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Gene Phelps: Life after athletics working out just fine for Coach Linder

Mickey Linder likes to say he's the "Wal-Mart greeter" to the children stepping off the buses each morning at Tupelo's Thomas Street Elementary School.

And the students seem to enjoy his warm greeting before they enter the school building. Many slap his extended right hand as they hurry past. He pats a few on their heads. Others stop for a quick hug.

One little girl asks him if he's coming to her P.E. class to watch them dance.

"When is it?" he asks, looking at the piece of paper in his hand, which contains his schedule of activities for the day. "Nine thirty, I can make that," he says, writing the time down.

"They're learning a dance in P.E. and I told her I'd come learn it, too. I've got two left feet," he said, then laughed.

Coach Linder, as he is known by the students, is no longer a coach. After 28 seasons of coaching football and basketball, he is now an administrative assistant at Thomas Street and Joyner elementary schools.

"I really haven't figured it out, yet," he said of his new job. "I'm in charge of some discipline, really, anything they need done. I'm kind of feeling my way through it."

Linder doesn't like to say he retired from coaching.

"I just wanted to try something different," he said. "I wanted to see if there was life away from a football field and a basketball court. I just thought it was my time to leave.

"I like to say I quit. I didn't retire."

Linder's teams were winners

Grambling's Eddie Robinson and Alabama's late Paul "Bear" Bryant are no matches for Linder when it comes to victories. His Tupelo ninth grade, Carver ninth grade and Milam Junior High football and basketball teams won more than 600 games.

Linder coached 15 undefeated teams in football and 11 undefeated teams in basketball. His Carver football teams put together one 40-game winning streak and one 44-game winning streak. On the basketball court, he had 40-game and 46-game winning streaks.

Despite all of his success, Linder never coached a day on the high school level. The offers were there, but he says he didn't want the pressure.

"That's my makeup," he said. "I'm going to worry about the ballgame. Plus, I liked what I was doing."

Linder attributes the success of his teams to three things: the uniqueness of Carver, the former ninth grade-only school, his players and his assistant coaches.

"Carver was a unique place one school, one grade. They had their own band, own cheerleaders, own pep squad. And (principal) Harry Grayson was as good a motivator as you could have at pep rallies. Everybody had fun and everybody cared about each other."

As for the players, Linder says, "We worked the devil out of them."

He said, "I tried to work kids harder than they were capable of working. I wanted to make them go above and beyond. That's part of my philosophy about everything, to do a little above of what you're called on to do. And, maybe it will carry over into their lives when they're on their on jobs."

Linder's final key to success was his assistant coaches.

"I worked with great coaches," he said. "I could name them, but I might leave off one. ... I never called them assistant coaches. They put in the same amount of time as I did. It takes that to have a successful program."

Linder did it for the kids

Friends, former players and parents of former players have established an honorary scholarship fund to honor Linder. He will be recognized for his coaching career at Friday's Tupelo-Southaven football game.

"I'm a little embarrassed in a way," the soft-spoken Linder said. "I'm accepting anything on behalf of all the teachers and coaches who never get anything for their work.

"As for the scholarship, if it helps a kid, then it's worth it."

One of the organizers of Friday's ceremony, Tommy McElroy, had two sons play for Linder. He says of Linder, "He is the coach you dream about your child playing under. The values, the work ethic he instills in them you can't put a price on."

Linder has heard the praise from parents, but he feels just the opposite.

"Really, in coaching, the kid helps you," he said. "People don't think about that, but the kid helps the coach. You'll receive more blessings and more rewards from a kid than he ever will from you. You get the credit, but he does the work. That's the way it is in football. They do the work. The coach gets the credit.

"That's important for me to let them know that. I really got all my blessings from the children."

Gene Phelps is sports editor for the Daily Journal

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