Remembering Hixson's Coach Martino

Friday, February 5, 2021
Tony Martino
Tony Martino

(John Shearer in 2018 featured popular Hixson High coach Tony Martino. Coach Martino died Tuesday at the age of 93.)

After spending most of his growing-up years in the Northeastern Pennsylvania town of Pittston as the son of a coal miner involved in drilling and blasting, Tony Martino would often be covered in black after a day of work as an adult as well.


But it would be in the black and gold shirts of Hixson High as a longtime teacher and coach.

For 42 years, he proudly served the school as it went from a small rural county school into one of the larger suburban schools. Today, he says he would not trade the experience for anything.

“I enjoyed my time at Hixson,” he said. “I thought they were great years and seeing the school actually grow was great. It was a tremendous change.”


During his years at Hixson, he was the football and basketball head coach for part of the time, and assisted with other sports in addition to serving as athletic director.


As Coach Martino reminisced recently from his home on Big Ridge, he said he ended up in Chattanooga because he came down to play for coach A.C. “Scrappy” Moore at the University of Chattanooga when the Mocs often recruited players from up North.


Coach Martino’s family – including his father, who came to the United States from Italy as a young man, and his mother, who came from Sicily as an infant -- had moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey late in his high school years. But he ended up finishing at Pittston and staying with an uncle.


He admittedly enjoyed being at UC and had no trouble becoming acclimated.


“I was one of Scrappy’s boys,” he proudly recalled. “I was a lineman, a very small lineman. I weighed 215 pounds, which was not big for a tackle.”


During that time, UC played such schools as Tennessee and Alabama.


He had arrived at UC in the late 1940s after World War II and had been too young to serve in that war. But while at the school, he almost had to serve in Korea. He was instructed to go to Fort Oglethorpe for a physical examination regarding possible military service, but he was later deferred “until further notice,” he said.


But he did get to do some capturing – at least of a heart. That came when he met and married his wife, Billie Jean, who was from Copperhill, Tn. They later raised two children – Tony W. Martino and Jo-Ellen Collier.


After he finished at UC, the couple was living in a now-razed Oak Street home near the campus, and he thought he had received a job as a teacher and coach at Red Bank High for the fall of 1952.


He was scheduled to replace Jack Mayfield, who was to go into the Army, but the situation changed and Mr. Mayfield ended up staying at Red Bank. But the superintendent told him a similar type job was available at Hixson if he wanted it.


“I didn’t care,” he said. “I was right out of college. All I wanted was a job.”


However, it soon dawned on coach Martino that he did not have a car at the time and that, while he could have caught a public bus over to Red Bank, that option was not available for the more rural Hixson at the time.


But the principal of Hixson was future Chattanooga city commissioner Dean Petersen, and coach Martino talked to him and told him of his predicament. Mr. Petersen, who lived on Missionary Ridge, said he would gladly pick him up in the mornings, but Mr. Martino would have to be outside and ready to go, that Mr. Petersen would not go knock on the door.


So he did that, and his principal gave him a ride every morning.


“He loved the South and was a retired military man,” recalled coach Martino of Mr. Petersen and their daily carpooling conversations. “He was a super nice guy.”


However, because coach Martino became involved in coaching and Mr. Petersen left school before him every day, coach Martino had to find a ride home or at least to downtown Chattanooga in the late afternoons. As an example of how the world was different back in 1952-53, usually he would just start walking toward and along Hixson Pike in the direction of downtown, and someone would stop and pick him up.


“I always got a ride,” he said. “Sometimes I would have to walk a mile before I got one.”


The next year, he bought a 1953 Chevrolet, and his ride-hitching days were over. And he would actually end up being the one to start carrying people through his efforts to try and lift up even more the Hixson High sports program as a coach.


He initially taught such subjects as health, science and physical education, and helped assist head football coach Tony Matusek. Coach Matusek, an older former UC football player whom coach Martino called a nice man, had previously started the football programs at both Soddy-Daisy beginning in 1937 and Hixson in 1948.


A native of Ohio and the son of Czech immigrants, coach Matusek was also the head coach of both the boys and girls basketball teams and the baseball team at Hixson.


“He really had his crate full,” coach Martino said with a laugh.


Coach Martino was his only assistant when he arrived and worked with the offensive and defensive line. Later joining them as assistants were such coaches as Joel Brewster, later a coach at Central and assistant at Red Bank, and J.D. Lewis. Coach Lewis, a former Matusek player at Hixson, had earlier coached baseball at Red Bank and oversaw the Valleybrook pool in the summers before moving to Texas.


Hixson at that time had students in grades 7-12 in the same complex at what is now the Hixson Community Center at 5401 School Drive, although most of the older buildings except the auditorium were torn down in recent years. Because so many grades were in the same place, a coach or teacher could observe and get to know the students over a longer period of time than a typical high school teacher or coach would, he added.


Among those who remember coach Martino in his early years at Hixson was Jim Smith from the Class of 1956.


“He is a great guy who looked for the best in students,” recalled Mr. Smith, who later went into education as well in North Georgia. “He helped students set high and realistic goals for themselves.  He encouraged me with the idea of ‘be all that you can be’ philosophy.  Set goals, plan a strategy, and take action!  Believe in yourself!  A great man.” 


Although many Hixson students who came along later in coach Martino’s tenure remember him as the head football coach and athletic director, his first chance to be a head coach at Hixson actually came in boys basketball.


In all the sports he coached, coach Martino was known as being hard-nosed and a challenger, but still likable. And this was true in basketball.


“I was a disciplinarian,” he said with a smile, adding that sometimes his Saturday basketball practices might go three or four hours in those days before strict, TSSAA-mandated practice schedule times existed.


He also liked to have disciplined basketball teams who set screens and had other specific plays, rather than being free roaming.


A lot of his basketball players in the early days would come from the Lupton City area, he said, and at that time, not many people lived on Big Ridge. In fact, it was known more for squirrel hunting than house hunting during his early days at Hixson, although Edwin Harvey was one player who came from the ridge, he remembered.


A good Lupton City area basketball player was Gary Hall, the father of current Hixson High athletic director Garrick Hall.


Among the other basketball players he recalled from the 1960s era were Marshall Gupton, Freddie Blanks and Doug Fairbanks, now the soon-to-be-retired senior pastor at the large First-Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Chattanooga. Rev. Fairbanks had also kicked a field goal in a 3-0 upset win over rival Red Bank in 1963.


One player in the later 1960s was Mike Ricketts. And just recently, former all-city Hixson player Gary Campbell from that era died at age 69.


Among the games and seasons, Coach Martino said he did not keep up with how many years he coached a sport or the records. But a few moments stand out, including several championships in a row in basketball and being named coach of the year.


He particularly recalled 1964, when the team lost to East Ridge High early in the season by a large margin, but came back to beat the Pioneers by a good spread in the rematch.


With the help of school office staff member Nina East and librarian Lindsey McCarter, some old Hixson High yearbooks were examined in the library to get more details. And in those games he mentioned during the 1963-64 season, East Ridge had beaten Hixson, 68-31, in the first game, but the Wildcats came back to win the second one, 76-54.


Although the 1962 yearbook was missing, he was the head coach by the 1962-63 season, after Mose Payne – later a coach at Baylor -- briefly served as coach for a period.


Of the known years coach Martino was head coach, the yearbooks reveal that he had an impressive slate. His record was 12-4 in 1962-63; 23-2 in 1963-64: 16-5 in 1964-65; 13-7 in 1965-66; 9-12 in 1966-67; 15-7 in 1967-68; and 12-8 in 1968-69 in his last year before he handed over the reins to William Faulk the next year.


“My first love was football, but I thoroughly enjoyed basketball because you had 15 kids and they were easier to control and you got them to do what you wanted them to do,” he said of his time on the hardcourt.


The 1963 team was Hamilton County Interscholastic League champion, and the 1965 team won the League’s A division. Also, during the 1966 season, Hixson under coach Martino apparently played its first game against a historically black high school, when it lost to Howard, 51-46. The Wildcats later played Booker T. Washington while he was the coach in those early days of interracial games in Chattanooga.


Hixson High had moved to the uniquely shaped school consisting initially of two round buildings in the fall of 1966, so he was also the first coach in the new round gym.


He also remembered having some cookouts for teams early on at his longtime former home at 3809 Forest Highland Drive near Ashland Terrace before the team would have banquets, and he would buy the meat from a local butcher near the railroad tracks in Hixson. He would ask the players often whether they would want multiple hamburgers or steaks, and many times the players said they preferred hamburgers.


While the head basketball coach, coach Martino continued serving as an assistant to coach Matusek in football. He eventually received a chance to serve as head coach in that sport, too.


As coach Martino recalled, coach Matusek had thought about retiring as football coach earlier, but wanted to go out on a high note, and did after the 1967 season before enjoying retirement for only a few years before his death in 1973.


Coach Martino took over as head football coach beginning with the 1968 season and assumed the athletic director’s position as well. He also continued one final year as head basketball coach after assuming the head football duties.


His records during his eight seasons as head football coach were 3-6-1 in 1968, 6-4 in 1969, 5-5 in 1970, 2-7-1 in 1971, 8-3 in 1972, 5-4 in 1973, 4-5-1 in 1974, and 2-8 in 1975.


At that time, Baylor under coach E.B. “Red” Etter usually had the best program in Chattanooga, and, by the time coach Martino stepped down, schools like McCallie, City High, Brainerd and Red Bank were also tough in the Chattanooga area as well. Of course, Hixson was still playing mostly county schools until the late 1970s, although it did play some of the tougher teams closer to downtown Chattanooga.


Coach Martino, who in 2018 still looks like he could jog off a practice field, was actually quite familiar with Baylor because he had worked its former summer boys camp for about two decades after getting hired by Sib Evans Sr. while at UC. He later worked with such former Moc teammates as Jack Stanford and Luke Worsham, and even became acquainted with some of the Baylor standout athletes like John Hannah, who was involved with the camp.


Coach Martino remembered that he and his family would also swim some in the former Baylor outdoor pool after the camp had ended, often before he would have a late afternoon practice at Hixson during fall football camp.


As his head-coaching career continued, he said he started to notice that a small number of the good players on the Hixson Junior High teams found their way to Baylor as well, but it was to play for coach Etter.


As a result, one day he went over to talk to Baylor headmaster Herb Barks Jr., a former Baylor Camp colleague from years earlier, about the situation. While the conversation was amicable, the issue did not get very far in those days before the private and public schools throughout Tennessee eventually split over those kinds of situations, he recalled with a smile.


Coach Martino did enjoy some individual game high moments against the private schools during his tenure. He beat McCallie, 9-6, in 1969, and he defeated Baylor, 27-7, in 1970 during Red Raider coach Etter’s first year at the helm, although Baylor beat them handily in 1972 as the Red Raiders were on their way to the first of two state championship game appearances in a row.


He also beat then-archrival Red Bank early in the seasons of both 1972 and 1975, and the 1972 team beat Shelbyville, 10-8, in the Tullahoma Lions Bowl. Coach Martino jokingly remembered that some fights broke out in that game, and the two teams had to sit near each other in a banquet room afterward. 


His senior quarterback in 1972 when Hixson had its best season during his tenure was Jim Coppinger. Yes, that is the same Jim Coppinger who is now the Hamilton County mayor. 


He recalled that Mayor Coppinger was good at running the wishbone offense and executing the fakes at a time after coach Martino had dropped the old Notre Dame box that coach Matusek used and implemented various offenses.


Coach Martino also recalled that Mr. Coppinger also had other redeeming qualities. “He was a leader. It didn’t surprise me that he got into politics,” he said.


Among the other players who played there about that time as Hixson was growing into a more suburban school included former UTC football players David Sessoms, Stan Eller, Mitchell Gravitt (who started his career at Tennessee), and Dan Emery. Jeff Holcomb went to Furman and was an academic all-American and became a doctor after briefly flirting with the opportunity to become an Atlanta Falcon, he said.


After coach Martino stepped down as coach after the 1975 season, principal Bill Edwards hired former Tennessee all-American lineman Chip Kell to replace him, although coach Martino stayed on as athletic director.


Coach Martino also went on to continue helping coach several sports for a long time. He coached the shot put and discus in track, and he and Steve Underwood even started the first girls’ track team at the school. He also helped Steve Copeland’s wrestling team, and was in charge of conditioning. The cross-country team he worked with finished second in the state one time, his highest finish for a team with which he was involved.


And he also helped some with football, helping coach and former UC football player Angela “Nubby” Napolitano after he became Hixson’s coach. As a result, he perhaps got more closure on being a football coach.


Coach Martino recalled that Hixson during his years had a lot of selfless coaches, and no one had big egos or wanted to grab all the glory.


Because of these and other pleasantries, he was always content at Hixson, he said. “I liked the people and I stayed there,” he said. “I could have left many times, but I stayed there.”


Although he was not necessarily emotionally ready to retire, coach Martino finally did in 1994, a career that spanned 10 U.S. presidencies. By that time, Hixson High’s senior class was numbering about 400 students, much more than the 60 or so when he first started in 1952.


Coach Martino, who was also long a Penn State football fan, admitted he was not really ready to retire, even though he had been there 42 years. He quickly found a second career, though, as a handyman, a trade he had learned as a carpenter’s assistant as a teenager. He proudly pointed out multiple stonewalls he built at his ridge home near Lake Chickamauga during the interview.


With his outgoing manner, who knows what would have happened if “Home and Garden Television” had discovered him?


Even while still at Hixson, he had helped build something. He and several others were involved in getting the Hixson community to help build a stadium where the team had once practiced near Middle Valley Road. The school system had provided some financial and supportive help, but he and others raised money for additional amenities and did some of the physical labor.


In 1977, while he was athletic director but no longer the head coach, the season was finally opened in a memorable season-opening game against his old second scholastic home of Baylor.


And in 2006, the stadium finally had a more formal name – Anthony Martino Field. It was rededicated during an Oct. 27, 2006, game following a push by local alumni. During the ceremony, he was given a plaque recognizing him “as a teacher, coach, athletic director and loyal role model for all student athletes.”


Coach Martino admitted to being surprised at the honor. “I was just flabbergasted and overwhelmed by the whole thing,” he said.


This man had given his all to Hixson High, and now he was getting some additional love in return.


For him, though, getting to stay at the school located up Hixson Pike for 42 years had already offered him plenty of rewarding satisfaction.


“I enjoyed my time at Hixson,” he said with feeling. “They were all just good years.”


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