Rick Cleveland

Natchez's Ed Reed a big part of Mississippi's football legacy

COURTESY NATCHEZ DEMOCRATLongtime high school football coach Ed Reed receives the Contributions to Amateur Football award from the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Miss-Lou Chapter in November 2013 at the Eola Hotel in Natchez.
COURTESY NATCHEZ DEMOCRATLongtime high school football coach Ed Reed receives the Contributions to Amateur Football award from the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Miss-Lou Chapter in November 2013 at the Eola Hotel in Natchez.

Legendary high school football coach Ed Reed won several championships in Mississippi and several more in Alabama. He won at small schools such as Rolling Fork and large ones such as Jackson Provine and Tuscaloosa Central.

Reed won in an eccentric river town (Natchez), in the Piney Woods of Lumberton and at Picayune. He won before integration and he won after it.

But there was one constant in Reed's 40 years of coaching and his nearly 300 victories, and that is this: His teams always ran out of the Notre Dame Box long after the formation largely had been retired to moth balls and history books. And that's one reason why Ed Reed would be a long chapter in any history book about Mississippi high school football. He is the answer to two of the most meaningful trivia questions about Magnolia State football:

-- Who was the coach of the last team to win the championship of the old Big Eight Conference? (Reed at South Natchez in 1980: South Natchez 37, Greenville 7.)

-- Who coached the first team to win an overall state championship in the largest classification of Mississippi high school football? (Reed's South Natchez team clipped Starkville 21-6 to win the Class AA title in 1981, capping a 14-0 season.)

Reed will be honored this weekend at an Ed Reed Tribute and Reunion in Natchez, 34 years after he left the town.

Says Reed, 87 years young and retired in Booneville where he was raised: "I was blessed to have some good athletes."

Yes, but those athletes were blessed to have a coach who saw no reason to change from the formation and offensive style he learned as a high school player in Booneville back in the 1940s. The Notre Dame Box, a variation of the old single wing, goes back to football's earliest days. Knute Rockne made it famous after learning it from Jesse Harper, who learned it from Amos Alonzo Stagg. Curly Lambeau ran it with the Green Bay Packers. Long after all those legends had died, Reed still ran it. And ran it. And ran it. And in so doing, he drove other coaches crazy.

Mississippi High School Activities Association director Don Hinton was a young coach at Murrah in Jackson when Reed was running the Box in Natchez.

"It was a nightmare to prepare for," Hinton says. "We knew what they were going to do, but we still couldn't stop it. Half the time, we couldn't figure out who had the ball."

The Box was based on deception and precision. Watch Navy or Air Force play today and you will see some of the same concepts at work. Often, the defense tackles two or three guys, only to see another guy, the one with the football, running free in the secondary.

What follows is a part of Mississippi football legend: Reed's South Natchez team was about to play a bowl game and the coach of the opposing team called Moss Point's inimitable coach/philosopher Billy Wayne Miller to ask him for advice on how to prepare for Reed's offense. Billy Wayne said, "Well, see, you tell your boys to get a good night's rest and then you feed them a good pre-game meal. And then, when it's game time and they tee that ball up at the 40-yard-line, you tell your boys to take a good, long, hard look at that football. You tell them to look at it good, because they aren't going to be able to find it the rest of the night."

Reed chuckled Sunday when that story was recounted.

Reed says he ran the Box simply because it was what he knew. What he leaves unsaid is that few, if any, other coaches understood the intricacies of it. And even if they did, they had no way, in a couple days, to prepare a scout team to run it anywhere near the way Reed's teams did.

"You just didn't have time in one week to get ready for something Coach Reed's team practiced every day of every spring and every season," Hinton said. "Your asking your scout team to learn in a couple days what their best players do all year long."

The results were predictable. That's why Reed's teams won 277 games while losing only 86.

And why doesn't anybody still run it today?

"I really don't know," Reed says. "If I was still coaching, I sure would."

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com), is a syndicated columnist and historian of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

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