Most successful men have at least one special mentor they’ll always remember.
Gene Bright has two. One of them died of heart failure at 57. The other lived to 103.
Bright still reveres the memory of both.
“From time to time, we all need somebody to step in and help us find our way. As
for me, I thank the Lord every day for John Merritt and Dr. R. D. Morrison," said Bright,
a longtime Alabama A&M University athletic administrator who joins 11 other honorees
tonight in the 2017 class of the Huntsville-Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame.
“Big John” Merritt was Gene Bright’s head football coach at Jackson State University
in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, a time when racial tensions ran hot in Mississippi and
throughout the Deep South. Merritt, a native Kentuckian like Bright, was a hulking larger-than-
life original who smoked big cigars, dominated the room, won football games with
great regularity and watched over his players like a gruff but benevolent dictator. From
1952-83, he won 235 games, first at Jackson State and then at Tennessee State. He
coached many young stars who later played in the NFL, including Willie Richardson, Ed “Too Tall" Jones, Joe Gilliam, and
Richard Dent. Merritt’s heart gave out after the ’83 season. A decade later, he was inducted into the College Football Hall
R. D. Morrison, a 1931 graduate of Tuskegee and a protégé of famed botanist-inventor George Washington Carver,
served Alabama A&M for nearly 50 years, first as a faculty member and later as president from 1962-84. A&M has struggled
with stability and continuity in the president’s office ever since his retirement. A legend among historically black colleges and
universities, Morrison was born in 1908 and lived until 2011.
In 1962, Merritt helped 23-year-old Gene Bright land his first job out of college: head football coach at tiny Rust College
in Holly Springs, Miss. When Rust dropped football three years later, Morrison personally invited Bright to come to Alabama
A&M as Coach Louis Crews’ defensive coordinator. Meanwhile, Merritt helped advance Bright’s continuing education by
arranging his former player’s pursuit of a Master’s degree at Tennessee State. When Bright left the football program after
two seasons, Morrison named him head golf coach and also A&M’s Dean of Men, and later Dean of Students. “I didn’t know
much about golf," Bright said, “but I learned to like it pretty quick." Understandably. He coached the golf team for the next
18 years, winning seven SIAC championships, compiling a 348-86 record and taking three teams to the NCAA Tournament.
In 1974, Morrison elevated him to post of Athletic Director.
Bright may be the first and only man in college athletics who served as AD at the same school on three different occasions
– 1974-76, 1980-87, and 1992-95. His favorite tenure came in the 1980s. “We ruled the SIAC, absolutely owned it in almost
every sport, my second time around," Bright said. “We were great in track and field, soccer, volleyball, tennis, swimming, you
name it. Football was doing well and men’s basketball dominated the conference. We assembled a great group of coaches
like Ray Greene, Vann Pettaway, Press Parham, Betty Austin, Joe Henderson, Walter Tullis, Freddie Wycoff , Lou Brown...
We started the Mayor’s Cup Classic with UAH. Our soccer team played in the NCAA Division I national tournament and the
basketball team played in the NCAA Division II Tournament. We brought the National Youth Sports Program to town. It was
a fun time."
When he returned to the AD’s office for the third time, Bright played a major role in the construction of Louis Crews Stadium
and the Hobson Fieldhouse. He left A&M in 1995 to become the first full-time Athletic Director at Morris Brown University in
Atlanta, serving seven years before returning to Huntsville in 2001. For the next several years, he taught a variety of classes
at A&M and assisted then-AD Betty Austin before “retiring for good" in 2013, although he still teaches several classes and
makes himself available at any time as an advisor and consultant. “I served this university over five decades – the ‘60s,
‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and the 2000s," he noted. “Not many people have done that."
Bright was inducted into the Jackson State Sports Hall of Fame in 1991, the Rust College National Alumni Association
in 1991, the Athletic Booster Club of Huntsville’s Hall of Fame in 1995, the Alabama A&M Hall of Fame in 1995, and now
the Huntsville-Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame. Not many people have done that either. Big John Merritt and Dr. R. D.
Morrison would be proud.
|SPORT: ||Athletic Administrator|
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