Tom Ferrill’s coaching career almost didn’t get off the ground.
After graduating from Delta State 1953, Ferrill arrived at Pace Consolidated School in Bolivar County expecting to coach football. The only problem was they had actually closed the high school and PCS only ran through eighth grade.
They still wanted him to coach ball, Ferrill told former Sun Herald reporter Doug Barber in 2001, and pointed him to the gymnasium’s rafters, where he was dealt another blow: The school’s equipment was dry rotted and fell apart in his hands. The school tried to keep Ferrill on as a principal but he had seen enough.
The former All-Big Eight Conference star at Biloxi High opted to return to the Coast and it’s a good thing he did, as he proceeded to piece together a Hall of Fame coaching career with stints at D’Iberville, Pass Christian and his alma mater, BHS.
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Ferrill died Wednesday morning. He was 88.
He was preceeded in death by his wife, Barbara, who was a legendary coach in her own right at Gulfport East and Gulfport.
While sifting through 88 years of memories at the Ferrill home, Chris Ferrill, one of four children from Barbara and Tom, choked up.
“I’m just so proud of the people they touched. It’s an endless number, I’d say,” he said. “We’re just filled with so much pride because we know how many people our parents touched — not just at Biloxi but along the whole Gulf Coast.”
Getting your start
As was often the case back then, Ferrill coached everything from football and softball to girls basketball and baseball. He was successful on the numerous playing fields, but Ferrill’s legacy was really felt by the lives he touched once he crossed back over the chalk lines and into the community.
“I am the man I am today because God sent a man to me by the name of Tom Ferrill,” said former BHS and Mississippi State offensive lineman Sam Nichols, who retired as an Army brigadier general.
Nichols lost his father when he was just 19 and looked up to Ferrill, like a lot of kids did.
“A lot of kids in that black neighborhood, the only father they ever knew was Tom Ferrill,” Nichols said. “As you live your life, you endure a lot of personal bias and discrimination. Tom Ferrill was ahead of his time. He was born and raised in East Biloxi and he understood that people were not black or white. They were just poor.
“All he cared about was taking care of the kids going to that school. He was God’s ambassador.”
Chris and his sister Pamela Ferrill had fond memories of their father coaching them. Chris, who was a football player, held back tears while saying the three years his dad coached him in junior high were the best of his athletic career.
“He was harder on me than anybody, but I knew why he did that,” Chris said. “He wanted me to be the best and he wanted to set an example, too, that he wasn’t taking it easy on his son.
“I always played hard because I was trying to make him proud of me.”
Added Pamela, who played softball for her father: “He didn’t let you get away with anything. He didn’t give us any special treatment. We were just another ball player.”
Always a place to play
Nichols recalled playing football on Saturdays and Ferrill opening up the gym on the weekends so the neighborhood kids had a place to go.
“His house was open to everyone,” Nichols said. “You didn’t knock; you just went in. If there was a cold drink or something to eat, you helped yourself.”
Nichols said he learned from Ferrill that everyone deserves great leadership and that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, lessons he carried with him throughout his military career.
“Like you never forget your first love, he was my first coach. He taught me everything,” he said. “Tom Ferrill was the beginning.”
Following his coaching career, Ferrill decided to serve the people of Ward 1 on the Biloxi City Council from 1993 until 2001.
Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel said Ferrill was a “benevolent” man and well liked by city officials and his constituents.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Creel said.
Eric Dickey was first introduced to Ferrill when the former BHS coach was his driver’s education instructor. The two later served alongside one another on the city council.
Dickey said Ferrill earned respect some others could only hope for because he was Biloxi through and through, having grown up in Biloxi, attended BHS, and then later returned to coach at Biloxi.
“He was a real, true hall of famer. He was very authentic. He saw no color barriers. A child was a child in his view,” Dickey said. “Biloxi is at a loss because of his great inspiration. We now will only reflect on his legacy that he leaves with us.”
Visitation will be held at the Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Home on Howard Avenue from 6-9 p.m. Sunday. Ferrill’s service will be at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Michael Catholic Church. Burial will follow at the Biloxi City Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers a scholarship fund will be set up in Ferrill’s name at The People’s Bank.
Did you know?
Tom Ferrill was inducted into the Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Fame in 2001. ... Ferrill was the first coach at D’Iberville High. On his staff were two more Hall of Famers and Coast legends in Buddy Singleton and Hugh Pepper.