Former Greenville Lions football coach Pittman Keen was on a tractor, the first time I met him.
It was the heat of the summer of 1979, not long before the start of two-a-day football workouts. He’d been mowing Phillips Field, which was then the home stadium for the Lions. It was natural grass and the field looked great.
As soon as he stepped off the tractor, I noticed what a big man he was, large enough to play college football as a lineman after walking on at Delta State in Mississippi.
The next thing I picked up on was that Mississippi Delta accent. I always loved hearing Coach Keen talk.
He took great care of that field with the help of a Greenville Independent School district worker nicknamed “Dirt Dobber.” It was the best-maintained field in Hunt County at that time.
“He thought that field would be good for the kids,” Jim Coker said on Friday at Keen’s service in Greenville. “To cut down on injuries.”
“He worked so hard,” said Coker. “He was the hardest worker I’ve ever seen.”
Keen, who died on Sunday at the age of 81, not only worked hard on the maintenance of the field but put in the extra work in practice and on game night. He worked the players hard in the offseason and in practice and all that hard work paid off on the playing field and later in life.
“He taught us to work hard and never give up,” said Robert Hutchins, one of Keen’s former players. “Even when things got tough.”
Phil Blue, another former Lions player, told a story about when Keen was an assistant coach at Quinlan Ford, working on the Panthers’ grass field. The other coaches had taken a lengthy break inside while Keen was toiling alone out in the boiling sun. Keen walked in on the other coaches and said, according to Blue, “I don’t appreciate people sitting while I’m working.”
Keen’s football teams not only worked very hard before the game, but played hard in the games. He was the head coach of the Lions from 1974-83. His teams were always in great condition and hit very hard. As hard as any of the Lion football teams I’ve seen play over the past 41 seasons. The Lions, under Keen, didn’t always win on the scoreboard but they almost always won the physical battle on the field.
I would watch the players from the other team limp off the field after the game. They knew they had been in a real battle.
“He nurtured our physical development,” said Phil Dukes, another former player who spoke at the service.
Keen was an assistant coach with the Lions from 1963 to 1973 under head coach Larry Hogue and then after Hogue’s passing became the head coach of the Lions. The Lions turned out some great teams and great players during that 20-year time period, including many who were good enough to play college football and some who went on to play professional football.
Another part of Keen that I appreciated as a sportswriter was his honesty.
“He was honest, always,” said D.D. Sumrall, Jr., who officiated at the service. “He would tell you exactly what he thought if you asked him.”
I will miss Coach Keen. He made a difference in the many lives that he touched. Including mine.
Congratulations to the four new inductees into the Greenville Athletic Hall of Honor: sprinters Brandon Couts and LaToya Phelps, plus former Lion athlete and coach Jim Coker and Carver-ex Thurman “Skeeter” Brigham.
Couts was, without a doubt, the best 400-meter runner to come out of Greenville. He not only won a state 400-meter title with the Lions but also an NCAA indoor 400-meter crown while at Baylor.
Phelps was the Lady Lions’ best all-around track and field athlete of all time with seven state titles in the 100, 200 and triple jump. At one time she held state records in both the 100 and triple jump and a Class 4A (now 5A) record in the triple jump that stood for more than 15 years.
Coker was a standout linebacker with the Lions and a four-year letterman in football at East Texas State before coaching 46 seasons as a head football coach and assistant. That’s a lot!
Brigham was a standout running back who played on a state football finalist team at Carver and was on the Golden Tigers’ all-time top lists on offense and defense as compiled by their longtime head coach Clell Davidson.
Brigham’s also part of a very athletic family that included Greenville basketball standout Willie Brigham, a college basketball player of the year in Oklahoma.
David Claybourn is sports editor of the Herald-Banner.