Leon McCoy’s football coaching record at Winfield High spoke for itself, but his true legend came in weight training and conditioning.
McCoy died Saturday night in Hubbard Hospice House at Thomas Memorial Hospital. He was 88, just days short of his next birthday.
McCoy won two state championships in his 26 years at Winfield. His record there was 213-68-1, which included a streak of 41 regular-season wins in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But it was the training regimen — for himself, his players and even rival athletes — that was most contagious. He was years ahead of his time in that respect, and he drew the attention of West Virginia coaches Bobby Bowden and Don Nehlen, and well as Marshall coach Jack Lengyel.
Woody Woodrum, who was a student manager for the Generals from 1971-73, recalled, “Jack Lengyel would come down and just stand there and say, ‘If only we had something half this nice at Marshall to lift in.’”
McCoy even built weight machines himself, collaborating with a pipefitter. He used railroad ties, surplus material from a steel plant and anything else he thought would work.
Roger Jefferson, who led Charleston and Capital high teams to state championships, was sold. He tried to launch the Mountain Lions’ weight program from scratch, and McCoy helped.
“I was trying to get some weights. We didn’t have a lot of money, so the boosters were able to buy about four Olympic sets,” Jefferson said. “The steel plant, they had slugs, they had round pieces. I went down there and asked them about it if we could get some and make some dumbbells out of them, and they said, ‘No, Leon got them all.’
“I called Leon and I said, ‘I understand you’re getting all these plates up here,’ and he said, ‘Yeah. Come on down and I’ll give you some.’ He had a welding machine set up; he had a heck of a place there.”
McCoy didn’t just conduct weightlifting sessions, he put together extremely taxing running drills. He put his team through 3-mile runs and 40-yard dashes of up to 100 repetitions, as he saw the need. For those who stuck with the program, the payoff was clear.
“In the fourth quarter,” football coach Bob Gobel said in a 2004 Charleston Gazette article. “We would be beating on people and not even breathing hard.”
McCoy took the Generals to six state championship games in Class A and AA, winning twice and losing four by a combined 10 points. He likely created a culture at Winfield that led to 1960, 1961 and 1963 Class A titles (McCoy had moved on to Charleston High, and then Florida).
McCoy was born June 1, 1928 in Jeffrey, a Boone County coal town, but grew up in the downtown Charleston area. With a rough-and-tumble reputation, he was a second-team all-state center in 1944 and a first-team all-state QB in 1945 at Charleston High.
He started seven games in 1947 at the University of Tennessee, but returned home to Charleston to play for Morris Harvey. He was a three-time first-team all-conference center from 1949-51, but not after tangling with coach Eddie King.
“Leon was kind of a wild guy,” said Mike Whiteford, a former Gazette staff writer. “He started a lot of fights, didn’t take care of himself. Eddie King told him, ‘You couldn’t play at Morris Harvey, you’re not dedicated enough.’ So with that challenge, Leon straightened up, worked hard and became a pretty good player.”
McCoy coached at Winfield from 1955-59, losing to Meadow Bridge 6-0 in the 1958 championship game and 15-13 to Ravenswood in 1959. He then went to Charleston High in 1960 and 1961, then moved to Cocoa, Florida, for the next seven years.
When he returned to Winfield, the 1969 Generals were in for a culture shock.
“It was a whole lot different,” said David Bailey, the Winfield track coach who married McCoy’s daughter, Cathy. “He walked in with his style. We didn’t have a lot of players when I played, but the hard work that was involved, everybody conformed and we had some great teams.”
That first team lost to Keyser 21-20 in the Class AA title game. Only two teams went to the so-called playoffs then, and the undefeated Generals of 1970 and 1971 fell just short in the rating system.
McCoy’s teams made the playoffs often, but didn’t land a state title until the Generals beat Buffalo (Wayne) 28-6 in 1985 and trucked Tucker County 48-14 two years later. The 1988 championship may have been the toughest loss of McCoy’s career, a 29-28 four-overtime loss to Bridgeport.
McCoy produced some top-notch players, such as Bill Bryant (1956-59), who scored 494 points and signed at Georgia Tech. In the 1980s, there was quarterback Mike Barber, who was a star Marshall receiver and is in the College Football Hall of Fame, and Kennedy Award winner Ted Kester, a four-year letterman at West Virginia.
He also was a great influence in the career of Hurricane football player and wrestler Doc Holliday, now the eighth-year Marshall coach. McCoy happily opened his weight room to rival athletes.
When Holliday was introduced as the Thundering Herd’s new coach in December 2009, McCoy was in the audience, proudly celebrating him as one of his own.
“He had such a tremendous influence, not just on me, but for so many involved with high school football in our state,” Holliday said Sunday in a statement. “He allowed numerous student-athletes from around the area, including myself, to work out with his Winfield program, regardless of the school they represented.
“Diana and I will miss him dearly.”
McCoy stepped down after the 1989 season, but didn’t step away from the athletic scene, and certainly didn’t step away from keeping himself in shape. Stories of his lifting weights and running before dawn are legendary.
His conditioning philosophy was adapted to other sports, creating a winning atmosphere all around the school. And by all accounts, McCoy ignored nobody.
“My youngest daughter ran track at Winfield, and she was probably the worst athlete on the team,” said Frank Giardina, Gazette-Mail sports history columnist. “He coached her like she was the state champion.”
He was devoted to his faith, and gave graduation addresses with prayer and scriptural references. That ended in 2014, to the anguish of students and administrators alike, because of legal concerns.
“Leon McCoy was a great man,” Bailey said. “A strong man. Leon was a very spiritual man, loved the Lord and told everybody about that, too. He never held back, and never took a second seat to anybody when it comes to that.”
A celebration of McCoy’s life is planned at Winfield’s football stadium at 6 p.m. Wednesday, weather pending, with a reception afterward in the school. Arrangements are being handled by Chapman Funeral Home in Teays Valley.