Remembering David Blackstock
By Ron Barry
Perhaps it was fitting on the day Americans prepared to watch that night’s Game 7 of the World Series – one of the greatest in the long history of the game of baseball – David Blackstock went to be with his Lord.
The long-time Union University athletic director and coach, a Jackson, TN icon if there ever was one, was synonymous with baseball in this town. And while his talent at coaching women’s basketball may have eventually pushed his baseball memories to the background, there isn’t a day that I don’t walk among the 17 fields here at the West Tennessee Healthcare Sportsplex without thinking about David Blackstock.
I had the distinct privilege of serving alongside him for 10 years as his assistant coach when he took the reigns of Union’s women’s basketball program from Peggy Birmingham, who established it well before there were organizations like the NAIA and NCAA clamoring for attention. Everyone who ever knew “Coach” – that’s all I can ever call him – knew he was a people person, a competitor to the hilt, a guy quick with a smile and a high-pitched laugh, and somebody you’d want by your side if you had a battle to fight. Everybody who knew him has David Blackstock stories.
And friends, do I have stories.
There’s the time I surveyed the court at Carson-Newman in Johnson City during an NAIA regional championship game and noticed the Lady Eagles had six players on the floor during a key point in the ballgame – only to realize Union also had six people out there, because Coach had literally raced out into the free-throw lane (while the clock was running) and was pointing out to the referees that his team was outnumbered. And you may not believe this, but he did it without getting a technical foul. Such was his charm.
Another time we played a game at Christian Brothers University – a place where the lighting was so bad Coach kept us sitting in the dark in the pre-game locker room in order to make the court look brighter when we arrived – and the starting five got off to a rather terrible start. Coach called time out and spent the first 45 seconds just glaring at them. When the buzzer sounded to return to the court, he slammed his hand on the floor and yelled, “Now START PLAYING BASKETBALL!!!”
About a minute later, while play was going on, he leaned over and whispered, “Ron?” “Yeah?”, I replied. “I think I broke my hand,” he said. He had. Coached the next couple of months wearing a cast.
I’ll let others tell of his numerous accomplishments and awards, including induction in a handful of Halls of Fame, a national championship, and a record that Mike Krzyzewski, Nick Saban, and any other coaching legend would envy. For an excellent review of his life, I recommend this terrific video from longtime Union TV broadcaster Steve Beverly…
But I’d rather remember the guy who never seemed to let any situation develop that he couldn’t diffuse with a quick sarcastic (but light-hearted) comment and that cackling laugh.
As his longtime friend, former baseball player, and current Union athletic director Tommy Sadler has said, “Don’t get into a one-liner contest with him, because you’ll finish a distant second.” I’d only add: a very distant second. Like in another zip code second. He could take your best shot, magnify it exponentially, and leave you crumbled in the demolished heap of your own narcissism.
He’d play intramurals or pick-up basketball games and turn his little pot-bellied frame into Magic Johnson for an hour, whipping no-look passes off a high dribble, scooping layups through tall human forests, and draining three-pointers from 30 feet while falling back off one foot. And all the while, he rubbed your face in it. Without making you mad. In fact, you’d be laughing almost as hard as he was – and always shaking your head, wondering, “How’d he just do that?”
It was the same playing cards, racquetball, table tennis, or any other competition that could be arranged. I think his personal record in those games was even better than his coaching record.
He could build a team like no other. I remember driving a Bulldog van to a game one day and looking into the rear-view mirror to check what the players were doing – and there was one reading the Wall Street Journal, sitting next to a young lady who lived in a house with a dirt floor. Teammates. Friends. The Magic of Blackstock.
He and Dr. Linn Stranak – still the chair of Union’s Physical Education & Wellness department – gave me my start at Union. For several years, I taught a full load of classes, coached two or three teams, was the intramural director, and served as the sports information guy. Simultaneously. And never once complained about being overworked because Coach and Dr. Stranak made it fun to be there everyday.
So, today – and every day forward – I’ll celebrate his life, because much of mine consists of what he helped teach me. Love God. Love your family. Love everyone else, because they’re family too. Smile. Laugh. Be excellent in everything you do – at least in the effort you give. And never compromise your integrity for anything. I honestly pray I can be one-tenth percent as good at it as he was.
I’ll remember him falling out of the van at Rome College (it was 3 a.m., pitch black, and he thought he was stepping out into a parking lot, but found some vast abyss instead). I’ll remember him encouraging me to get my doctorate during the summers of the late 1980s, “Because you don’t have enough to do around here already!” I’ll remember the time I “went low” in a spades game while holding the Ace of Spades (the one card it is impossible to go “low” with), just to see his reaction when I plopped it down as the last play. (He didn’t disappoint.) I’ll remember his New York Yankees cap, which he always wore to remind me my Detroit Tigers were inferior to his team – until that one blissful 1984 season.
But most of all, I’ll remember “Coach.” Coach. He was the absolute textbook definition of the word – teaching, learning, listening, leading, challenging, loving, competing, winning.
No one’s ever done it better. Godspeed, Coach.