On Saturday the Americus lost a coaching legend with the passing of Jimmy Hightower. Although Hightower was so well known for his two football state championships at Americus High School, he also led the Americus Panthers to three championships in golf and one in basketball and baseball. Even greater than his contributions to the sporting world were his contributions to the lives of the young men that he led, according the University of Georgia’s first sideline announcer and legendary presence Loran Smith.
Smith and Hightower first met in the 1960’s when Smith was traveling the state with the Georgia Bulldog Club. Smith and Hightower struck up a friendship as each of the two well-known storytellers were never short on words in their fascinating conversations. Smith continued to stay in touch with Hightower throughout his coaching career and even served as his secretary while Hightower held the position of president of the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association.
“The reward of coaching, for a great coach like Jimmy, was to see a kid become a responsible and good citizen,” Smith told the Times-Recorder. “He was an exceptional person in that he was not only a good coach, but he also meant a great deal to the kids.”
Hightower was born in Cedartown, on September 29, 1929 but spent many of his years in Americus, a town that would become home to he and his family. During his tenure at Americus High School from 1954-1971, he led his Panther football teams to an incredible 103-16-4 mark, winning two Class A state titles in 1962 and 1965 and claiming six region championships. For his tremendous work on the gridiron, Hightower was named the Georgia Class A Football Coach of the Year in 1962, 1965, and 1968. He was also named the Albany Touchdown Club Coach of the Year in 1962 and 1965.
Hightower’s inspirational leadership did not stop on the football field, however, as he also lead the Panther golf team to state titles in 1966, 1968, and 1969. He also spent 10 years as the head coach of the Panther basketball program, claiming the school’s only basketball state championship in 1961 along with five region championships. His first championship with the Panthers came as a baseball coach, where he led the Americus High School baseball team to the 1955 Class AA state title.
Following his historic career at Americus High, Hightower moved to LaGrange where he led the Granger football program to a 47-34-1 record and one region title from 1972-1980. After an eight year layover in LaGrange, Hightower returned to Americus where he became the first head coach for the NAIA Georgia Southwestern College’s new football program. With young and inexperienced teams, Hightower led the Hurricanes to winning seasons in each of his first five seasons against tough conference competition.
All of Hightower’s hard work and dedicated leadership did not go unnoticed. He was inducted to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2003. Hightower is also in the Georgia Southwestern University Hall of Fame and he was inducted to the inaugural class of the Americus-Sumter County High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011.
Hightower’s legacy is much more than that of just a great coach, according to Smith. “He was the kind of guy that you could always count on. He always lived up to his commitments and if he said he was going to do something then he was going to do it,” he said. “He was terrific in his leadership and work ethic, and he was just a great citizen.”
City of Americus Mayor and former player Barry Blount echoed Smith’s comments. “He coached me in the ninth and tenth grade before coach Shell took over my eleventh grade year. He was a living legend in the town and he touched a lot of lives. I have a lot of fond memories of coach Hightower and what he did for not only me, but for this community,” said Blount.
Blount recalls that as a young boy he knew that playing for Hightower at Americus High School was a dream that many children in the community had. “I remember as a small boy wanting to play for the Panthers and coach Hightower, because that was a big deal.”
Blount also pointed out the fact that although he might not have had the strongest, fastest, or most athletic players, Hightower always got the most out of his teams. “Coach Hightower just had a knack for getting the most out of all his players. He didn’t always have the most athletic or the strongest players, but he got us to give 110 percent and that’s what made Americus successful.”
Hightower left a lasting impression on the community of Americus from his always-kind smile to his entertaining stories, which Blount says he will miss the most about the legendary coach. “It didn’t matter who you were he always knew you and always had a great story to tell you, and that’s what I think I will miss the most about him,” Blount said. “Americus is a very special place now because of people like coach Hightower.”
Funeral services for coach Hightower will be held at 2 p.m. today at First United Methodist Church with Rev. Jim Smith officiating. Burial will follow at Leslie City Cemetery. The family will receive friends Monday, April 1, from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. at Greg Hancock Funeral Chapel. The family suggests memorial contributions be made to First United Methodist Church, 200 S. Lee St., Americus, Ga. 31709.
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