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Love and layups: Central's Bobby & Carolyn Wright reflect on coaching together

Love and layups: Central's Bobby & Carolyn Wright reflect on coaching together

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When Carolyn Wright thinks back to the first time she met her husband, she remembers him being in a hurry.

It was 1991, and Carolyn was in Phenix City interviewing to become Central’s girls basketball coach. She had gotten the approval of assistant superintendent Jack Russell but also had to meet with a few coaches on staff, including football coach Wayne Trawick and boys basketball coach Bobby Wright.

Bobby was preparing to leave for a coaches conference at the University of Alabama, so when Carolyn came by his office their interaction was brief. Carolyn recalled Bobby asking a few questions about basketball before focusing on the bigger picture by inquiring whether or not Carolyn was a disciplinarian and if she could handle a varsity program.

Carolyn said yes to both, and Bobby was satisfied.

Looking back at that conversation nearly 30 years later, neither Carolyn nor Bobby could have imagined the journey they would take together.

Carolyn and Bobby became the faces of Central basketball for the next three decades as they established the Red Devils and Lady Red Devils as consistent contenders. Their work on the court went hand in hand with the relationship they built off it, leading to their marriage and their status as one of the top husband-and-wife coaching duos in Alabama history.

“The interview went well, I guess you could say that,” Bobby said with a sly grin.

With Bobby’s retirement drawing closer, he and Carolyn took the day of his final game as a chance to reflect on their lives and how important having each other has been through it all.

“Me coming to Central High School was a godsend," Carolyn said. "Working with him in the classroom when I first started out, we had to teach together and coach together. I could learn his ways, how he thought and what kind of work ethic he brought to the table and the classroom as well as on the court.

"Everything that's worked out for us has been great. It's been great working with him.”

Two of a kind

Bobby and Carolyn were strangers when Carolyn came to Central for the interview, but their paths to Phenix City were remarkably similar.

Bobby grew up in Buena Vista, Ga., and after college became an assistant coach at Carver High School in Columbus. He had been there for two years when Trawick stopped by to talk to Bobby about a job.

Bobby had his hesitations thanks to the reputation Phenix City developed as a lawless town decades earlier, but Trawick assured him everything would be OK. Bobby said he was the only Black assistant coach on the Central football team when he joined in 1977, but he had no issues among his peers and quickly developed a friendship with Trawick that lasted a lifetime.

He became a mainstay at Central as the Red Devils’ defensive coordinator and an assistant basketball coach before taking over as the head boys basketball coach in 1989. Two years later, Carolyn stopped by.

A Tuskegee native, Carolyn was coaching at McIntyre Junior High School in Montgomery and teaching during the day at Stanhope Elmore High School when Russell reached out. Carolyn aspired to coach at the varsity level, and despite the pleas of an aunt who sent her the crime film “The Phenix City Story” to dissuade her, Carolyn decided to see what Central had to offer.

It took very little time for Carolyn to make an impression on those in charge.

“Mr. Russell told me on the spot, 'You are the one we're looking for. You're who we need,'” Carolyn said. “I never thought I'd leave the junior high program and move into a 6A program. He told [superintendent Clifford] Smith and they took it to the board, and they voted on me to be the next girls basketball coach at Central. It shocked me actually, but I was thankful and I was amazed.”

As Bobby and Carolyn began working together, they recognized just how much they had in common. It took Bobby little time to see they each shared a fiery passion for coaching basketball, and Carolyn saw through what she thought was Bobby’s overbearing attitude and recognized how deeply he cared about the Central program.

Carolyn looked to Bobby as a mentor and admitted she emulated his work ethic and even took her fair share of plays from him. Away from the court, Carolyn helped Bobby tend to his ailing mother while he juggled his various coaching responsibilities.

Carolyn recalled the point Bobby made it obvious she meant more to him than just another coach. The Central coaches all went to lunch together during the summer, and on one occasion Carolyn remembered being the only woman at the table.

It was at this point that Bobby shared what was on his mind.

“We were all sitting at the table," Carolyn said. "Bobby looked at this coach and said, 'He's married.' He looked at the next coach and said, 'He's too young.' He looked at another and said, 'He's married.' He went on around the table, and he finally said, 'Well, I'm the only one eligible.' It was at that point I knew he was interested.”

Bobby’s recruiting pitch eventually won Carolyn over, and the two were married on July 10, 1993.

Taking charge

Bobby and Carolyn established Central basketball as a force to be reckoned with in the years that followed, and in the process they stood beside each other in sickness and in health.

As Carolyn looks back now, it was one of Bobby’s illnesses that led to one of her most stressful coaching moments.

The Central boys basketball team had been dominant during the 2013-14 season when Bobby experienced stroke-like symptoms. He went to the hospital and was diagnosed with a pinched nerve, which required back surgery and put him out of commission right before the Red Devils’ subregional state playoff game against Jeff Davis.

Bobby fought like crazy to leave the hospital, but after pleas from the medical staff and a long talk with Carolyn he relented and settled for a bed and a live stream of what was happening. Carolyn was in the stands for what quickly evolved into a game of telephone with Bobby, who excitedly called his wife and told her what plays to run and what needed to be changed.

Despite the head coach’s demands, the assistant coach in charge stuck with his own plan. Soon enough, Bobby — who was by then the school’s athletic director — told Carolyn to take charge.

“She jumped out of the bleachers, ran down there and got on the sidelines,” Bobby said. “One of the other assistants said the coach at the time asked Carolyn, ‘Who's coaching this team?’ She said, ‘You're not. Bobby's coaching this team. He's on the phone, and he told me what to do.’ So he sat down.”

Carolyn said she was a nervous wreck coaching in Bobby’s place, but the move worked out for the Red Devils. Central topped Jeff Davis then beat Spain Park before falling to Carver-Montgomery on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the regional finals.

Bobby’s push for Carolyn to take over wasn’t about his frustrations with how the team was playing. He knew Carolyn understood how he approached the game and would make the same adjustments he would; just as important, he knew the players recognized Carolyn’s ability and respected her as much as they did her husband.

The couple’s success at Central didn’t go unnoticed. In addition to several coaching awards over the years, Bobby was inducted into the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2015; four years later, Carolyn joined him as only the second husband-wife duo in the hall and the first coaching the same sport.

Their personal induction was worthwhile for both Bobby and Carolyn, but to see the other receive the honor stands as even more special.

“He had a lot to do with helping me and propelling me to being in the situation where I was and being in the hall,” Carolyn said. “Him getting into the hall, that gave me that confidence of saying, ‘I'm going to work harder. I'm going to pattern myself behind the other legends at Central.’ Those two legends I talk about all the time is Wayne Trawick and Bobby Wright.”

“I knew she worked diligently,” Bobby said. “I just knew for her to make it there after starting off with the junior high program and even coming to Central High School and coming to a 6A program and to make it to the Hall of Fame, I thought that that was probably one of the biggest things that has ever happened to me in my life. Being married to Carolyn, I was very proud for her and I was happy for her. I'm still proud of her, and I'm still happy because she made it.”

Calling it a career

Bobby continued coaching after his back surgery despite limited mobility, which required him to mostly use a walker or a motorized scooter to get around. He decided last summer that the 2020-21 season would be his last.

Bobby’s final season at Central had its share of obstacles, from the limitations due to the coronavirus pandemic to six players — three of whom were starters — leaving the team over the course of the campaign. Despite those issues, Central stayed competitive as it fought to send Bobby off on the right note.

The Red Devils made that happen on Feb. 5. The school celebrated Wright’s career in his final home game by having countless school system faculty and staff on hand as well as roughly 30 of Wright’s former players. Several of the former Red Devils spoke to the current team during the pregame, which led to an outstanding showing and a 76-71 victory over Eufaula, the No. 8 team in Class 6A.

Bobby has never been one to boast about himself — he said he had hoped to just sneak out for the last time this summer — but the reaction he saw last week at the Eufaula game along with the countless text messages, media coverage and billboard on 13th St. in Phenix City have left him incredibly humbled.

“I was proud of the team, and I was proud of all my ex-players who showed up. It was a great night for me,” Bobby said. “I've been here 44 years, and I've never seen coaches with billboards. I've never seen coaches on every TV station and all the newspapers. I've had an out-of-body experience dealing with this thing. I said, 'Man, I'm just a country boy just trying to coach a game.' I certainly didn't expect all that.”

Carolyn described the Eufaula game as bittersweet and praised so many for helping the celebration come together. She explained she held herself together during the event until a former co-worker sang the song “You’re My Hero," which made her think about her future at Central while Bobby enjoys retirement.

“It got to me, and I started tearing up just to think that my hero is not going to be there. I can't walk up the hill or call up the hill and say, 'Hey, look, can you come down here and show me this?'” Carolyn said.

Bobby’s final season officially ended Wednesday in Central’s hard-fought loss to Smiths Station. Carolyn has a clear vision for what her husband will do to start retirement, explaining he’ll take about a week to watch movies non-stop before traveling some, becoming a consultant and then starting work on a book.

Bobby commended his players after the loss, saying their fight was evident despite facing a Panthers team that was much bigger in size. His passion for the players and the program was evident even in his final defeat; after all, Central has given him a great deal over the years, and for Bobby it was only right to repay the favor.

“Central is a special place," he said earlier Wednesday. "You know, I've been here so long it's almost like family. It's my second family, and having my wife here with me as many years as she's been with me here at Central High School, that really has made it seem more like family.

"I guess I feel like I'm at home when I come here every day. It's not something I dread to do; I look forward to coming to work because I like the camaraderie I have amongst the coaches, the kids and of course my wife.”

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