Sively earns 500th win as head coach
Nick Johnston, Hartselle Enquirer
It's as if he'd rather not talk about it.
Hartselle Junior High coach Johnny Sivley recently accomplished only what few have in a lifetime – Winning 500 games.
But that doesn't matter.
What matters are his faith, his wife, and his students. He'll tell you 500 wins won't get anybody into Heaven, but the way he has lived his life will.
Sivley talked about Vietnam, being saved in 1970, and finding the love of his life, Lillian, just a few years after that. He loves to talk about his teams in the past, and claims he could not be happier than he is right now.
Sivley's accomplishments would rival any coach's in the country, but again, it just does not matter to him.
He doesn't really have a sports background. He could not play sports in school because he had to take care of his family.
Sivley's was 10 when his dad died, and at the time he was the oldest child living at home.
Legendary Hartselle head coach J.P. Cain encouraged Sivley to try to play football, but he couldn't do it.
"He (Cain) was somebody I really looked up to," Sivley said. "But, I just couldn't do it because I had to work. I had to support he family."
Sivley went on to graduate in 1961 from Morgan County High School (now known as Hartselle High School).
He has long-time friend Charles Nolton to thank for jump starting his coaching career. Nolton asked Sivley to help with the baseball team at Flint High School. Another friend, Bobby Carden, helped as well.
"Those two helped me start my career in coaching," Sivley said.
But after four years coaching at Flint, it was "his duty" to join the Army and then serve in Vietnam.
"That was my duty as a citizen of this country," he said. "I've always thought if you're not willing to serve your country, you need to get out of here and go find some other place to live."
Sivley said what troops are going through in Iraq today is similar to the way it was in Vietnam.
"You didn't really know who the enemy was," he said. "They were supposed to be dressed in the black, but they weren't. We would be riding down trails in the DMZ, and they could just pick you off."
He and his friends would start praying, even though they really did not believe in God.
"We would start praying, and then when it was over go right back to doing what we were doing," he said.
It's ironic how exploding shells nearby and whining bullets streaming by his head did not scare him enough to become a Christian, but seeing kids talk about how they were saved at Bible school did.
When Sivley returned from the war, he was invited to Bible school. One night every child was telling everybody how they got saved, and Sivley could say nothing at all.
"When the pastor came to me, I didn't have anything to say," Sivley said. "Here I was, a Sargent, just came out of fighting in Vietnam and didn't have anything to say. That's when I was led to the Lord."
It was then he started reading a book he still applies to his life today – "God's Plan for My Life."
"When I was saved, it was the high point of my life. I started trying to do what was right," he said. "That's what I teach my players today, whether they're on the court or off the court."
In 1971, the second-best thing – to being saved – in his life happened when he met his wife, Lillian. A few years later they married and went back to school.
Sivley graduated Athens State in 1976 and got a job coaching baseball at Grace Baptist, which is now known as Decatur Heritage.
The next year, he was the junior varsity basketball coach as well as the baseball coach. He knew how to coach baseball, but basketball was something different.
"I didn't know much about basketball," Sivley said. "I had played a lot of pickup games and in the Army, but I had no idea how to coach basketball."
He contacted Bobby Nolton, son of Charles Nolton, for help. Bobby Nolton suggested a book called "Basketball's Wishbone Offense."
That's all it took for Sivley, as he began winning almost instantly.
From 1979 to 1984, Sivley stayed at Grace Baptist and won at least 25 games per year with the junior varsity and varsity teams. Grace Baptist competed in both the Southeastern Christian Athletic Association and Alabama High School Athletic Association, so as many as 40 games could be played a year.
In the 1981-82 season, Sivley's junior varsity team played in 39 games and participated in four tournaments. They team won state and district before falling in regional action in Orlando, Fla.
The previous two years, Sivley's varsity team had won two state championships and he had won Coach of the Year.
Everything seemed perfect, but he claims the Lord started tugging at his heart, and it was time to make a change.
In 1984, Sivley and his wife left Grace Baptist and moved to Ocala, Fla, where he was to coach at Ocala Christian Academy.
"I had a very good preacher friend of mine who I called and talked to," Sivley said. "He suggested Ocala Christian."
During his tenure at Ocala Christian, the team won four consecutive state championships in the Florida Christian Conference.
During those four years, Sivley's team lost just four games total.
"You know, I look at these plaques, and I wonder 'How did I do that?" Sivley said. "I've really been blessed."
Sivley left Ocala Christian in 1990 and began working at nearby Forrest High School. He was coach of the B-Team there and also was doubling as a postman.
He desperately wanted to return home to Hartselle, but after two years of trying, it appeared a lost cause.
Then in 1993, Frank Parker, principal at Hartselle Junior High School, gave him a call.
"I was at the post office when he called," Sivley said. "He asked if I was still interested, and I shouted with joy. I asked him when I could go to work."
That's when Sivley began working as a Hartselle Junior High basketball coach.
"I really feel like it was a miracle I was able to get this job," he said.
Whether it was a miracle or not, Sivley has touched many lives.
"I love Hartselle," he said. "I love this school. I'm thankful God has allowed me to be so successful."
Nowadays, Sivley can't go anywhere without a former student or player wanting to tell him how much they appreciate him. To him, that in itself is a reward.
"When I see a student or a player 10, 15, 20 years down the road and they come up to me and hug my neck or shake my hand and tell me how much they appreciate me, that's my reward.
"I look at these trophies and plaques on my wall, and I know eventually they will tarnish. They'll get a little dirt on him and then be thrown away. Because those don't matter. If I've helped one to be a better person, or have a better life, or have a desire to what's right, it's all worth it."
Zac Ward may be a prime example. Ward graduated in the spring and enjoyed a prolific high school basketball career. He still remembers his times at the junior high, though, with Sivley.
"He's done a lot for the Junior High School," Ward said, who averaged 20 points per game last season for a Tigers' team who reached the Final Four. He is now at The University of Alabama-Birmingham where he is playing baseball. "He helped me a lot. And when I see him now, he's so upbeat and always smiling, and that makes you feel good at the same time."
His impact also has been felt by varsity head coach Johnny Berry.
"It's hard to put into words what he means to me," Berry said. "He's the most genuine person I know. He'll be the first to tell you he's been really blessed, and he's a tremendous person. His wife has been there every step of the way, and he just adores her."
Sivley claims behind a good man will always be a good woman. He can't say enough about Lillian.
"She's my strongpoint," he said. "In the last 10 years, she's missed one game of mine. She always supports me. When I'm down, she picks me up. I don't know what I would do without her."
When Sivley won his 500th game last Thursday against Liberty, his family and closest friends were in attendance, including his son, Johnathan.
"He was on the bench when I got 500," Sivley said. "He helps me out a lot. He's a volunteer and doesn't get paid for what he does. I really appreciate him."