The passing of a legend
If fortune wishes to make a man respectable, she gives him virtues; if she wishes him to be respected, she gives him success.
Legendary Marshall High School head football coach Cecil Naylor is remembered as possessing both of the attributes described by 19th-century French essayist Joseph Joubert. Both respected and successful, Naylor "had a special pride about him which was unique," recalled former Missouri Valley College head coach Dan Stanley.
"He enjoyed everything he did, and did it his own way," reflected Owls coach Jim Heinzler, who played for Naylor in the early '80s and was on his staff during the final two of his 35-year tenure. "He treated everybody fairly. Whoever's going to get it done is the one who's going to play."
Naylor retired following the 1994 season, having log-ged 234 victories -- fifth all-time in state history, prompting charter membership in the Missouri Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame -- along with 11 conference championships, three appearances in the state finals and the 1986 MSHSAA Class AAA title.
Beyond the numbers, though, the greatest im-pact of Naylor -- who passed away Wednesday at the age of 68 -- was on the lives he influenced.
The image of Naylor, wearing light-blue pajamas and "moaning and groaning and carrying on" during early-evening penny-ante poker games in the Missouri Valley College dormitory he supervised, is indelible in Stanley's mind. Stanley was a raw-boned freshman in 1955 and Naylor - a senior Little All-American tackle - "took me under his wing, kind of protected me."
"There was a kindness about him, even with his toughness and aggressiveness," Stanley explained. Naylor was also a tenacious, ferocious player -- a trait which his Owls teams later reflected. "He'd really hit you. He was extremely strong, back before we had weight training."
After graduating from Valley, Naylor spent two years in the U.S. Army before receiving his master's degree at Kirksville State Teacher's College, now Truman State University. He took over the Marshall program in 1960, impressing upon it the stamp of his forceful, gregarious personality.
"He was a great motivator," noted Gary O'Neal, a student-athlete for Naylor in the late '60s and fellow MFCA Hall of Fame member, having won two state championships as head coach at Hardin-Central. "He demanded respect from his players; he earned their respect."
The lessons that young men such as O'Neal -- brother of Wayne O'Neal, Naylor's assistant for 30 years -- learned from his mentor were both old-fashioned and timeless: discipline, adherence to fundamentals and fair play, "as well as living a Christian life." Naylor set high expectations for his charges.
"His philosophy was that if someone will work hard and do things right, they have a good chance of being successful," O'Neal said. "That was not only in football, but in everyday life."
"He instilled in us that we were expected to win when we walked on the field," Heinzler added. "We were always supposed to give our best effort." The Owls' playbook wasn't thick, but it wasn't gimmickry which produced victories.
"You didn't spend a lot of time working on fancy stuff," O'Neal remarked. "You learned how to execute a few things correctly."
"He was hard-nosed and you knew he was going to play smash-mouth football," declared current MHS head coach Paul Thomas, many times on the opposite side of the field from Naylor as a player and coach at Hannibal. "I always knew those teams were going to be good."
Like O'Neal, Thomas developed much of his coaching style under Naylor's tutelage as a student teacher while a Missouri Valley student in '84. Thomas was impressed with the "way he handled students."
"His classes were well-disciplined, just like his football teams," he remembered. "He was a very moral person."
Despite the gruff, tough exterior -- players in the '70s called him "Bear" -- Naylor's fun-loving side was never far from the surface. When the Owls went to Hannibal for Thomas' debut as a head coach, the visitors came out for pregame warm-ups dressed in black - the Pirates' home jersey color.
"Didn't you get the message?" Naylor asked the shocked rookie colleague. When Thomas checked with his athletic director, he was told that he was the victim of a prank.
"He was always being blamed as a troublemaker" by long-time Valley coach Volney Ashford, Stanley observed. However, that was more joke than fact. "He kept guys out of trouble."
"He was a role model" for younger players, Stanley asserted. "He never cracked as far as his moral habits."
During the first preseason practice following his retirement from coaching, Naylor stood outside the Marshall locker room chatting at length with his successor, Roger Bell. More subdued than usual, Naylor softly kicked at dirt clods and went over a things-to-do checklist, as he had done for so many years himself.
"It had to be hard to let go like that," Bell said. Yet, Naylor eased the transition, volunteering to forego substitute teaching that fall. "That was his way of saying, 'It's your turn.'"
Bell, now the head coach at Winnetonka in Kansas City, faced a difficult challenge in taking over for such an esteemed predecessor. "It would have been easy for him to criticize, but he never did," Bell stated.
"He was there all the time when I had questions and was always 100 percent supportive and helpful," Bell said. "He just loved Marshall football and wanted to do whatever he could to make Marshall football successful."
Until his health began to fade after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last fall, Naylor was a routine presence at MHS sporting events -- not just football, but many of the other games the Owls played. He even occasionally donned a chef's apron and flipped burgers for the Marshall Booster Club's concession stand.
"I'm going to miss him coming into the locker room and talking with the players," Thomas said. "I know the kids are going to miss him, too."
"When he walked into the coaches' office, there was an electricity," Bell professed.
That spark was present Jan. 11, when Naylor's former players, teammates and colleagues held a dedication ceremony for a plaque which will be placed in a prominent place in the Marshall High School sports complex, commemorating his and Wayne O'Neal's years of service. It was a touching final tribute by those who felt the debt they owed to Naylor for his positive impact on their lives, both as boys and men.
Thomas, whose return to Marshall was in no small part attributable to Naylor's influence, recognizes the enduring legacy.
"It's an honor to coach at Marshall High School," Thomas declared, "roam the sidelines where a legend roamed and trying to do it like he did."