Editor's Note: This story is in The Sentinel's Profiles 2018: Sports edition.
When the Pisgah cross country team competes at a meet, head coach Gus Hembree is usually heard before he is seen.
His booming voice makes every turn, switchback and hill, finding its way to his runners.
Hembree offers everything from traditional encouragement to light-hearted one-liners, which make runners and spectators chuckle alike.
“My kids call me ‘Mr. Encourager,” he said before adding with a laugh, “they probably call me other things, too.”
Hembree has also been called “The Godfather of Jackson County School System cross country.” He started the cross country program at Section in 2006, then started the one at Pisgah in 2009. Later Hembree also offered assistance to coaches when programs formed at Skyline, Woodville, Paint Rock Valley and North Jackson.
Hembree’s first cross country construction job however came before the Section graduate returned to Jackson County.
A teacher/coach at Hatton High School for seven years, Hembree coached a number of sports at the small Lawrence County school in the 1990s. He coached football, basketball and baseball at Hatton, and as school started his first year there the principal handed him an envelope and told him the school’s new cross country team ran its first meet in four weeks.
“I said what’s that,” Hembree said of the sport. “Four weeks later, we loaded up and went to Moulton and ran.”
Hembree ultimately met legendary Scottsboro coach John Esslinger, who lent him a helping hand, sharing everything from training tips to how to run a program.
“He was such a help, and I’ve tried to do that with people that are coaching now,” Hembree said. “I wanted to see the sport grow because I want the kids to have a chance to succeed.”
Hembree also formed Hatton’s track and field team — at Esslinger’s advice — all the while serving as Hatton’s head baseball coach. He was hitting grounders one minute and timing kids in the hurdles the next.
In 2002, after a year teaching and coaching at Douglas, he was hired at Macedonia. Four years later, the cross country itch led him to start the program at Section. He led the girls and boys teams to state during those three seasons. In 2009, he started Pisgah’s program and made them a regular at state. Before he knew it, other Jackson County schools joined in. Now all but one have a program, something Hembree “never would’ve dreamed 10 years ago.”
Hembree said everyone knew the “ enormous success” Scottsboro has had in the sport. But the success the runners at Section and Pisgah had, he said, proved it could be done at smaller schools, too. So how do you get a teenager to join a sport in which, as the famous cross country saying goes, is other sports’ form of punishment?
“I trick them,” Hembree said with a laugh. “No, I just tell them what we do and ask them to come out and check it out. It’s hard. It’s a time consuming sport. But the success is there. To see a kid who ran a 43(–minute 5K) at the start of the year is running a 28 by the end, that’s success. You know how hard they worked. To see that kid do that, that part never gets old.”
Coaching cross country and track and field doesn’t either, he said. Years ago, Hembree thought for sure he would retire when his daughter Briley graduates in 2020 — his son Ben graduated this past spring, and both run for their father’s teams — but now he is not so sure. He still enjoys teaching chemistry and physics at PHS. He still enjoys coaching, even the stuff like mowing six acres a week to keep the course he helped build in Pisgah ready for runners to train.
“I love teaching. I love coaching, love the interaction with the kids,” Hembree said. “I still get nervous before each race. When I don’t, I’ll probably go on home. But as long as I enjoy what I do — hey I’m pretty lucky. From the start of first period at school till the end of practice, I’m doing something I love to do. A lot of people can’t say that. It’s a pretty good gig.”