Legendary track coach hangs up his running shoes

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 6, 2001

After 40 years of running, the &uot;Rabbit&uot; is hanging up his track shoes – at least for a bit. Natchez High track coach Henry &uot;Doc&uot; Woods, known for years as &uot;Rabbit,&uot; is retiring from coaching and teaching.

&uot;It’s just my time to retire. I had a good run,&uot; said the 62-year-old Natchez native. &uot;My son said, ‘Daddy, you did it all. And you need to take sometime for yourself.’&uot;

In 40 years of coaching, Woods has amassed an impressive, if not awesome, record. With a .820 winning percentage, his teams have earned 18 state championships, 105 district wins and 643 total meet wins.

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&uot;I believe I did it my way,&uot; Woods said.

‘The Rabbit’

Woods said early on he knew he was fast.

Growing up in the Stiers neighborhood in Natchez, the boys would compete on the weekends with each other and with boys from nearby neighborhoods.

&uot;They always picked me, because I was fast,&uot; he said.

So fast in fact, his speed earned him his first nickname, &uot;Rabbit.&uot;

&uot;I caught a rabbit in a field one time,&uot; Woods said. &uot;So Plez West started calling me that.&uot;

The name stuck, as did the reputation for being fast.

&uot;Before I went to college I met a miler from Co-Lin,&uot; Woods said. &uot;I was caddying at the old Natchez Country Club at the time. He said, ‘there’s no one out here who could beat me.’

&uot;I knew I was fast, so I took his challenge,&uot; Woods said. &uot;I told him, I needed two weeks to prepare.&uot;

&uot;We ran the length of the course – tee to green, around the tee and to the next tee. He hung in for the first six holes – the course was nine holes then. I left him on No. 7.&uot;

Running education

Although at the time, Sadie V. Thompson High School didn’t have a track program, Woods played football. &uot;Coach John Banks called Mississippi Valley (State University) and told them I was fast,&uot; Woods said.

It wasn’t long until Woods was running for Mississippi Valley.

&uot;My first year in college, I got all second places,&uot; he said. &uot;After the meets, I went up to the winners and found out they were seniors. I said ‘congratulations, I’m going to own this event next year.’&uot;

Woods went on to make a name for himself at MVSU and earned a degree in mathematics. His interest and affinity for mathematics has helped him become successful in track meets, which is often a game of numbers.

In addition, his math skills earned him his second nickname, &uot;Doc.&uot;

&uot;The kids started calling me that years ago,&uot; he said, a sort of unofficial doctorate degree.

In 1961, Woods took his first coaching and teaching job in Okolona.

After short stints in Drew, and Columbus, Woods received a telephone call from home, in 1965.

&uot;T.M. Jennings, the principal at Sadie V. called me and asked me to set up the first track program in Natchez,&uot; Woods said.

&uot;I’ll never forget when we had our first track meet,&uot; Woods said. &uot;I called the fire department and borrowed some of their fire hoses. We ran those around the stadium to make the lanes.&uot;

Early on the confidence Woods developed by being &uot;one of the fastest kids on this side of the Highway 80&uot; helped him have the vision to make the new track program a success. &uot;I stood on the side of the hill at Sadie V. and said ‘we’re going to be recognized not only in the District, but in the state and nationally,&uot; Woods said. &uot;We did well. I thank God that I’ve been able to do that.&uot;

Always a mentor

Through four decades, Woods developed special relationships with his students often inspiring them to follow in his footsteps.

One such success story is Wilbert Whittley.

Whittley, a 1978 graduate of North Natchez, ran track for four years under Woods’ direction.

&uot;He’s the best mentor you can get,&uot; Whittley said.

And Whittley would know, after college, Whittley returned to Natchez and coached with Woods for 20 years before he retired to take a full-time job with the Natchez Recreation Department.

&uot;He’s a philosopher of track,&uot; Whittley said. &uot;His retirement is going to shock a lot of people.&uot;

Although he’s leaving his post with the school district, Woods said he’ll remain involved with track.

He’s accepted a consulting assignment with Jackson State University. &uot;I’ll still be around,&uot; he said. &uot;I hate to leave my kids. I realize it’s my time for retirement, but I’ll still be the personal mentor for any of my current athletes.&uot;

Woods said his success has been simple.

&uot;I learned the equation for winning,&uot; he explained. &uot;You’ve got to put people in their place, and then you have to charge them with a task. You may not have all the talent, but the talent you have, we should apply.&uot;

Woods said he has no regrets through his career.

&uot;I came in as rabbit, and I’m running out as rabbit,&uot; he said. &uot;I did it my way.&uot;