season. And the same suit, too,” Heidi Holstead, said. “After his last state championship his players grabbed him and put him in the shower and it literally fell apart. He was furious.”

Holstead also showed a tough streak, and not just when it came to disciplining players. In 1990, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer that would require chemotherapy for the rest of his life. Two years later, he had triple bypass heart surgery a few months before the season. In all, Holstead had more than a dozen surgeries — yet missed only a handful of games and won his last state title a few months after the heart surgery.

“Any lesser man probably wouldn’t have made it through that, and certainly wouldn’t have kept going. He just had too much grit,” Crothers said.

Holstead finally retired in 1996, at the age of 70. Crothers said his friend wanted to go until that age, while the family offered another reason.

“He said he’d coached people’s grandchildren. One of them was about to have a child, and he didn’t want to coach great-grandchildren,” Heidi Holstead said with a laugh.