Do not mourn unduly the life of Calhoun Folk Gault, who lived a long and glorious life and achieved as much in the fields of character and integrity as in the simple math of wins and losses. He warmed the hearts of thousands, and that warmth will linger far beyond him.
I have known Cally for 56 of my 61 years. I grew up with his son and namesake, who died in an automobile accident when he was in college. It’s funny, but I’ve been reluctant to mention Cal for years because I knew how much his death hurt his father.
It also hurt Cally when Presbyterian College, where he was head football coach for 22 years, deemphasized the sport after the 2017 season. When I watched him sigh, and get emotional, I thought he must be thinking he had gotten too old to save it a second time.
Let me take you back to 1963, when Coach Calhoun Gault and his family rented a house on Calhoun Street. At North Augusta High School, Gault’s record was 88-14-7. His teams won 42 of those 88 wins in a row. As a grade-school classmate of Cal’s, I spent several nights at the home they built on Horseshoe Lane. I remember all those North Augusta team photos and Cally pointing out Craig Baynham, who, by then, was a Dallas Cowboy.
When I think of Cally at PC, I see him in blue pullover, with stripes around the neck and sleeves, “PRESBYTERIAN” embroidered in an arc across the chest, stalking the sideline like a bulldog. He was a man of expressive gestures. I never saw a coach do it any better. Art Baker, his fellow football coach, PC teammate and dear friend, was close.
He laughed easily, made hilarious misstatements when he got himself worked up, was emotional and sentimental, and his eyes watered easily, too. His players laughed at him sometimes, but most loved him all the time.
The coach who preceded Cally at Presbyterian committed suicide. Frank Jones had won big but spent big, and when he left, all the bills piled up, and Clyde Ehrhardt, a big-hearted man haunted by his service in the war, couldn’t bear the nightmares that arose.
The student body voted to drop football. The faculty was in revolt. Back to PC arrived a little man with a big heart, and he might as well have been wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes when he marched back to Clinton to save the day. In my entire life, I can think of two nights when I didn’t love him. Those were in 1977 and 1979, the former being a tie of the Furman Paladins and the latter a win over them. We weren’t that bad, either. I write “we” because that’s where I went.
I don’t know when I started calling Coach Gault “Cally.” I still can’t call Keith Richardson by his first name. I wrote about the Blue Hose during Cally’s last season, a lovely hurrah in 1984, and that was probably when he became Cally.
Now, more than a decade removed from its legislated ending, the lore of the Bronze Derby, which was the annual Thanksgiving Day game between Presbyterian and Newberry, has started to fade. That game, perhaps the only one annually played with all the fixings, might have been the best experience of growing up in Clinton. All the state’s newspapers covered it. One year I came home from Furman to stand next to Clemson’s Danny Ford on the sideline for a quarter.
The Blue Hose and the then-Indians played for that derby every year. Once a live turkey, “Killer,” also rode on the outcome, and assistant coaches Billy Tiller of PC and Steve Robertson of Newberry dressed as chefs on the sideline. Even today, it would be quite the photo op and quite the headline: “Tiller Gets Killer.”
Most every time I greeted Cally, beginning at about age eight, he put one hand on my shoulder and squeezed a bicep with the other. In December 2017, someone invited me to a party in Greenville thrown by former players to celebrate his 90th birthday. When Cally and Joy, accompanied by Art and Edith Baker, exited the elevator, I thought it odd that he didn’t squeeze my arm. He shook my hand. Apparently, Joy noticed something was amiss. She squeezed my arm.
That’s a team right there.
Back at the beginning, in front of a dubious faculty, Cally told them if his football team wasn’t as valuable a part of the PC education as anything in a classroom, then they ought to do away with it. He might have been one of the last college football coaches who truly believed that.
In 20 years of writing about stock car racing, I found one person who disliked Richard Petty. I can’t say that about Cally. He was as impossible to dislike as an ice-cream cone.
Once at halftime, behind the rickety stands of the old Walter Johnson Field, in the fieldhouse of the old Springs Gymnasium, Cally launched into a pan of his team’s first-half performance, and a player bucked up to him, made some snide remark that wasn’t enough of a whisper for Cally to miss.
He is said to have whirled around and said, “Son, if you got a problem, you go talk to your coach, and if you can’t find a coach, you come to me!”
I can’t speak with authority about what happened next, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, once his players quit suppressing their laughter, they trotted back on their battle grid and whipped the tar out of their opponents.
They don’t make them like Cally Gault anymore. The world has changed. A dozen characters of my youth seem infinitely superior to the people who populate Clinton now. There won’t be any more Sam and Truman Owenses, no Grady Adairs, no J.A. Orrs, no Sam Flemings and no Rembert Trulucks.