Sauls was a Significant Player, Coach in Leon’s Football History
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer
There is a big event planned for Cascades Park on Oct. 2 to celebrate Leon High School’s 100 years of playing football.
Jim Sauls will be a part of it. Actually he had been involved since the planning began some time back. Organizers are still calling on him almost daily – just to make sure they don’t miss any important details.
Sauls, 69, has the second longest tenure of any who has coached the Lions, wouldn’t be forgotten, of course.
“He is definitely one of the faces on Mount Rushmore here at Leon High School,” said Leon’s athletic director Mark Feely.
Feely’s assessment is profound. Sauls isn’t just legendary at Leon, but throughout the Southeast where he’s coached at six other schools in addition to Leon.
But it is as head coach of the Lions where he made his mark.
Old-school is the way that Sauls’ peers describe his style of coaching when he worked as an assistant from 1974 to ’83 under legendary Gene Cox, whose 238-68-4 record makes him one of the winningest high school coaches in the state.
Sauls’ had a 57-48 record at Leon, with a career mark of 275-112. His record at Leon is the third best in the school’s history, putting him behind Cox and Amos Godby who was 70-17-7 from 1935 to ’43.
Sauls was cutting-edge when he returned for his second tenure that ran from 1985 to 2000 and again during the final two seasons that he coached at Leon between 2007-2008.
Sauls would take trips to major college campuses to find out how they kept up with changes in the game, Feely said.
And, he didn’t waste any time putting what he learned into his schemes. Sauls’ game plan often baffled opposing teams.
“If you’re on the other side, you better make sure you watch your film because he is going to be ready to play you,” said Feely, who was an assistant for Sauls before eventually having his own turn at the helm and later becoming AD.
“One of the phrases that’s used now for people like coach Sauls is that he is a dinosaur, but don’t let that term dinosaur fool you,” Feely added. “Dinosaur means he’s been around a long time and comes from the old school of coaching.”
Sauls’ ties to Leon go back to his boyhood when his dad took him to Leon games, which at the time were played at Centennial Field in the same location that is now Cascades Park. He played for the Lions in the early 1960s, and in 1964 he made the Florida State University team as a walk-on
When paying his way became tough, he took a year off to work, then attended Mississippi College. Six years in the Army Reserves followed. He and his wife, Lynn, soon started a family.
But football was still in his blood and he’d soon start a coaching career that lasted 35 years, 30 of them at Leon. His first job was at Niceville, where he coached for one season.
Leon was his next stop as an assistant to Cox for 18 years before going on to coach one season at Tennessee Military Institute. His second term at Leon lasted two seasons, starting in 1985. He later left to coach each of the next three years at three different high schools, one in Colquitt, Ga.
After his final year at Leon, Sauls spent one season at Chiles before retiring.
Through all those years, Sauls never won a state title although he was on Cox’s staff when the Lions won the 1974 championship. The closest he came to winning a state title as head coach was with his 1992 team, finishing as runner-up.
He has no regrets, though.
“It was humbling to me,” Sauls said. “I never took any of it for granted. I always felt like the best day was tomorrow. What you did yesterday was great but you can’t dwell on the past. You’ve got to move on and work hard.”
The groundwork for becoming a coach was set when he played four seasons for Cox for whom a stadium on the south side of town is named.
“That first day I thought I died and went to heaven,” said former Leon standout Josh Trafton said of playing for Cox. “He pushed you to your limit and you learned under him.”
Sauls’ style and philosophies were similar to Cox’s, several of his former players said. As much as he asked of his players, Sauls was compassionate, too.
Take for example the time when Trafton, who played his last two years of high school ball with Sauls as his coach. On the night of one of their games, Sauls found out that Trafton’s grandmother had died earlier in the day. Trafton had no idea.
Sauls was subtle in the way he prepared Trafton for the sad news he would hear after the game.
“He kept asking me, ‘Josh, how are you doing,’ ” Trafton, now an optometrist, recalled. “I kept telling him I’m ready. I’m pumped up.”
He said Sauls would ask him the same thing at least two more times before kickoff. “I thought he was trying to pump me up; trying to get me ready for the game. It wasn’t until after the game when I saw relatives that I hadn’t seen in some years that were there for a family death. Everybody knew but me. He (Sauls) was checking on me all day long.
That’s the kind of man he was.”
Sauls endured an age-old rivalry with Godby High School and he personally established what has become another major rivalry matchup with Lincoln High School. It started on a chilly night when the two programs met at Doak Campbell Stadium with almost 20,000 fans watching the teams that were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the state, Sauls recalled.
The game was close early on primarily because the Cougars went to their running game instead of using their four star receivers, Sauls said. He quickly adjusted his game plan defensively.
“I said to my players, I think (because) it’s cold they are scared to throw,” Sauls said. “We are going to line up eight players in the box, and we are going to play zone coverage behind it. I told my safety stay back there and if they released two (receivers), let them throw it and go to the ball.
“We knocked the ball out four times and got all four of them. I don’t remember the score but we beat them by a chunk. What an emotional night. Instantly it became a rivalry.”
Sauls didn’t just follow Cox’s lead with what he taught between the lines. At least once each year, Cox invited legendary FAMU coach Jake Gaither to speak to his team.
Sauls continues to do the same, often driving Gaither to give his speech. They talked coaching philosophies and shared stories.
One that Sauls heard about was about the time that Gaither proved how deep his friendship was with Cox. During his first year of coaching at Leon, Cox planned a game for his team in Millersburg, Ky., but couldn’t fund the trip. Gaither solved the dilemma by donating FAMU’s athletic bus with a driver.
Sauls could share that and countless other stories with the organizing committee of the event that will celebrate the Lions’ milestone. Several players will return, too.
“When you look back on it, it’s just a significant accomplishment for that program,” said Darrin Holloman, a running back under Cox who is now an area president of Regions Bank. “You’re just proud to be a part of such tradition and football excellence.
“I not only share football but the life lessons that football taught; discipline, hard work and also the academic part of it. It was just an honor to be a part of the Leon High School legacy and all they have done with football. It really has been positive for the community because, when you look at some of the athletes, they’ve gone on to do great things; whether it be doctors, lawyers or people who have contributed and done well in their field.”