Napoleon Cobb: A legend ends his career on top

 Southwest DeKalb track and field coach Napoleon Cobb motivates the track team during practice a week before the Class AAAAA state championship. Photos by Carla Parker

There are not many coaches who can say they finished their careers on top.

However, Napoleon Cobb can. Cobb ended his 50th year of coaching with a state championship after the Southwest DeKalb High School boys’ track won the Class AAAAA state title May 15. It was the 11th state title for Cobb—nine at Southwest DeKalb and three with Gordon High School.

Due to health reasons, Cobb deemed the 2015 track season as his last.

Cobb was diagnosed with bone cancer in April 2014, and three months later he broke his hip after a fall.

“That’s when I knew it was time to close it down,” Cobb said. “But this year I’ve had a great coaching staff and the kids have been really wonderful. I know my family is glad that we’ve decided to make this farewell tour. It’s been amazing how much it has helped me because initially I didn’t have the strength and will to do it.”

His “farewell season” included the 2015 DeKalb County track title, but winning the state championship was a special way to close out his career, he said.

“This was probably the most fulfilling [state title] because I know in my heart that I was physically unable to do what I’ve done in my career,” Cobb said. “I spent more time coaching the coaches. I was able to inspire the kids—I did more talking to them.

“This is one of my proudest teams,” Cobb added. “We feel very blessed. I feel like this was divine intervention.”

Two weeks after winning the state title, Cobb will be inducted into the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame May 30. Cobb is going into the Hall of Fame a year after his close friend and former Southwest DeKalb football coach William “Buck” Godfrey was inducted.

“I think the biggest excitement to me is the [irony] that Napoleon Cobb followed Coach Godfrey,” Cobb said. “That’s the most thrilling to me. That is truly an honor. Of course the achievement award is a tremendous honor, but it’s just ironic that our careers have paralleled so much. We began at Gordon, then we spent all these years at Southwest together. It just seems like our stars always crossed back and forth no matter what.”

Cobb is a graduate of Henry McNeal Turner High School in Atlanta and Tennessee State University. After graduating from Tennessee State in 1964, Cobb began his coaching and teaching career in Chicago, Ill.

“That’s all I’ve ever done­—is teach and coach, all the way through,” he said.

Cobb is retiring after 50 years of coaching and will be inducted into the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame May 30.
Cobb is retiring after 50 years of coaching and will be inducted into the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame May 30.

He lived in Chicago for two years before moving to Berkeley, Calif. to teach at Berkeley High School. Cobb moved to DeKalb County in 1972 and began teaching at Gordon High School, where he coached track and football alongside Godfrey.

Cobb participated in football and track growing up and coached both sports. He said he never chose track over football, but it chose him.

“In high school, I played football and [ran] track. I tried to do both of them in college, but I was little small for football, so track kind of excelled over,” he said. “But when I started my coaching career it was both in football and track. At Gordon High School, I finished up as the head football coach and the head track coach. I went to Morehouse as the offensive coordinator in football, and the head track coach. In the earlier years at Southwest I used to do a lot with Coach Godfrey in football. I don’t think I ever I chose track over football, I think it just evolved that way. We joke about it now, because in the early days they kind of considered me an up-and-coming young football coach. [Track] just kind of chose me.”

After winning three state titles, Cobb left Gordon in 1978 to coach at Morehouse College. He came back to DeKalb in 1989 to teach and coach at Southwest DeKalb.

“A lot of it had to do with being reunited with Buck Godfrey,” he said.

During his first stint at Southwest DeKalb, he won seven state titles and helped send Terrance Trammell and Angelo Taylor to the Olympic Games in 2000.

“When I look back on it, it was very special,” Cobb said about Trammell and Taylor. “That was really big. And they had long great careers. We’re extremely proud of them.”

He coached the two Olympians in the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece, which is a moment he will always remember.

“Of course, I was there in 2000, but I was there as their former high school coach,” Cobb said. “But in 2004, to be their special Olympic coach, I think that was one of my personal highlights.”

Cobb left Southwest DeKalb in 2007 to go back to Morehouse, then returned to Southwest DeKalb in 2011. Cobb said he left Southwest DeKalb for Morehouse because he thought he had done everything he could on the high school level.

“I thought that would be the highlight and the closure [of my career],” he said. “But when we went back to college, we weren’t happy with the way Southwest boys track had dropped off. To see where it had not been for so many years encouraged us and motivated us to say, ‘Let’s see if we can restore it before we close it out.’”

Cobb said he went back and forth between Morehouse and Southwest DeKalb because he has “great” relationships with the two schools.

“I have great appreciation for Morehouse’s academics as well as its athletics,” he said. “The only place I would’ve left Morehouse to come back to would be Southwest, and to be with Coach Godfrey. It’s the only place I would’ve left a second time to come back to. Those two schools have really dominated my career.”

It seems as if Cobb and Godfrey’s lives have been parallel from the start. They were born on the same day, same year and at the exact same hour.

“We think that is the most ironic thing,” Cobb said. “We’ve always made an effort to try not to let people compare us. I’ve always said he’s probably the greatest football coach I’ve been privileged to work with.”

Cobb said Godfrey has always been supportive of him, including sending football players to run track for him.

“If you could run, you were going to run track for Southwest too,” Cobb said. “It wasn’t a real option. Coach Godfrey was going to give complete support to Coach Cobb. He was going to send you to Coach Cobb during track season—it wouldn’t be no interference—and Coach Cobb would send them back. We’ve always done everything we could to prevent the comparison. He had a great impact on my career.”

Although he plans to retire from coaching, Cobb said “I’m going to around for a while.”

“I still enjoy coaching the kids and trying to get them to be all that they can be,” he said. “I’m sure coaching teams is probably over for me. I probably don’t have the energy level. The coaches remind me all the time that I’m not at my prime anymore because you can’t do the things you did even 10, certainly 20 years ago. I’ll probably be around the sport, do some motivational speaking, some clinics. I may not get too far from Southwest DeKalb, just staying involved. Three months ago, it didn’t look like I could even get with the team, but my health has improved, I’ve gotten better and better almost weekly.”

 

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One thought on “Napoleon Cobb: A legend ends his career on top

  • December 17, 2015 at 12:23 pm
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    Congrats to Coach Cobb at Morehouse College. He is also a great teacher and mentor. Thank you coach Cobb. Enjoy your retirements! Say hi to your mom for me. Vern Swisher,
    Morehouse 88

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