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Rivals and Friends

photo of football players

Rivals and Friends

By Mark Wangin

Tommy Cox and Jim Rackely: Bobcats in 1970s, Texas High School Coaches Association honorees in 2019

Back in November 2001, two men met at Mamacita’s Mexican Restaurant in San Marcos for business. They also brought their wives — and a coin. 

After a pleasant dinner, filled with catching up and other warm conversation, Tommy Cox (B.S. ’71, M.Ed. ’76) and Jim Rackley (B.S. ’70, M.Ed. ’75) got down to business and flipped the coin. At stake was the choice of home field for a first-round high school playoff game. Cox had brought his Austin Bowie Bulldogs to the playoffs in his final season as coach. Rackley was making his playoff debut after taking over as head coach of the perennial powerhouse Converse Judson Rockets. 

Rackley won that toss. 

Almost 18 years later, the men sit at a table at Mamacita’s, enjoying a late Sunday lunch as they reminisce with a writer who serendipitously suggested the meeting site without knowing its significance. 

"It might have been a two-headed coin,” Cox jokes of that first meeting. 

“Trying to take advantage of a rookie,” Rackley smiles, shaking his head. 

“I think we had made a deal that whoever won the coin toss had to buy dinner,” Cox points out. 

two football players
Tommy Cox (88) puts the stop on a San Angelo running back with an assist from another Cat.

If you are a high school coach long enough in Texas, you will get to know just about everybody. Cox and Rackley, who coached against each other four times and just once as head coaches, had an early start. Both were Bobcats back when the university was Southwest Texas State University. Rackley, who graduated in 1970, saw his attempt to walk on to the team thwarted by a knee injury, which also kept him from passing his Selective Service physical. Cox, who graduated a year later, was a three-year starter at linebacker who was named to the school’s All-Decade Team in 1979.

They knew each other and shared a class or two but were not what you’d call friends. That would come later. 

On this day, they are nestled into a table at Mamacita’s to talk about themselves and each other, tell stories and laugh and reminisce — and to discuss the honor that awaits both when they are inducted into the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor. 

“I always knew he worked his butt off and if he got the chance, he would make the most of it,” Cox says of Rackley. 

“Tommy was Mr. Austin High School Football,” Rackley says. 

Cox, who had 115-111-1 record in 23 years as a head coach at Bowie and Austin Travis, including 10 playoff appearances, is humbled by the honor. “A lot better coaches than me never got this honor,” he says. “I’m very fortunate.” 

After retiring from coaching, Cox served as athletic director of the Austin Independent School District until 2014, when he retired to spend more time with his wife, Brenda — a former Texas State Strutter — at their home of 40 years southwest of Austin.

two football players
Kappa Sigma Jim Rackley appears as happy as his companion as the boy waits in line with his new toy.

Rackley spent seven years as head coach at Antonian College Preparatory and Southwest High School before succeeding coaching legend D.W. Rutledge at Judson. He had twice been an assistant at Judson, and went 101-37 and took the Rockets to three state championship games, winning in 2002. His overall record is 128-91. 

In 2009, Rackley had a heart attack. He had surgery to clear five blocked arteries and retired after the 2011 season. He and his wife, Gerry, run Hickory Lake Beef, which specializes in raising grass-fed cattle, from their ranch in La Vernia. He, too, considers the induction a blessing. 

“This is a very humbling honor,” Rackley says. “I owe a tremendous thanks to my family, coaches, teachers, administrators, and athletes that have made it possible. I especially thank God for his continued help and guidance.” 

Cox says, “Jim was tougher than me. He lasted longer.” 

“But you became an AD (athletic director),” Rackley says, suggesting a different, and possibly more difficult, kind of job stress.

“. . .Which means you were tougher than me,” Cox smiles, though he later concedes that administration does present different stresses without the same satisfaction as working directly with kids.

After college, they both were drawn to coaching — Rackley because his dad held coaches in awe; Cox because he figured that’s just what football players did after graduating. 

They reconnected at Saturday morning freshman track meets, where there’s a lot of downtime for coaches like them — invariably also varsity football assistants — to talk shop. It’s an odd dynamic — they were buddies except for game day. “We’d be good friends 364 days of the year but for one day, it’s World War III,” Rackley says. 

The men banter and joke and recall details from years and games past. They remember stuff like the alignment of the defensive line and the motion play that Cox wishes he had run more. Surprisingly, they don’t seem to remember the scores or care much that they don’t. (For the record, Rackley won their one matchup as head coaches 49-21.) The profession they chose has been good to them, and they know it. 

“I remember driving home with my oldest son from a Saturday morning practice,” Cox recalls. “Garrett must have been 13. He said, ‘Dad, I want to be a coach.’ I asked him why. He said, ‘Because you’re always around your friends.’”