E.C. “Baldy” Wilson has long been credited with leading the effort to change the JSU mascot and nickname to Gamecocks from the Eagle Owls they were known as before World War II.
For that bit of infamy, as well as a lifetime of success as a player, coach and administrator, he is being inducted into the Calhoun County Sports Hall of Fame.
The 90-year-old Glencoe resident — 90 and a half, he proudly states — will be enshrined in ceremonies at the Oxford Civic Center tonight. He’ll be joined in the class by former county football stars Roosevelt Coleman (Cobb Avenue), Jimmy Luttrell (Jacksonville), Darrell Malone (Jacksonville) and Bobby Wilson (Piedmont) and Anniston golf pro Buddy Moore.
“I didn’t realize it was making history or anything like that,” Wilson said. “We were back from the great war; we didn’t sweat much. I just enjoyed living and being where I was and what I was doing. We just enjoyed being there.”
Baldy and the boys were just coming home from the war and Wilson figured a new era for the college team needed a new mascot to reflect the fiesty spirit of the players.
He had raised banty roosters as a youth, saw the way they fought and carried on in the yard and, at the urging of teammate Carl Sprayberry, offered Gamecocks as a choice after president Houston Cole agreed to let the players change the name.
The 23-man squad approved it and Eagle Owl went the way of the Anniston Hot Blast.
“It was a big deal, because we were the Eagle Owls and who the hell wanted to be an Eagle Owl; I hated it,” football coach Don Salls said. “That’s the biggest thing anybody could ever do to a school, get rid of the Eagle Owl and change the name. That’s a big deal — a big, big, big deal.”
“I played one year as an Eagle Owl — 1946,” Wilson said. “Everywhere we went they asked us what an Eagle Owl was. We said we didn’t know what it was.”
The mascot wasn’t the only thing the players changed. There also was a move to switch colors from purple — which Wilson said was considered an “outlaw color” at the time — and gold to the current red and white. Actually, that was something Salls wanted and it dovetailed nicely with the fact many of the players came from high school programs that were red and white anyway.
Those who wanted the color change told Wilson if his group supported their initiative they would support his cause. Both changes passed smoothly.
“I don’t remember anybody being opposed to it,” Wilson said. “The next thing we knew, Coach Salls said you got want you want, you got the Gamecocks and the red and white.”
“Now that’s been the name for like 60 years,” Salls said. “That’s a great tribute to Baldy.”
To this day JSU and South Carolina are the only two Division I schools in the United States that go by the name Gamecocks. While industry experts find it difficult to say how much the new name has been worth to the university over the years it has generated considerable merchandise sales and, university marketing director Tim Garner said, “contributed millions of dollars to Jacksonville State University’s brand equity.”
“I’d hate to have my job today having to market the Eagle Owl as opposed to the Gamecock,” Garner said. “I’m glad Baldy changed it from Eagle Owl to Gamecock. The Gamecock and more modern logo really propelled Jacksonville State.”
The year of the name change, the girl in charge of putting together the school annual asked Wilson if he could get her some pictures of a gamecock. He did one better — he brought her the genuine article. The girl’s father built a cage for it and the bird remained a fixture on campus.
“We didn’t have a name for it,” Wilson said. “It was just a gamecock.”
It didn’t surprise Salls that Wilson carried the torch. When he did something in the name of school spirit, Wilson did it all the way. He headed his high school lettermen’s club at Calhoun County High School (now Oxford). Even decades after he graduated from JSU, he still returns to watch the Gamecocks play and to this day is an ardent supporter of the school.
“He was the most loyal alumnus that I have ever seen,” Salls said. “Once he left school he came back to all the games. He was a year-round comebacker to JSU. I don’t know anyone who has been more loyal as an alum than Baldy Wilson.”
He was the same way on the field. Salls remembers him as a 60-minute player on both sides of the ball.
“He gave us every ounce, of the few he had,” Salls said. “He was a little guy and one of the reasons I liked him is I was a little guy. I weighed 150 when I played for Alabama. I always had an affinity for the little guy.”
Wilson may have been small, but he played – and coached – big.
As a high school player, he was a four-year letterman in basketball for Calhoun County High School (now Oxford) and a two-year letterman in football.
After returning from the war, he lettered three years in football at Jax State and one in basketball.
Upon graduation he was hired in 1949 as Glencoe’s football coach and continued in that role until 1967, compiling a record of 93-73-10. He also coached the basketball team from 1950 to 1965, winning five Etowah County championships. He later became the system’s superintendent.
“We didn’t come close to winning the state tournament, but we won some good games,” he said.
Games with any of the Calhoun County schools, he said, always stuck out. There was one low-scoring game with Anniston around Christmas he remembered an official telling him it “the weirdest game he’d ever seen.” And then there was the time he brought a Glencoe team to Oxford and beat his alma mater.
“I went back over there and beat them in a football game; they disowned me,” he laughed. “Gilbert Adams was coaching then. He was one of my friends. Gilbert was a different kind of fella; he was intense. They opened with Gadsden, gave them a running fit and almost beat them. He came and visited me that week. He told me if he beat Gadsden he’d go undefeated; we played them the next week.
“I didn’t tell my boys. We played one heck of a ball game and beat them up pretty bad. Those people didn’t like me for a long time.”
Jokingly, he suggested it might have kept him out of his hometown Hall of Fame all these years.
He was inducted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall in 1998 and the JSU Athletics Hall in 1999. In 2004 his name was attached to the Glencoe football stadium.
“This is the last one,” he said. “I was a little anxious. That was my home county; I got in all of them except my home county. I’m glad to get in it.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.