Remembering Coach Dan Spear

Coach Dan Spear, from a 1964 Mount Dora School yearbook

After and before with Mount Dora High’s winningest football coach, and a game on Nov. 1, 1957 that one player never forgot.

Dan Spear was my next door neighbor when my wife and I moved here in 1996. He just showed up at the U-Haul as we were unloading and offered help. That’s the way Dan was—if there was a job to do, he was first to do it, and he was generous in his labors to a fault.

Dan was retired from Mount Dora High by then—his wife Bert had died twenty years earlier, and Dan had spent his golden years working on yard projects or playing wicked golf.  More than once I drove down our block to see Dan’s blue pork-pie hat sticking out of a large hole he was digging down into to get to all the roots.

One of Dan’s favorite sayings was, “I never worked a day in my life.” This took on new meaning when I later heard the story of how he built the first Mount Dora football stadium all by himself, working for a year and a half and only taking one day off for Christmas.

I didn’t learn more about Dan’s coaching days until after he died in 2008.  At his memorial service, Bob McCullough, who played on his football teams from 1959 to 1962 and went on to play at the University of Florida and later coach football at Lyman high for 15 seasons, gave the eulogy. He said,

“[Spear] raised three wonderful children. A majority of his life he spent teaching and coaching kids lifetime skills. The things I remember best about him personally were he always wore white socks, he always had a whistle around his neck and he took index cards to practice with plays written on them. If a play didn’t work, he would just throw the card away.

“What I got from him is whatever life deals you, you can overcome it. You should never feel trapped by a decision you made yesterday. He taught a lifetime of intangibles that weren’t tied to football scores.” (Orlando Sentinel, March 21, 2008)

What many folks may not know is that Coach Spear is Mount Dora High’s winningest football coach. From 1950 to 1952, the Hurricanes went on a 20-game winning streak, going 7-1, 8-0 and 7-1 those three seasons, winning three straight Central Florida Conference titles. 1952 would be the only undefeated season in Hurricanes history, though they added another conference title in 1959.

Mount Dora School yearbook photo of Coach Spear (lower row, left) with the football team that went undefeated.
Mount Dora School yearbook photo of Coach Spear (lower row, left) with the football team that went undefeated.

I came to know Dan afresh when I recently read Robert Bowie’s 1997 memoir A Roast For Dan Spear: Small Town Football Dreams in the Florida Fifties. Not only does it provide a fascinating look at the man, it also wonderfully resurrects small-town life in Mount Dora from a quieter yet more complicated time (Jim Crow was still quite active in Lake County).

Bowie is a neighbor of sorts, 50 years removed. He lived over on Seventh just above Grandview, three blocks from where Dan’s house was, which has since been renovated into a second home by his son Mike. (Daughter Patsy is now retired and also lives in Mount Dora.)

Bowie played football under Coach Spear at Mount Dora School (back then, it was for grades 1-12) from 1954-7, playing wingback and tailback. In his senior year he wore the Number 9 and was called “Rapid Robert” or “Twinkle Toes” by Spear because he was fast—black speed, someone once said. (Mount Dora schools would not be integrated until 1966).

A Roast For Coach Dan Spear began as a 20-page letter Bowie sent in lieu of attending a 1994 celebration of Dan Spear’s years of teaching at Mount Dora. Bowie later expanded it into book form and published it in 1997.

Early in the book, Bowie confesses his knowledge of the Spear off the field is slight, but he introduces him well:

I know so little about you, Coach Spear. I just learned recently that your home town was Martins Ferry, Ohio. I know you went to college at Chattanooga. You were a quarterback there, weren’t you? During our phys ed classes you always played touch football with us—you were the passer. You could have passed for any of the teams that played for you; you were still in shape and still that good. What else can I remember about you? A short man (maybe 5’7”), prematurely bald, a big nose on a face from Eastern Europe, a voice like Joe Namath’s. You weighed probably one sixty in 1957, the last year I played for you. Your were forty years old that year, a lot younger man than I am now. Your predominant emotion was anger. But you had a light side, too. In the summers you worked in the recreational programs. You drove the kids in the school bus out to the city beach on Lake Gertrude. You joked a lot and sang as you drove. You wanted all the kids to sing along. Your favorite tune was “Good Night, Irene.” Your favorite expression was, “My grandma was slow, but she had a wooden leg.” (30)

On the field, Coach Spear drove everyone hard. Winning was everything to the man, and his instruction was relentless. In the summer teams practiced twice a day, no one was allowed to drink water during practice and took salt pills afterward. Everyone was small—Mount Dora didn’t have a weight room—but that didn’t stop Coach Spear from giving them hell for playing without heart.

We hear Coach Spear still in Bowie’s ear when he talks about people needing to take responsibility for their lives: “Line up opposite them and hit them hard. Knock ’em down. And if they get up, well, you knock them down again! Then, at the end of the game (no matter who wins), shake their hand and tell them they played a good game.”

The instruction that stayed with Bowie—and many other of the young men who played on Mount Dora football teams—came straight from Coach Spear’s mouth.

William Moon, who played center on offence and linebacker on defense for the Hurricanes between 1955-7 and now lives in Eustis, says while Spear was hard on his players, it was always well-intentioned. “He expected a lot from his players, to be sure,” he says. “But all he really was asking us was to be disciplined and play well.”

Growing up in the Depression as Dan did, he was a self-made survivor, and even late in age his unrelenting toughness was evident. He’d learned his lessons hard, and figured he was helping no one not passing the instruction along.

03 roast book jacket

A Roast for Coach Dan Spear centers on a single game played on Nov. 1, 1957. The Golden Hurricanes were having their best season in years, re-awakening the glory days of the early ‘50s. They’d already beaten Tavares and Eustis, but were fresh off a stinging loss against Groveland the week before (40-0). And now the team faced Bishop Moore from Orlando—an undefeated wrecking-ball of a team composed of much bigger players. No one thought Mount Dora could beat them.

Making things worse, six of Mount Dora’s starters were sidelined that night with injuries, and several players on the field were limping (Bowie had bum knee and Moon was still woozy from being knocked unconscious in the previous game against Groveland.)

All twelve available players were on the field that night—no bench: if someone went down, Mount Dora would just have to play one player short.  Coach Spear was so worried about another blowout that he went to the Bishop Moore coach before the game and said they would forfeit if he let his players run up the score.

Sure enough though, Bishop Moore came out charging, churning up big offensive yards from the first play. They score a quick touchdown, and the mood in the stadium, wildly raucous for the first few minutes, quiets down. Mount Dora drives in short spurts but is always stopped short. Their front linebackers are much smaller than the Bishop Moore offensive lineman (William Moon weighed only 127), so it’s frequently up to the secondary (where Bowie plays defense) to make tackles.  Somehow they do and Bishop Moore can’t get to the goal posts, either. End of first quarter, 6-0.

In the second quarter, Mount Dora recovers a fumble, and on the next play Bowie runs the ball in to tie the score. (Neither side’s kicker is very good). Mount Dora’s defense is tough enough to somehow keep the Bishop Moore drives in check, and on offense their backs begin finding a way through Bishop Moore’s defense, which is far less tough than their offense. Mount Dora quarterback Neil Stoothoff—a standout player who had transferred from Sanford for his senior year—hits Richard Gardner with a pass and Gardner runs is 25 yards for another touchdown, the extra point connects and Mount Dora leads 13-6 going into the half.

The mood begins to change n the stadium as the vibe of embarrassing blow-out begins to clear. In the third quarter Bowie begins getting big gains (63 yards on a punt return, 188 yards for the night), and quarterback Neil Stoothoff scores on two runs, bring the score up to 26-6. The Bishop Moore offense wakes up and brothers John and Jim Ellis both score, bringing Bishop Moore to within seven points.

In the final quarter, both teams are playing their hearts out Bishop More for pride and Mount Dora for the upset. Jim Ellis scores a TD for Bishop Moore on a one-yard plunge; they miss the extra point, and its now 26-25. The crowd is growing hysterical, the cheerleaders giving it all they have. Mount Dora takes the kickoff and gets bogged down midfield; Bishop Moore drives but Mount Dora holds. So it goes for most of the final minutes, fierce but fruitless. Then Bishop Moore fumbles on their 32, and on the next drive, Mount Dora’s Stoothoff gets free for a run into the end zone, his third score of the night. 32-25. Now the defense plays in earnest. Bishop Moore’s undefeated season teeters in the balance.

Of that moment Mabel Norris Reese of the Mount Dora Topic wrote in the next week’s issue, “There was naught but sheer desperation in Hornet (Bishop Moore) souls.” On the final drive of the night, the Mount Dora defense stopped Bishop Moore on their own 15. Bowie writes,

We stood there befuddled, grinning at each other. You mean we won? Then Coach Dan Spear came running full tilt onto the filed, running as fast as he did back when he played for the University of Chattanooga. And, you know, he wasn’t mad any more? He was laughing.

Coach Dan Spear football—tough, determined, wiry, unrelenting—had won again.

It was just a winning season for Mount Dora that year, not championship material but far improved from the dismal 2-7 record from the previous year.

Bowie gives other players on the ’57 team the credit for their winning season—William Moon, Richard Gardner, Neil Stoothoff and Earle Williams. “I wasn’t tough, he says. “But I was fast.” His local football idols were from the early ‘50s team—running backs Billy Odom Harry Wise. (Odom went on to play at FSU, on the same team with Lee Corso and Burt Reynolds. )

Bowie left Mount Dora behind to attend college and then join the military to study Russian in the Defense Language Institute and serve as a Russian-language specialist for Army intelligence in Europe. Later he completed  a PhD in Russian Literature, got married, had kids and taught for many years. He now writes fiction full-time in Gainesville.

Mount Dora School in 1957 (photo courtesy Judi Phillops Jones)
Mount Dora School in 1957 (photo courtesy Judi Phillops Jones)

Bowie’s Mount Dora memories of the mid-1950s—mortared in around the on-field action— are as engaging as the football. A Roast For Coach Spear is a wonderful slice of local history. He told me in an e-mail that he had hoped that the book might get picked up by Hollywood, “but Burt Reynolds and Billy Bob Thornton never replied to my letters!” His son is an aspiring screenwriter and wants to try his hand at adapting the book.)

Bowie names people who may still be familiar to readers—players Donnie Dake, Owen McCallister, Herbert Flavell, Charles Kinsey; cheerleaders Patsy Spear, Janice Coffield, Judy Sadler; classmates Gay Heist, Spider Bennett, Vernon Swartzel, Bill Baker, Barbara Brown, Dickie Jean Reich, Cora Ann Sadler, Joe Graff and Punky Reese, daughter of Mabel Norris Reese; and teachers Helen Kurras, Jimmie Batton, Fred Sandwald. (The book is dedicated not only to Dan Spear, but also teacher Nana T. Laney “who taught me how to write” and Mount Dora School principal D.D. Roseborough, “who tried to teach me to be kind.”)

Somewhere in the stands that night are also town luminaries whose names may still resonate, like James Orr (police chief), Cauley Lott (principal of Milner-Rosenwald Academy in East Town), Eula Lee (pharmacist), Press Atkins (laundry man), and Austin Simpson (policy man).

There are teen hangouts—The soda fountain at Rexall Drug Store, the Peppermint Stick Restaurant, the Dixie Drive-In. And there’s Thrill Hill where kids raced their cars at night.

Mount Dora was much hotter in the 1950s, because no building in town but the First National Bank at Donnelly and Fifth had air conditioning. (The tellers all wore sweaters.)  For everyone else, it was fans and more fans and Kool-Aid by the gallon.

It’s somewhat disorienting to read about the same streets you live on removed 50 years. It’s so familiar and yet not. Here Bowie writes about an intersection I pass almost every day:

The barefoot years. We never wore shoes in the summer, and that left our feet at the mercy of the hot pavement and sandspurs. In my dreams I’m running down the torrid sidewalks, dashing from one shady spot to the next, on my way to Mr. Kuechler’s filling station on the corner, where Old Highway 441 makes that big right turn. I’ve got a nickel in my hand. I’m off to buy a big twelve-ounce bottle of Barq’s Root Beer from the cooler there. Or a Dr. Pepper. The “cold drink box,” bottles bathed in ice water, with a rag hanging there, to dry them off when you pull them out. Sometimes my sister June is running with me. Our feet are getting blistered, and that makes us all run faster. In my dreams it’s always unbearably hot, the kind of Florida heat that people today can’t imagine. Because today they’ve got air-conditioning. In my dreams the black asphalt is melting on the road, leaving huge cracks when it cools in the night. When I get back home from Mr. Kuechler’s my mother is sitting by the window, staring out at the heat, which rises off the asphalt in quavering sheets. (123)

But the charged racial atmosphere of the 1950s kept Mount Dora from being as idyllic as everyone wanted it to be, even then. The all-white Mount Dora School had already had its big confrontation between Sheriff Willis McCall and Mabel Norris Reese, editor of the Mount Dora Topic, over admitting the five children of fruit-picker Allen Platt because they “looked too black.”  Bowie says he was asked to sign the Mabel Reese-inspired petition to get the children admitted, but refused to.  According to him, school kids back then just tried to stay low and not say much about the race issue; it was a burden no one knew much how to handle.

You didn’t have to lift your head much to see what was there. Grandview was the only safe road into downtown for blacks. Racially charged language knew no filter. There were KKK car parades through Mount Dora neighborhoods (people stayed inside) that ended in Easttown with burning crosses.

In later life, I recall Dan using the N-word with surprising abandon. And yet, he seemed to take the integration of Mount Dora School in stride. (Maybe that’s evidence of Mount Dora’s still-conflicted history.) Roland Williams was one of the first 88 blacks from Milner-Rosenwald School to start the 1966 school year at Mount Dora, one of two seniors. A structural engineer now living in Atlanta, Williams told me in a phone conversation that Dan Spear coached him in track. (He says he tried out for football, but at 140 pounds he was by ’60s standards too small.)

Whatever opinions Spear might have harbored, according to Williams he accepted the transition smoothly. “Dan Spear was an energetic guy,” he says. “He always treated me fairly. I never had any problems with him.” Williams says track was new then at the school, and they trained with the football team.  He ran middle -distance events and did quite well in the 800. In one meet he beat a kid from Groveland who was supposed to be the fastest runner in the state. Some of Willams’ track records set in 1966 still stand to this day.

Williams says that integration at Mount Dora School was far less difficult than anywhere else in the county thanks to the intercession of a number of prominent white families.

05 spear retires CUTOUT

Spear retired from coaching football in 1971 after 22 seasons with a combined record of 131-54-9 and remains Mount Dora’s winningest football coach. The tough competitor, however, he  apparently had paid enough in the gut. “Dan once told me that he quit coaching because he just couldn’t stand the tension any more,” Bowie wrote me in an e-mail. “He said that losing a game so knocked him out of kilter that he couldn’t get his nerves straight for days after. As we all know, he did hate losing.”

Spear had recommended Willie Poole, one of the team’s black assistant coaches, as his successor, but the school decided instead on a white coach. Black and white players were so upset that they boycotted the team. Poole was eventually made coach, and for several years Mount Dora High had some of their best seasons since the ‘50s, in 1975 going to state.

When Dan retired his whistle, his competitiveness stayed alive in his golf game, playing at the Mount Dora Golf Club on Highland. (He worked in the pro shop there for years.) Even though he has blind in one eye, Dan became an excellent golfer, hitting long looping drives. Over the years, he nailed seven holes in one.

Dan Spear in 1998
Dan Spear in 1998

This is where I come back into the story with my neighbor, the retired but always-laboring Dan Spear, who  love to say he never worked a day in his life.

Generous to a fault, Dan gave me free access to all the tools and equipment in his garage (even one of his mowers), giving me a key to the door. He was always headed over to the neighbor’s house on the other side of mine to help the woman there with yard projects. He was always, always busy with something.

Dan had lived on our street for 40 years, first in the house across from him and then, after Bert died, he bought his current house from a lady he was romancing. (Dan liked the ladies and loved to dance.) The house hadn’t changed much in years and it bore the musty smell of old cigarette smoke. Nice swing on the screened front porch, which is where Dan liked to sit and talk, glass of Jack Daniels in one hand, cigarette in the other. Happy hour usually had this or that local woman, frequently his junior by decades, laughing to his stories as they rocked on the swing.

As Dan got older and the emphysema got worse, he’d get winded fast working out in the heat. On Saturdays I’d ask him, “You want me to hit your yard this time?” Smoking a Winston in that aluminum chair set in the back driveway, he’d look off and say, “Yeah, maybe this time.” I always asked, and his response was always the same.

Dan didn’t talk much about coaching football, though often a middle-aged, balding and heavyset member of one of his teams would come by to remove a tree or fix the roof for free.  Dan always seemed sheepish about their generosity, as if he didn’t deserve or want it. Tough guys take life’s late contradictions hard.

One day in his late ’80s, Dan decided he couldn’t hit the ball “worth a damn any more” and parked his clubs for good.

Dan lived a long time alone. He had come from tough Croation stock that had made his kin live almost forever.  An uncle of his once broke down at his 96th birthday, asking why he couldn’t die.

Eventually though, Dan failed to the point where his kids moved him out of his house next to mine and into Waterman Village. His mind started going. One day driving to his house, he thought he saw his wife Bert standing by the road. When he was told she had been dead for 30 years, he broke down and cried miserably. The cruelty of dementia meant reliving that that loss every day, over and over.

Tough as nails sometimes hides a bounty underneath.

Dan died at age 91 in 2008.

“I think the best thing Dan taught me was how to be tough,” Bowie wrote me in an e-mail. “… Dan tried making me angry by berating me, as he berated nearly all of us. It didn’t make me angry, as he hoped, but it made me stubborn.”

Writers are that way—but it sometimes takes the right coach to get them running.

Robert Bowie’s “A Roast for Coach Spear: Small Town Football Dreams from the Florida Fifties” is available at Amazon. com.

Thanks to T.C.Hargroves at Mount Dora High for finding pictures of Dan in the school’s library of old yearbooks.

Related story: “Mount Dora High School’s Friday Night Lights.” 

Also see Judi Phillips Jones’ series, “Growing Up In Mount Dora in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

David Cohea, Writer (