Dec. 21, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
BOCA RATON, Fla. – Coach Doc Holliday had an emotional flashback Sunday. It had nothing to do with his Marshall football team’s Boca Raton Bowl practice, the final practice in a Herd uniform for 19 seniors.
As Holliday walked toward the practice field at St. Andrew’s School, he saw a familiar face. Then, he saw another one. Then, two long embraces began.
“These guys,” Holliday said, “are two of the first five guys I ever recruited out of Florida.”
In 1984, Holliday was in his first foray into the Sunshine State for talent for West Virginia University, his alma mater where the young assistant was working for Coach Don Nehlen.
In that year’s signing class, Holliday landed three wide receivers – Grantis Bell of Fort Lauderdale, Calvin Phillips of Boynton Beach and Robert White of Fort Pierce, in addition to defensive back Andrew Jones of Fort Lauderdale and linebacker Robert Pickett of Fort Pierce.
Phillips and Bell visited the Herd’s practice Sunday. They both finished their WVU careers in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl, when the 11-0 Mountaineers fell to top-ranked Notre Dame.
“These guys were special,” Holliday said. “They’re the first group. They started it all down here for me. It’s been a long time. I do get kind of emotional about stuff like this.
“It’s always fun to watch how all these guys grow up, and how they succeed.”
Holliday’s fifth Marshall team, which will play Northern Illinois in an attractive Boca Bowl pairing on Tuesday night, has 28 Floridians on the roster. Fourteen Herd regulars hail from the Sunshine State.
Bell, a former area high school coach, just finished his first season as a Southeastern Conference official, as a back judge and is a guidance counselor for Broward County Schools. He’s still the 5-foot-9, 150-pounder who played 40 games at WVU.
Phillips – “I bet Calvin was 100 pounds lighter then,” Holliday said – had 1,263 collegiate receiving yards at a 6-0, 177-pounder. He is a parks and recreation director in West Palm Beach.
“Calvin is the mayor of Boynton Beach,” Holliday cracked, “or thinks he is.”
“Whatever it is in Boynton Beach, it has to go through Calvin,” Bell teased.
“They were great kids,” Holliday said. “Good players. They got their degrees. I was their receivers coach, coached them both, too.”
Bell interjected, “Doc looks the same. He hasn’t aged a bit.”
At about that time, Holliday – ever the football-focused one – didn’t seem to want to start practice. But he did – the last real workout for players like quarterback Rakeem Cato, receiver Tommy Shuler, cornerback Darryl Roberts and defensive tackle James Rouse.
Asked how much contact they have with Holliday, Bell jumped to answer.
“You know, it’s kind of hard when he’s ‘the man’ (a head coach),” Bell said, as Phillips laughed loudly. “We used to be able to get ahold of him when we wanted to, but now, since he’s ‘the man,’ it makes it tough.”
“What a bunch of bull,” Holliday retorted.
When the Herd coach went onto the practice field with his Conference USA champions, his one-time recruits and Florida foundation builders spoke of the man for whom it is obvious they have oodles of respect.
“We always have good praise for Coach,” Phillips said. “We would have loved to see him at West Virginia University as head coach, but Marshall gave him an opportunity and we love to see him do well there. He was always good to us. He’s special to us.
“What’s great about Coach Holliday is he’s still the same person. He took care of us. We like to pay the favor back as much as we can.”
Bell, who prepped for his SEC whistle job by working up a ladder that included games in the WVIAC as well as the Southland, Sun Belt and AAC, remembered WVU back in the mid-‘80s, and compared things then to the offense Holliday runs today.
“I guess, you know, back then, our offense wasn’t very intricate or anything like that,” Bell said. “The game has changed. But what we knew then was Doc was straight-up with us, as I’m sure he is with these kids now. You know where you stand.
“We knew we were coming there. We were the first group to go to West Virginia from Florida – and we knew that we were going to make an immediate impact. So, he told us that upfront … ‘Look, if you guys come and you do what you’re supposed to do, you’re going to play a lot, and everything else will take care of itself.’
“So, I think his honesty about us going up there and having an immediate impact, it was meaningful to us. It was great.”
Phillips recalled a young coach who was aggressive and pointed in his recruiting pitch.
“I see Doc, and he’s just the same,” Phillips said. “He was honest with us, upfront. When I left home from Boynton Beach, from high school, he promised my parents that he would take care of me and I would graduate.
“And he took care of us. He always made sure his door was open. He introduced us to his family. That was the one inside joke when we first got there. He already had four children and we’d say, ‘Hey, you almost have a basketball team!
“He’d always take time to check in the dorms on us. We were a long way from home, make sure we were OK. And when we graduated, we made sure we stayed in contact in some kind of way. And people like that you always cheer for.
“Doc is one of our champions, so we always support him.”
The Boca Bowl will be Holliday’s 24th as a college football coach. His first was 1981, when he was a WVU part-time aide, the Mountaineers upset Florida in the Peach Bowl. The WVU quarterback that day was Oliver Luck.
And in 1983, the season before Holliday first went to Florida to recruit – and only Iowa State and Cincinnati were the other “outsiders” in there – West Virginia had zero Floridians on the roster.
Holliday then established a foothold he’s never given up in three-plus decades.
“We felt special – still do -- because we are the first five recruits from Florida, where he’s recruited so many players,” Phillips said of Holliday. “We do always talk. It’s a great relationship.
“No matter what we do in life, Doc has always said he knew we’d be successful in life because we came to West Virginia and we did what we needed to do. And we appreciate him taking the time to make us feel special.”
On a sunny Sunday in Boca, it was Phillips and Bell who made Holliday feel special.