On Deck With...Rickey Gilliland
May 1, 2012By John Battle of Sports and Family Magazine
On Deck With...Rickey Gilliland
Talking to Rickey Gilliland, the former Berry High School and University of Alabama football standout; a member of the 1978-79 Alabama national championship teams – he was a graduate student coaching on the '79 squad - is easy; just place a recorder in front of him , turn it on, ask a leading question, then sit back and let him talk. So it was as I caught up with him at Panera Bread in Hoover, on his way to another sale for Red Diamond Coffee. His easy smile and friendly demeanor would set any one at ease.
In his formative years, Rickey's family lived in Prattville, where he attended Prattville Elementary from first through third grade. At that time Prattville, as most areas, had only the big three sports, baseball, basketball, and football, usually in the YMCA youth leagues. He started playing football when he was five, and he just happened to like it. And he learned very quickly that he had rather hit than be hit, so he settled in on defense. As he was one of the the bigger kids in the league, he always had to loose weight before games to qualify.
He didn't mind getting the bruises and the scrapes from practice and games; they were badges of honor he proudly wore. His team members recognized him as a valuable member often commenting on his physical abilities.
“It makes you feel good,” Rickey says. “And it wasn't ego driven, but it made you feel good that you were okay as a player.”
His father was in the construction business and Birmingham was where the jobs were, so the family moved. Once in Birmingham, his father was in constant pursuit of finding just the right area to settle in. As such, Rickey attended Green Valley Elementary for fourth grade, Cahaba Heights for fifth grade, Rocky Ridge for sixth grade, Vestavia Middle School for seventh grade, and then on to Berry High School from eighth grade through graduation.
Due to that, Rickey says he never had any problem fitting in from neighborhood to neighborhood, or team to team, whether it was the Cahaba Heights Black Knights or the Hoover Raiders.
His other sport was baseball until he came to Berry. That's when he met Coach Joe Perkins, who coached the defensive line. Coach Perkins was also the varsity wrestling coach. And he had a prerequisite that if you were a lineman, you also wrestled. As with the basketball team at Berry, a bunch of football players became the mainstay of the wrestling team.
Rickey comments that if it had not been for wrestling, he probably would not have been able to go on to the next level - collegiate athletics. He says he wasn't that good of a wrestler, he was average in his own estimation, though he did qualify for the state every year, but never placed.
Hand-eye coordination plus the learned trait of thinking quickly, Rickey attributes to wrestling as it is move-counter-move in one fluid motion of two twisted bodies.
Wrestling also taught him to be quick of foot. He admits his forty yard times (dashes) were awful but, but from 0 – 10, he could match up with any player. And that quickness came from his wrestling experience. It also gave him the ability to read offenses and react quicker to the play. A talent a middle linebacker has to have to be successful. And he thanks Coach Perkins for that.
In youth ball, Rickey played linebacker or defensive tackle, and full back on offense.
He remembers the first day he met Coach Bob Finley. The team was in the gym practicing in shorts, and his dad introduced him to the coach.
“What position do you play?” Coach Finley asked Rickey
“Fullback,” was the reply.
Without hesitation, Coach Finely responded, “The offensive line is right over there.”
With a quick “yes sir!” Rickey obeyed.
From then on Rickey was offensive guard and defensive tackle. Though it wasn't his choice of positions, and it hurt his feelings as he had prepared himself to be a running back. He accepted the decision and was determined to make the best of it.
It wasn't until his senior year that he played linebacker, though he was recruited as offensive guard at Alabama. There, as a freshman, playing on the freshman team playing a freshman schedule and the scout team for the varsity, he began to come into his own in the linebacker position. After their five game schedule was completed, during a practice drill a player was injured and a linebacker replacement was needed. Rickey raised his hand and said, “I can do it.” He jumped to the defensive side of the ball and he stayed there.
Reminiscing, Rickey says, “...you never know how thing are going to work out.”
On Coach Finley, he says he was a hard worker.
“Being young, in high school,” he says, “you don't realize those things (about your coaches) until you leave. We were interested in playing ball, getting a car, and going out on dates. You don't realize how much work they(coaches) put into it until you are out of the program.”
“He always treated me fairly,” he continues, “and I couldn't ask for anything more. The game plans he put out were fantastic. We never made it to the state while I was there, and I think that was a pretty big disappointment as we had some pretty good teams with several guys who went on to play Division I football.”
He was recruited by Bud Moore, a University of Alabama recruiter. Moore came to visit Rickey at Berry, and the two of them walked out into an empty stadium, and he said, “Rick, I need to ask you a couple of questions. I talked to coach Bryant, he thinks you're one of the people we would like to have at the University....”
As the conversation ensued, Rickey says he thought this was just an informal meeting to see what Rickey's interests were.
“Are you interested?” he asked Rickey.
Rickey answered, “Yes sir, I would like to play.”
The next day's newspaper headlines read “Gilliland commits to Alabama.”
His mother, who was reading the headlines asked her son, “Did you do this?”
“I guess I did,” he retorted.
Rickey had no idea that what he said to the recruiter was a verbal commitment just as solid as if he had signed his name. “I just didn't realize what I was doing,” he says.
That following weekend he was to make a recruiting trip to Baylor University.
It didn't happen.
He admits he was a college football fan, but not a fan of any particular school. Georgia, Tennessee, Baylor, and a few other schools were in the hunt for Rickey, though he had no favorite himself. His parents had no allegiance to any particular team; no collegiate flags of any kind could be found in the Gilliland house.
At the time, colleges would send prospects a form to fill out to include height, weight, time in the 4/40, and have them send it back if they were interested in that school. Rickey had no idea of his abilities as a prospect at the collegiate level, though he knew he was pretty good. Other Birmingham standouts included such names as Jeff Rutledge of Banks high School, and Freddie Knight, and he didn't realize he was par to them. The coaches at Berry didn't push recruiting to the extent as other schools.
“Their philosophy,” Rickey sums up, “was if you were good enough, got your name in the paper enough, you would be noticed. And I was fortunate enough that my name was in the paper enough that somebody found me.”
Recruited as an offensive guard, at 6'1” and 240lbs, he lost weight his first year at Alabama, down to a linebacker's weight and and speed.
On coach Bryant, Rickey says, “he was intimating – a big man at 6'3” - and he wore construction boots that made him look taller. You knew he was a person of faith and of stature...and you never questioned him; you did what he asked...he knew his stuff. He could read people; he knew who to push. And what I mean push, is that in practice we had controlled scrimmages where only the coaches would substitute you, and he knew how far to push you. We had one guy who went something like one hundred and twenty straight plays. He (coach Bryant) was either going to make you or break you. And that's how you became an All-American.”
As a sophomore in 1976, things weren't going well for Alabama as they had two early losses beginning the season. Coach Bryant brought Rickey out of his red shirt status on the traveling squad to fill the linebacker position.
The next game, against Southern Mississippi, Rickey relates; “We beat 'em, but we didn't look good doing it and he was mad. After the game, he put on the chalk board 'Full scale scrimmage Sunday morning – 8 A.M.', and we're all thinking, 'We just won a ballgame.'”
And it was an old fashion slobber knocker.
“Nobody was in a good mood,” Rickey explains. “Everybody was hollering and screaming at each other and I just happened to have a pretty good scrimmage. So that [next] Monday afternoon coach Paul Crane, our linebacker's coach, came out and said, “Ricko, be ready to play against Tennessee.'”
Playing in Knoxville, Tennessee made a first down on the third play of the game. Rickey heard his name being called but didn't think much of it as he was on the bench. He figured he would get in if Alabama got behind or way ahead. On the fourth play of the game, Rickey was in linebacker position on the field and was the starter the rest of his collegiate career.
During the Missouri game later that year, which happened to be the week of his birthday, Rickey scored his only collegiate touchdown.
“We jumped out to an early lead, about 17 points,” Rickey reminisces, “and right before the half, we let them score. Now, Coach Bryant didn't get mad often, something people didn't generally know, and for some reason he was furious. He comes in (at half time) and starts ranting and raving and we (the players) knew we had to do something. As they say, tighten up the chin strap and get ready to play.”
Missouri received the ball to start the second half, and the defense produced a three and out. E.J Junior, who became an All-American the next year, broke through, blocked the punt, and the ball just happened to bounce into Rickey's hands and he ran it into the end zone. It was joyous week for the new Alabama linebacker.
The lesson that has followed Rickey all his life, the example that sports, and his parents, set for him is not to quit.
“My mother and dad had a rule of thumb,” he says, “that if you start something you are going to finish it. One year in youth ball I wanted to quit. We had a coach that, looking back, was pretty dangerous. He would put the big guy up against the little guy and run us all the time. And I wanted to quit, but my daddy wouldn't let me. I was going to finish what I had started. If I had quit, I don't know if I would have played again. And I am thankful for that which he instilled in us: don't quit.”
Rickey played for the 1978 National Championship team, and with one semester left to graduate but ineligible to play the following year, he told coach Bryant he would do anything to keep his scholarship that would enable him to graduate. As a graduate assistant, Bama repeated the next year. Not expecting anything, he was going through lunch line one day, and the '79 championship rings were being passed out. Coach Goosestreet caught up with Rickey and asked him to sign a piece of paper. Rickey inquired as to what for and the response was that coach Bryant had ordered him a ring for his contributions to the scout team that year.
“Now that's class and taking care of your own,” Rickey says of coach Bryant.
Another lesson that is forged into the soul of Rickey Gilliland.
Rickey and his wife, Debra, who were high school sweethearts, celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary this year. They have three daughters; Lacy (Brent) Lazenby, Amy (Ervin) Williamson, and Haley Gilliland. Rickey and Debra now enjoy their time away sight-seeing on his motocycle.