George Sly easing into retirement

Monday, July 27, 2009
One of George Sly's duties while serving as football coach at Union (Dugger) High School was that of trainer. Sly is pictured above helping a Bulldog player. (By B.J. Hargis/Greene County Daily World).

SULLIVAN -- For George Sly, it just seems like he is on another summer vacation. But for the adventurous and naturally curious 1964 Union (Dugger) High School graduate, there will be no lesson plans or projects to prepare this fall or football practices to attend.

After 34 years of teaching biology, zoology, anatomy and physiology and environment science at his alma mater, Sly, who also was an assistant football coach and head coach golf, retired at the end of the 2008-09 school year.

"I don't think it has really hit me yet," said Sly, who will turn 63 in November. "It feels like any other summer.

"I guess I will know that I am retired for sure when Ann (his wife who teaches Kindergarten at Sullivan Elementary School) goes back to school."

Sly said that Ann plans to teach at least another year.

She has mentioned something about having meals ready when she gets home, George said while smiling.

"I guess we will have to see how that goes."

Sly, said that his interest in nature started at an early age.

"I spent time wandering the fields and forests in Sullivan County as a boy," said Sly. "I am sure this is why I got interested in the outdoors."

Sly graduated from Indiana State University with a Bachelor's Degree in Life Sciences and Secondary Education and then earned a Master's degree in Biology in 1970, also from ISU.

While working on his PhD at Illinois State University in Normal, he found out about the Peace Corps-Smithsonian Institution Environmental Program.

From 1973 to 1976, George, Ann and daughter Michelle Sly-Smith, now the director of nursing at Sullivan County Community Hospital, headed for Malaysia, where he spent that time teaching vertebrate zoology at the University of Agriculture in Serdang.

"I was very fortunate to get involved in the Peace Corps," said Sly. "It was really a life-long dream to travel and experience other lands and their ways of life.

"They were looking for people that had post-graduate experience in teaching zoology. It was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life. Ann worked at the U.S. Embassy while we were there.

He added that it was fascinating to learn about the culture in Southeast Asia. It was a very long way from Sullivan County.

He said that it was his first exposure to the tropical rainforest, and sparked a fascination that lasts to this day.

After returning to the states, George, who received the Golden Apple Award for his teaching exploits 10 years ago, landed a job teaching science at Union (Dugger). Ann was still working on her degree at the time, he said.

Sly, who credited former teachers Edna Coyner, Gene Karsner and Carl Jones with influencing and guiding him into the field of education, quickly learned that the tradional approach to teaching biology, with mostly textbooks, was not as rewarding for himself or his students.

He said this got him to come up with ways of teaching and learning that was more hands on.

"I wanted to make it more enjoyable for the students, as well as myself," said Sly. "I was willing to try new ideas and expand old ones."

Always fascinated by travel and new biological interests, Sly went to Costa Rica in 1995 and two years later visited Ecuador.

In between, Sly said the exciting opportunity of being a NSTA/Genentech Access Excellence Fellow presented itself in 1996.

Sly, whose living room wall in his rural Sullivan County is adorned with photos that he taken from all parts of the world, said this opened up a new world of interest of new world biology and restarted his passion for tropical rainforest ecology.

In 1998, Sly was named a Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Fellow, allowing him to go to the Amazonian Peru to study tropical rainforest ecology and continue his study of ethnobotany back in Indiana.

"I have went to Peru four times throughout my career," said Sly. "It is without a doubt the most favorite place I have ever visited.

"We are hoping to go back in a couple of years."

Sly, who describes himself as a teacher more than a coach, also has had his hand in teaching and coaching athletics at his alma mater.

It was in the early 80s, at the urging of Doug Boyd, that Sly started the boys golf program.

"Doug was a junior back in '81. I believe when we got golf started," he said. "We had a couple of kids that were interested and had enough for a team.

"In the early days, there was not even an extracurricular position for a golf coach and there was no salary. We just played in the conference meets and the sectional. Eventually we dove into a schedule and started playing matched throughout the season.

Sly's 29-year stint is certainly one of the longest in the area for a coach in any sport.

"It is really amazing how the quality of golf has increased," said Sly. "One year in the mid-80s, the TRC (Tri-River Conference) golf match was at Rockville. That was still went VanBuren and Staunton were part of the conference.

"I think we had a couple of guys shoot 100 or so and we still won. If you shot 45-45 back then, you were a pretty good golfer. The equipment has made somewhat of a difference, but the skill level of the kids is so much different too."

Sly, who also briefly helped with the boys basketball program during his first days at Union (Dugger), said that he decided early on that he could not coach three sports.

"I knew something had to give," he said. "I decided to stick with football and golf."

Sly started helping out the Bulldog football program, then coached by Buck Steele, orginally as a trainer.

"I guess they figured anyone that taught anatomy and physiology would know something about helping with injures," laughed Sly. "As time went on, I would go to trainer's clinics.

"I went to ISU and got an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) certificate. One summer I even worked with the Sullivan County Ambulance service as an EMT."

Sly eventually became an assistant coach under Danny Tieken, after Tom Hiatt decided to give up the position.

"When I first talked with Danny, I told him that I had been the trainer," said Sly. "He said, "It looks like you will be doing some coaching too."

Sly's three seasons of working for Tieken was one of the most productive three-year stretch in the history of the football program at Union (Dugger). The Bulldogs compiled a 21-9 record in 1986-1988, never winning less than six games in any of those seasons.

"That was a lot of fun," said Sly, who eventually worked his way up to being the defensive coordinator during his tenure of coaching football. "Not only because we were winning, but Danny was a great guy to be around. He was a great motivator, funny and volatile. You never knew what he was going to do.

"The kids really bought into what he was doing. We had a very good group of athletes that also were smart during those three seasons."

In Tieken's very first game as head coach in August 1986, the Bulldogs went to Sullivan and stunned the Golden Arrows 14-12. It ending a seven-game losing streak to Arrows and turned out to be the last Bulldog win in the series, which ended in 1993 with seven straight Sullivan wins.

"I remember that game very well," said Sly. "It really kind of set the tone for what we did that season and the next two as well."

Tieken left after the 1988 season and then handed the reigns over to Sly.

"I really had never thought about being the head football coach," said Sly. "Early on I was a receiver's coach and I felt pretty comfortable with that.

"But it is just one of the things happens at a small school, where everybody has to pitch in if you are going to have athletic teams."

From 1989 to 1994, Sly's Bulldogs posted a 13-42 record during those six seasons.

At a first glance, you might think that Sly's team were not competitive, but 10 of those losses were by one touchdown or less.

The infamous streak of 1991 might have been one of the toughest for Sly. The Bulldogs lost three games in three weeks by a total of four points.

In between a 20-18 setback at North Daviess and a 20-19 loss at Indianapolis Park Tudor, the Bulldogs lost a 41-40 decision at home to Cloverdale in four overtimes. With those close losses and a 21-6 setback to Linton-Stockton after the game was hard-fought and competitive early, the Bulldogs went 1-8 that season.

"We had some golden opportunities to win more games," said Sly. "We lost a lot of close games and I don't know if it had to do with poor coaching or not."

Sly said that as a head coach you feel like you are in the spotlight and need to perform.

"There were so many more responsibilities that went along with being head football coach instead of being an assistant," said Sly, who left the field arm in arm with Tieken after beating Metro East Lutheran (Ill.) 14-12 on homecoming in his first season in 1989. "I am competitive and don't like to lose and all of those close losses didn't help the situation."

Sly's 1990 squad, which won 4 of 9 games, lost a 13-12 decision against Linton-Stockton, part of the current 34-game losing skid to the Miners. They also lost by one TD to Cloverdale.

"That was another game that we had our chances to win," said Sly. "There were several games like that.

"I still think about some of those close losses."

But Sly had the distinction of coaching the Bulldogs to a 7-6 victory at Wood Memorial Oct. 21, 1994. It was the first win in the post season by a Bulldog football team. It would prove to be the last victory for Sly, who moved back to being an assistant the next year to make way for former Bulldogs athlete Todd Gambill, who has been head coach ever since.

"That win at Wood was a good one," said Sly, who added that he has a long fuse, but watch out when he gets upset about lack of effort or execution. "I was glad when Todd came back to Dugger in the mid-90s to coach.

"I eventually ended up being defensive coordinator for him. I felt like being head football coach took a toll on my teaching. There is just so much more time involved in being head coach. You have to talk with the newspapers, make sure you practice schedule is set and deal with all of the problems that everybody has with equipment or whatever. Not that I didn't enjoy it, but I was glad I was able to ease out of being head coach."

He said one of his memorable moments on staff included a 14-12 victory over Palestine, Ill. in 1984 when Steele was still in charge.

"Todd threw a 60 or 70-yard touchdown pass to Darren Cooksey to win that game, which I believe was on homecoming," said Sly, who said that the advent of computers changed the way the teachers and students are able to access information and was the biggest change during his tenure as an educator. "Todd was a heck of an athlete."

Sly also has dealt with other changes in his personal life. Severe abdominal pain and weight loss led to a diagnoses of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, some 14 years ago.

"I guess I was not shocked since I lost both of my parents to cancer," said Sly. "But it was still like the roof falling in on us.

"At first, I was given about a 40 percent chance for survival. But after some time, they decided to just wait and see how things turned out. It really make you think about what is important and what isn't. It's like the book, 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, and It Is All Small Stuff.'

Things have turned out fine for Sly, who has been in remission for over a decade and lives in the country between Sullivan and Dugger. He said he will have even more time to enjoy his two grandchildren, golf, read, draw and travel.

Their 29-year old rustic home, surrounded by trees and nature gifts of trees, plants and animals, fits in perfect with Sly's mindset and lifestyle, where he sees nature as part of his religious philosphy.

"If you count the 34 years at Dugger, three in the Peace Corps and the time I spent as a graduate assistant, I spent close to 40 years as a teacher," he said. "It's like they always say when you get to this point in your life, 'It sure did go fast.'

"I've always thought of myself as a teacher first. Hopefully I might have influenced a few kids to become teachers as well. I have had a very rewarding career and a great life. I have a lot to be thankful for and I am looking forward to enjoying and appreciating every day."