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Cleveland Remembers Coldwater High’s Wert Spiva Jr. in Basketball State Tourney

Wert Spiva Jr., perhaps the busiest men in all of Mississippi sports, died this past weekend, apparently of a heart attack. He was the basketball coach and so much more at Coldwater High School. He was 44 years old and much too young to leave us. In retrospect, one wonders whether he might have worked himself to death. One wonders if his big old heart just gave out.

To replace Wert Spiva will take several good people, and they might not be enough. To tell you about Coach Spiva, we must go back to March, 2012, and the Mississippi high school basketball state championship tournament at Mississippi Coliseum.

I was looking for a column idea when I noticed that Coldwater’s girls and boys teams were to play back-to-back games for the State Class 1A Championships. There had to be a story there, I figured, and then somebody told me this: The same man coached both teams.

Wert’s girls played first and lost a heartbreaker, and I do mean heartbreaker. His players were crestfallen, crying as if they had lost their mamas and daddies. Wert was hugging them and consoling them, literally lifting some of them up off the floor and trying to convince them this wasn’t the end. This went on and on. Somebody had to tell him that it was time for his boys team to play.

So he gathered himself, somehow put aside the sorrow. The Coldwater boys won their championship that day. Spiva, dressed nattily in a three-piece suit, celebrated with his boys and then was joined by the girls team, smiling through tears. It was quite the scene.

Wert and I talked for quite a while afterward. I learned so much about him. I learned that he had driven his regular school bus route earlier that morning beginning shortly after dawn. I learned that he had to find a substitute to drive his school bus route that afternoon, while he drove his teams to Jackson for the state championship games.

I learned that besides being the boys and girls basketball coach, he also taught all the Coldwater physical education classes for grades K-through-12. I learned he also coached state championship track teams, coached the line for the Coldwater football team, helped coach the girls softball team, served as the school’s athletic director and often drove the baseball team’s bus to road games.

I learned that his work days always started before dawn and often ended after midnight. I did the math. If he was paid by the hour, he was barely making minimum wage. I learned that on Sundays he was a deacon in his church and played guitar and sang in the choir. I learned that he graduated from Mississippi State in 1992 and immediately took the first job offered, the one at Coldwater, a small Class 1A school in Tate County. I learned that through the years he had been offered several higher paying jobs at bigger schools but chose to remain in Coldwater. There, he became an institution, winning five state championships and mentoring so many young men and women, not only in sports but in life.

I remember his words when I asked him about how hard he worked and how little he made. “Hey man, you don’t do what I do for the money,” Spiva said. “You do this because you love what you do. You do this for the kids. You do this because you love kids.”

He told me about the town of Coldwater and how it had flooded so often from the nearby Coldwater River, the entire town had moved about a mile and a half to higher ground back in the 1940s. Some folks moved their houses. Others built new ones. These people, Spiva said, were used to hard work and hard times. A certain toughness and resiliency had been passed down from through the generations. There was just something special about Coldwater and its people, he said.

Believe this: There was also something special about Wert Spiva, Jr. The respect for Spiva went far beyond Tate County. He recently served a term as President of the Mississippi Association of Coaches. Says Johnny Mims, MAC executive director, “Everybody appreciated and respected Wert, what he stood for and what he achieved. He’s an icon in Coldwater and that part of the state. I don’t know how you replace him, and I am not sure you can.”

You can’t. Not with one person. Maybe not with a dozen.

RickClevelandRick Cleveland rcleveland@msfame.com is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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