Jimmy Gardner, pictured in the late 1990s with Courtney Hitson Oliver, left, and his daughter Abbie Ballew, right, passed away Tuesday. Gardner was a longtime businessman and football coach in Greenville. (Courtesy Photo)
Jimmy Gardner, pictured in the late 1990s with Courtney Hitson Oliver, left, and his daughter Abbie Ballew, right, passed away Tuesday. Gardner was a longtime businessman and football coach in Greenville. (Courtesy Photo)

Archived Story

Gardner remembered as ‘larger than life’

Published 3:39pm Friday, May 30, 2014

In 1971, legendary football coach Jim Autrey was looking for a coach to lead newly formed Greenville Academy’s junior varsity football team.

He picked up the phone and called one of his former players.

In doing so, he sparked the career of a coach who would go on to be named to the Alabama Independent School Association Hall of Fame and the Fort Dale Academy Athletics Hall of Fame, and influence hundreds of student-athletes along the way.

That man was Jimmy Gardner.

Gardner went on to coach high school football for 41 years.

On Tuesday, six months after coaching his final game, he lost his battle with cancer. He was 65.

During his lengthy coaching career, Gardner became a mentor to many of his players, including Jim Autrey’s son, Daniel.

“He was an integral part of my life for almost as long as I can remember,” Daniel said. “My daddy always called Jimmy Gardner his best friend.”

Daniel, who was a member of Gardner’s first football team in 1971, remembers a coach who was a master of X’s and O’s.

“He was a great coach,” he said. “He was so intelligent. He had an amazing mind for football.”

And while Gardner was a part of many victories during his more than four decades on the sidelines, including an AISA Class AAA state championship at Fort Dale Academy in 2010, Daniel said it was always about more than wins for the longtime coach.

“He knew how important it was for young boys to go through challenges to help them grow into young men,” he said. “He experienced that himself playing football and later serving in Vietnam.”

Clint Lowery is one of the many players Gardner influenced.

“He was larger than life to me,” said Lowery, who played for and later coached with Gardner at Fort Dale. “He was my hero and mentor. He’s who I wanted to be. He was who my little girl thought Santa Claus is. She called him that. She still does. He has given me so many words of advice that help all the time.”

While Gardner became an icon in coaching circles, his influence extended beyond the playing field.

He served as a State Farm Insurance agent for 35 years. He received the Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Business Leader Award in 2013.

He was also active in the Butler County Troy Alumni Association.

“He loved Troy,” said longtime friend Ken Gibson. “He’s really the one who got me involved with the Troy sports program. He was so passionate about it, and he loved to share his passions with his friends.”

Gibson said family and friendships were of the utmost importance to Gardner, who often treated his friends as family.

“He was a friend to many, but he had really special relationships with his close friends,” Gibson said. “I had known Jimmy all my life, but in our adult lives, he became a part of my family, and I became a part of his.”

Gibson said Gardner was such a dedicated friend that when Gibson’s son Kendall Gibson was selected to play in the GE Global Challenge in Kawakaki, Japan, Gardner and his wife, Wanda, made the trip to see him play.

“He wanted to share in that experience,” Gibson said. “To be honest, I think he was just as excited as we were when Kendall made the team at Troy and earned a scholarship after walking on. He may have even been more excited when Kendall became a starter.”

Gardner’s friends also remember his booming voice, contagious laugh and love for his family.

“He was passionate about his family,” Gibson said.

“He has an exceptional family,” Daniel said. “You can see his influence on their lives, and it’s obvious how much each of them loved their daddy. He was a tremendous man, and he’s going to leave a very large void.”

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