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A Lasting Legacy: Simmons oversaw unprecedented change, winning in 23-year tenure

Kevin Foote, The Advertiser, July 14, 2013

James Simmons had coached for nearly two decades, but always had thoughts of being a high school principal one day.

After not being chosen for an administrative position at Acadiana High shortly before beginning his Hall of Fame career as a parish athletic director, Simmons had pretty much decided to keep going down that successful road as a coach.

And why not? He was still in the process of building a powerhouse track and field team with the Wreckin’ Rams at the time, while also coaching defense in football.

Instead, Simmons yielded to the urging of family and friends to continue pursuing an administrative position. Frank Foreman had just retired as the Lafayette Parish Athletic Director and Simmons finally gave in “two or three days” before the applications deadline.

To his utter surprise, this time it worked.

Sitting in the hallway at Acadiana High drained after a two-a-day football session in August of 1990, Simmons was told that Superintendent Max Skidmore wanted him on the phone.

Initially thinking it was just a joke, Simmons didn’t pick up the phone for “six minutes or so.” When he finally did, he was met with a job offer.

Simmons would hold down that position that he wasn’t even sure he wanted for 23 years. His tenure will officially end on Aug. 1, but he’s already begun the process of cleaning out his office.

“I would have been perfectly happy being a coach for my entire career,” Simmons said. “At the time, I thought my long-term goal was to be a high school principal. I thought I could help a lot of kids that way, but the good Lord had other ideas.”

As it turned out, Simmons would indeed use this new athletic director’s position to impact the lives of many.

He helped usher in the era of paperwork and accountability for athletic programs in the parish and also oversaw unprecedented athletic success on the field along the way.

During his 23 years, Carencro won state titles in football and soccer. Acadiana won two state football titles, as well as in soccer. Lafayette High won boys and girls state titles in basketball and soccer.

Northside won a state title in basketball after years of excelling on the hardwood and continued to flourish in wrestling and track and field. Comeaux won a girls state soccer title.

“We were all just head over heels excited when James got the job,” Acadiana athletic director Anne Roger said. “He was one of us. He knew what we needed. He always did his utmost to get us what we needed.”

His impact was enormous and his career sports the awards to prove it. He’s the only Louisiana recipient of the National Federation’s Citation Award.

He’s been nominated for the national Hall of Fame.

He was the Southern Athletic Director of the Year in an eight-state region and won that state award three times.

Simmons is also in the LHSAA Hall of Fame for his contributions both as a coach and athletic director.

“Hindsight is 20-20,” Simmons said. “The good Lord had the right path set for me. Being athletic director allowed me to help so many kids over the years. I’ve never looked back.”

Of course, to simply call Simmons the “athletic director” wouldn’t be accurate. For one, that position also includes middle schools.

Also under his umbrella during this tenure were physical education for middle and high schools, Driver’s Education, all the spirit groups like pep squad, dancing and cheerleading. For three years, it even included band and chorus.

Simmons grew up playing baseball and running track, as well as football in New Iberia. He graduated at Jonas Henderson High and later at Southern in Baton Rouge. He coached at Crowley High and Acadiana from 1970 to 1990.

Later in life, he was a 200 bowler.

But as athletic director, Simmons would suddenly be dealing with many more than the sports he’d always coached or played. He said his appreciation for the sports of wrestling, soccer, swimming and volleyball grew immensely during his tenure.

“One sport that I really grew to enjoy watching was volleyball,” Simmons said. “I love to watch a good volleyball game. Those girls have a lot of skill.”

During the process, Simmons tried to incorporate the “club” sports such as soccer into the mainstream high school sports scene. He started girls soccer and Comeaux won that state title in the first year. Many soccer state titles would follow.

Simmons’ early strategy also took basketball coaches out of the football arena and gave football another coach. He fought to increase the pay for head football coaches, so they didn’t have to automatically be athletic directors for the extra compensation.

That meant, for instance, that Roger could be the first female athletic director in the parish at Acadiana High and other assistant and head coaches of other sports could perform that duty.

“James was a great track coach,” former Acadiana High baseball coach Scott McCullough said. “He did a great job of getting kids out for track.

“When he took over as athletic director, it was a tough time. There was so much more involved. There was so much more paperwork than there had ever been. James always tried his best to keep you from making a mistake.”

The biggest obstacle that kept Simmons from fulfilling all of his goals was money. With more money, he could have gotten air conditioning in all of the gymnasiums.

“That’s something that I really regret,” Simmons said. “I was really hoping to get air conditioning in the gyms before I left. Hopefully, that can happen soon.”

With more money, he could have gotten new tracks at all the schools.

“Everybody’s always asking for more money for their sport,” McCullough said. “I really believe that James always tried to do what he could, but this just isn’t a parish that has ever allocated a lot of money to athletics. He did what he could do.”

While the lack of progress in those areas still leave a part of Simmons empty, a few incidents during his tenure left him heartbroken.

The three that stick out in his mind took place at Lafayette High. The most serious was a player dying during a basketball practice.

“I always hoped that something like that would never happen on my watch,” Simmons said.

The next one was in his very first season on the job when the Lions’ football team had to forfeit nine wins. The second was the boys soccer team having to forfeit all of its wins just prior to the playoffs.

“That (football forfeits) was real tough,” Simmons said. “You never know how far that team could have gone. That was heartbreaking.

“The soccer (forfeits) was for something that still doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The negatives, however, were certainly dwarfed by the many positives in Simmons’ career.

“James certainly had to go through a lot of changes,” Roger said. “He always tried to keep us on top of things. He was always a great aid for us.”

And Simmons maintains that he’s not completely out of the game. He’s still a member of the LHSAA’s school relations committee, and he’s still an active track and field official.

“As long as I can walk, I plan on doing that,” Simmons said of his joy of track officiating.

In fact, in a few weeks, he’ll be in Detroit working the National Junior Olympics.

He leaves his current position, though, with more than his fair share of concerns for the future. For one, Simmons isn’t a fan of splitting the public and private schools athletically.

“I’ve never been for splitting,” he said. “I think it waters it down too much. Louisiana’s a small state. The first 10 or 15 athletes can compete with anyone. Once you get down to 50 or so, it goes down.”

Secondly, Simmons said he’s concerned about not having enough certified teachers to be coaches in the future, especially if the number of sports continues to increase.

His replacement would likely do well to have same calm demeanor in handling the challenges ahead.

“I’ve never been a real emotional guy,” he said. “You have to be able to look from a different perspective. You have to be able to weigh your options. When you have a decision to make, it has to be what’s best for the system and the program. Not what’s best for you.”

Athletic Network Footnote: James Simmons was a close colleague of mine while at Acadiana High School and Supervisor of Athletics and Health & Physical Education for Lafayette Parish.  He was always ready to help strengthen the profession and made numerous sacrifices toward that end. He left his areas of responsibility improved and stronger than when he started. He was always helping the UL Track & Field program and assisted the university whenever possible. Best wishes to him in his retirement. We visited briefly at Prejean’s Restaurant last week and he is doing well and feeling good. Peace, Ed Dugas