This feature on Auburn (Alabama) High School head coach appeared in The Birmingham News on March 3, 2000.
Tolbert has Auburn High in semifinals
By Ed Odeven
Most head basketball coaches like to pace the side of the court, yelling instructions at a player or choice words at a referee.
Auburn High School coach Frank Tolbert, however, lets his assistants do the pacing and yelling. Tolbert coaches from his wheelchair.
The disease that put Tolbert in the wheelchair in 1994, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, has not interrupted his success on the court. After guiding Auburn to the Class 6A runner-up spot in 1987 and 1991, Tolbert takes his team against Jess Lanier in the Class 6A semifinals of the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s state basketball tournament today at noon at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex.
“Winning a championship is important,” Tolbert said. “But it’s more important that the players become good men and lead productive lives.”
Tolbert’s life changed dramatically on June 30, 1994.
While attending an Atlanta basketball camp, he woke up with a fever of 106 degreed and was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Tolbert spent 11 days in intensive care as doctors conducted a series of tests, including a CAT scan.
He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare disease characterized by a weakening of the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. It often causes paralysis of arms, legs, face and breathing muscles. When detected early, as in Tolbert’s case, patients often can rehabilitate and gain back some strength.
Tolbert said he can walk with a walker for up to 90 minutes, but doesn’t have the strength to do so continuously. He regularly rides an exercise bicycle and stretches.
“It tears up the nerves and takes a while to rejuvenate,” Tolbert said. “It’s a constant process of exercising and rehabilitating.”
In Tolbert’s absence, current assistant coach David Ogle led the Tigers to the 1996 title game, where Auburn lost to West End.
Tolbert didn’t return to work until the fall of 1996.
“I didn’t think I would come back again. I was so depressed at home,” said Tolbert, whose wife Dorothy teaches at the high school. “I had to get up and do something. It was the best decision I made.”
Players and other coaches welcomed him back.
“We always wanted him back. We respect him as a coach and as a man,” Auburn assistant coach Chris Brandt said.
It took Tolbert time to adjust to coaching in a wheelchair.
“I would be embarrassed at first, but now I’m not,” the 53-year-old Alabama State and University of Montevallo graduate said. “Now I feel I just need to go out and (live) my life.”
His job poses some challenges. He finds it difficult, for instance, to get out of the way if a player or loose ball comes toward him. Ogle sits next to him to try to protect him.
Tolbert is an expert at explaining plays, but sometimes wishes he could demonstrate them.
During games, Brandt paces while Tolbert instructs the players and other coaches. “Right now he does all the coaching,” Brandt said. “I do all the yelling.”
Brandt starred for Auburn University. Tolbert began coaching at Auburn High in 1970.
“I’ve known him since I was an eighth-grader,” Brandt said. “Back in those days, he was very gung-ho, very intense, a disciplinarian. He’s more laid back now, but he still does everything for the kids. He helps them in school and life, athletics and academics.”
Auburn junior forward B.J. Williams said the players have the utmost respect for their old-fashioned coach, who remains a meticulous X’s and O’s guy.
“Coach Tolbert wants everything to be just right,” Williams said. “We’ll run a play like 30 times until we get it right.”
Playing for Tolbert, Williams has learned to take nothing for granted — on or off the court.
“He tells us not be happy just to make the Final Four, to win the whole thing this year,” Williams said. “Nothing is promised to you next year and nothing is guaranteed in life.”
Tolbert retired in 2018 with 770 career victories at Auburn High.