‘More to me than a … coach’
As much as Jim Blake loved playing sports, his rationale for getting into coaching was very simple.
“I didn’t think I was as good as others like Charlie Justice, among many others,” Blake said about the former North Carolina running back nicknamed Choo-Choo. “I didn’t think I had the talent that they had to compete.”
So after Blake, who was a fine high school athlete, finished up at East Carolina College in 1951, he got into coaching, working alongside Sid Ray with the County Counts, affiliated with the Durham County schools.
Southern High School opened in the early 1950s. Blake wore many hats there more than four decades, teaching English and drivers education. He was a vice principal at Southern and served as the school's athletics director.
But at Blake’s core, he was a coach. If there was a ball involved, or if the matter at hand in some way dealt with running and sweating with the desired goal being to get the upper hand on an opponent, then Blake was all about it. Baseball, football, track— Blake coached them all.
"Sir James Blake is in a league by himself. If he's not the best, he's in the top 10, no question," former Southern basketball coach Larry Parrish said. "Jim Blake was the epitome of an athletics director."
Parrish said he was mentored by Blake, who believed in giving fair treatment to all of the sports at Southern.
Former Southern volleyball coach Judy Cutts worked under Blake.
“He always regarded women's sports equal to men's sports,” Cutts said. “Jim Blake also inspired me as a woman in a male-dominated field of sports.”
"He just had that integrity about him," Parrish said.
That's what Van Hursey remembers about Blake — his integrity. It stood out. Hursey said he never heard a cross word about Blake.
“Never will,” Hursey said.
Hursey ran track at Southern in the 1970s. Blake was working as the school's athletics director at that time, and it was in that role in which he made the biggest impact on Hursey.
Even though Blake's plate was full with making sure that all of the sports at Southern had what they needed, and even though he was not the school's track coach in the 1970s, the man still found time to show up to support Hursey during postseason track meets in Greenville and Raleigh. Hursey said Blake even rode in the car with him and the track coach to those meets. That was a huge deal for a kid to have not only his coach but also his director of athletics escort him to the field of competition, Hursey said.
Those who spent time around Blake would insist that the kind of personal touch he displayed with Hursey had a lot to do with his faith.
“Coach Jim Blake was more to me than a football, basketball and track coach while (I was) a student at Southern High School,” said Phil Wiggins, who played ball for the Spartans in the 1960s. “He opened my life to what it meant to live out my faith in sports and as a student. He introduced me to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which changed my life. I thank God often for having Coach Blake as a Christian mentor for my four years at Southern High. No way to repay that kind of leadership.”
Monty Davis coached football at Southern from 1968 to 1984, and he said it was Blake's loyalty and compassion that allowed him to dive into the work of developing young athletes.
“Never in any day did he waver from this support. I knew that I had someone covering my back at all times,” Davis said. “When the good Lord calls both of us home, I know I'll have a definite person in my corner.”
Basketball was Blake’s main deal, and Southern's hoops squad had a shot at the state championship in 1959. Blake said that was his best team. The Spartans played for all of the marbles that North Carolina could offer a high school team but couldn’t pull it off.
So much talent came through Southern, guys like Mike Knowles and James Collins headlining a bevy of talented Spartans, Blake said.
“These two were outstanding,” Blake said.
Of course, Blake had a keen appreciation for talent, himself a multi-sport athlete at Chapel Hill High School, where his scoring record in basketball held up until the late 1960s.
Today’s coaches are more advanced in their understanding of the various sports, Blake said.
“They coach better. More knowledgeable of the game,” Blake said.
Lost, however, in all of those Xs and Os is a necessary emphasis on team play, he said.
“Some players lose sight of the meaning of team,” said Blake, adding that the mind-set nowadays is, “look at what I did, as opposed to what our team did.”
A coach has to have patience, and Blake said sports developed that trait in him.
Parrish coached at Southern for 15 years and ended up retiring from Riverside High School in 1997. He remained in coaching, helping out with the basketball program at Jordan High School.
Parrish said his friendship with Blake actually grew when he moved on from Southern. The two would get together and study the Bible, Parrish said.
Blake, 85, doesn't get around much these days, but Parrish drops in on him from time to time with his mentor's favorite dish, a meatloaf meal.