Bob Lutz

One of a kind: John Dawkins dedicated life to coaching football

A minute or two with John Dawkins was to be cherished. You never knew what he might say or how he might say it, but you could be pretty sure he would be talking about football.

Even though he was recruited to Oklahoma to play basketball, Dawkins poured himself into football. He drew plays up on napkins, toilet paper, hands — anything on which lead or ink could be applied. He was always thinking about ways to devise plays or develop schemes. His friends remember when, as a kid, he would pretend to announce football games. He was so good that they swore the voice was coming from a radio as they walked up the stairs to his bedroom.

Doc, as his friends called him, grew up in South Haven and later coached at Kismet, Dodge City, Wellington, Hutchinson, Wichita Southeast and Wichita Collegiate. He died Sunday at the age of 75 after battling ill health the past 10 years.

Dawkins was most comfortable in the mad scientist role: The assistant coach with the brilliant mind. He was a head coach at Wellington and Hutchinson, but by the time I got to know him he was more comfortable mixing in the background.

Dawkins coached on Jim Davie's staff at Southeast in the mid-1970s, when the Buffaloes were consistently winning City League and state championships with a staff that also included Bill Means, Bruce DeHaven, Harold Brandenburg, Dennis Cavalier and Dan Johnson. It was a Who's Who among high school coaches, but everyone on the staff looked up to Dawkins.

He could see an offensive play on television once and know exactly what every player did to make it work. Then he would implement it — at least elements of it — with his high school team.

Dawkins was a weapon in the press box, where he sat with his legs folded, head sets over his ears and a cigarette in his mouth as he called plays — some he would make up on the spur of the moment — to the sideline. He was known as an offensive guru, but Dawkins also served as a defensive coordinator during his career. He came to know football inside and out and was never hesitant about sharing his ideas, even with an opponent.

"Boy, I'll tell you, what memories and what a guy,'' said Davie, who left Southeast to become an assistant at Kansas State and has been in the insurance business for many years. "I've never known anyone like him.''

Davie went to breakfast Monday morning with a group of his friends, all of whom had met Dawkins a few times over the years. It didn't take long for the stories to start flying.

The thing about most Dawkins stories is that they cannot be told in a family newspaper, or really even in mixed company. He always managed to include a couple of lumps of crude with his endearing personality.

During his later years in coaching, Dawkins joined Mike Gehrer's staff at Collegiate. Gehrer, like every coach who was around in those days, was heavily influenced by Dawkins.

"John didn't mince words,'' said Gehrer, now a Collegiate assistant. "That was the great thing about being around him. He would just come out and tell you. One day I wanted to do something a little bit different with one of his plays and he said, 'If you do that, I'm (expletive) quitting. Well, we went ahead and did it and he was fine with it. But he was serious. I knew he was serious.''

When Dawkins was on a football field, he was comfortable. But he battled demons away from football, some he never conquered. Depression was a persistent problem and he became a recluse late in life.

Davie saw Dawkins from time to time in recent years, and said the discussion was lively when it related to football. But after 20 minutes or so, Davie said, Dawkins would get that far-away look in his eyes and the conversation would wane.

Yet as difficult as his life was at times, there will be a celebration of it Wednesday at the Cornerstone Cremation Society, 5318 E. 37th St. North, starting at 7 p.m.

There is so much to celebrate when it comes to Dawkins, a chain-smoking, hard-living, good-hearted man who was loved by everyone, warts and all.

It was the warts, even, that helped make Dawkins so endearing. He wore his internal battles on his sleeve and his friends were as bemused by him as they were bewildered and irritated.

"John was probably the quirkiest individual around and he was so quirky around the players, the kids, that they all thought he was just the funniest guy in the world,'' Gehrer said. "But they all admired and respected Doc. If he was late for a practice, they were like, 'Where's Coach Dawkins?' By the time he was at Collegiate, he wasn't super close with the players because he didn't want to get attached. But they loved him.''

Dawkins was told early on that he wasn't to smoke on the Collegiate campus, a rule he followed for, oh, probably a few hours.

Eventually, Dawkins would get in his golf cart, which he was given because of his advancing age and decreasing mobility, and sneak off to have a smoke.

"I'd look around and he'd be gone,'' Gehrer said. "So I look toward the trees at the north end of the football field and there he is, smoking a cigarette. Then suddenly he's right next to you, telling you that play you're running ain't no good.''

Dawkins was a fixture at coaching clinics, where coaches from high school and college lined up to pick his brain. It wasn't just his knowledge they wanted, though. It was a few minutes with such a colorful personality. Dawkins had a way of making his inside football knowledge entertaining.

Weston Schartz, Northwest's football coach, played under Dawkins at Southeast. Schartz is one of the many who says he learned more football from Dawkins than from anyone else.

"He would help anyone,'' Schartz said. "There was a time I called him about something and he said to come on over to his house. So I took a couple of my assistant coaches over there and as I'm going in, a couple of opponents are coming out. I look at one of my assistants and say, 'This is bull.' "

That was Doc. He was always there to talk football.

Lynda Dawkins was an English teacher at Wellington in 1971, having left the convent just a couple of years earlier. One of her students, Bryce Day, told her she should think about dating Dawkins. Day, interestingly, is the mortician at Cornerstone, where Dawkins' service will be held.

Lynda assumed Dawkins was married because he had shown her a picture of his son, Russ. But Russ was Dawkins' son from a previous marriage and eventually the two of them did date, then marry.

For 37 years, she was the ultimate football widow, married to a man whose ongoing affair was with a game.

"I fell in love with him because he was so real,'' Lynda said. "There was no pretense. But over the years, there were times when I wished he would have had some pretense.''

Dawkins was real until the end. All of his personality traits were stark. He was a force who often lost his way. But he lived life. Brother, did he ever live life.