“Coach Bird” of the Hoover Bucs
By Wayne Wood
Coach Mary Birdwell gained a deserved reputation as one of the hardest working & most dedicated teacher/coaches in the Hoover School System. I can personally attest to that fact as I worked with her for a period of time in the 1980’s coaching track together at Simmons Junior High (now middle school). I’m sure I could compose a full volume book on her career with stories & tributes from former student/athletes and teaching colleagues.
Mary Troutman Birdwell was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on Christmas Day-December 25th, 1938. She grew up in the city of Oak Ridge-a few miles west of Knoxville. She spent her early years following her father around the nuclear plant where he worked as an engineer & also as the director of the athletic teams for the plant. Her interest in athletics sprouted from watching sports & playing them with her many siblings & cousins and once remarked, “As long as I can remember, I was always playing sports. We didn’t have competitive youth leagues for girls. We had intramural leagues and I was always very competitive.”
Mary participated in basketball, volleyball, track, tennis & gymnastics while she attended public school. The influence of her 8th grade physical education teacher encouraged her to become a P.E. teacher and coach. She played a lot of tennis along with active participation in church & recreation leagues since there were no organized sports for girls in junior & senior high school at the time.
Mary graduated from Oak Ridge High School in 1956 and then attended the University of Tennessee. During high school & college for 8 summers, she gained experience working for parks & recreation departments in a variety of sports and was the intramural manager for women’s sports at UT for 3 years while playing intramural sports for 4 years for her P.E. sorority. There were little or no organized college sports for women at the time.
One of her fellow physical education major classmates during her time at UT was Bob Finley. Finley had spent 2 years at Marion Institute in Alabama before transferring to Knoxville to play football for the Vols. Mary remembered him as a quiet, polite student who spent more time seriously studying in the library or his room instead of cutting up & goofing around in the P.E. majors lounge during their off-time.
Mary graduated from Tennessee in 1960 with a P.E. major & a minor in English. She played a little semi-pro tennis after graduation for about 4 months before getting a teaching job at the Daughters of the American Revolution School (DAR) in Grant of Marshall County, Alabama in the northern part of the state. Along with her P.E. teaching duties, she had intramural sports for boys & girls tennis, volleyball, basketball, softball, track & field. From 1960-1964, she also had gymnastic & dance clubs, was the cheerleader sponsor & coached junior varsity boys basketball for a year.
In 1964, she moved to nearby Guntersville to teach at Marshall County High School doing virtually the same type duties but a much larger school and stayed there through 1966. One of her colleagues there at the time was a young high school coach named Bill Oliver who later became a tremendous & famous college football coach.
Eventually, Mary married Mr. Birdwell and they moved to Cape Canaveral in Florida as he worked for the NASA space program. She taught P.E. for 2 years at Ocean Breeze Elementary School before the Birdwells moved to Titusville, Florida where she taught elementary & junior high P.E. for 4 years. Mary later taught at Astronaut High School in the same city for 2 years where she coached basketball, volleyball, softball, golf, tennis & gymnastics. With a co-worker, they started a gymnastics program for the Titusville Parks & Recreation Department.
In 1974, the Birdwell Family (with sons Paul & Andy) moved to Birmingham and the Hoover area. Mary taught P.E. at Bluff Park Elementary School & was the 7th grade track coach when it was still at the elementary school. She became re-connected with former Tennessee classmate Bob Finley-now an established coach for the Berry High School Bucs.
In 1978, the track coach at nearby Green Valley Elementary, Chuck Whitley, gave Mary the nickname of “Bird.” The following year of 1979 saw Mary become one of the charter teachers of the new Simmons Junior High School and the track kids continued to call her “Bird” out of love and respect.
During the 1980’s, when I served with Mary coaching track at Simmons, I found her to be the hardest working person ever. For instance, during the winter season, it was normal to see her go through a normal teaching day, coach indoor track in the afternoon and work with the gymnastics team at night. Back then, school gymnastics teams were sanctioned by the AHSAA.
In 1987, Mary moved to Berry High School. She said, “I ran into Bob Finley when I came to Birmingham in the early 1970’s. I was teaching at Bluff Park Elementary when he came in to use our gym for his junior varsity boys basketball practice from Berry High School. I found him to still be the quiet & gentle person I knew at Tennessee. I would see him from time to time, but in 1987 he called me and asked if I would like to come to Berry to teach physical education & coach track, gymnastics & swimming. He said at that time, ‘But you can’t have my girls basketball.’ He really loved coaching girls in basketball I told him yes, but I didn’t do windows or cheerleading. I had done cheerleading for many years prior to that time.”
Mary coached all through the years from 1987-1994 at Berry High before it became Hoover High. She coached at Hoover until 2003 when she officially retired. However, she still continued to help Coach Devon Hind with track at times and still worked with track leagues throughout the region. For the last few years, she has helped with the Birmingham-Southern College Track Teams.
Mary stated that her most memorable coaching moment occurred in 1997 at the Mountain Brook Track Invitational. She did not have any extraordinary runners that year, but her team upset Mountain Brook, the expected winner. Coach Hutchinson, another track coach said, “Coach Birdwell always cares about the kids. They are the reason she is still here. If she continues to coach next year, they will be the only reason.”
The Track & Field facilities at Hoover High’s Buccaneer Stadium was named for Mary and a plaque is placed at the inside entrance of the stadium and her name is posted on the championship years sign on the field. A truly deserved honor for a truly dedicated coach.
For the record: there were 12 state championships..5 in varsity boys cross country (4 in a row from 1999-2002); 14 runner-up finishes for 5 indoor track championships-4 runner-ups for both boys & girls.
The freshmen teams won 10 championships in cross country, indoor track both boys & girls. For all the schools she was at, there was a combined 4 state titles=2 in gymnastics & 2 in swimming.
Some of her professional related activities:
*Director of Hoover Parks & Recreation USATF Track Club for 33 years.
*1997-2011..Youth Chair Alabama USATF
*2008-2015..Region 6 Track & Field Coordinator USATF in Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana as well as Membership Chair.
*2007-2015..Rules Chairman-AHSAA Track & Field/North Alabama Director of Officials.
*Member of the Oak Ridge, Tennessee High School Sports Hall of Fame.
*Member of the Alabama High School Athletic Association Sports Hall of Fame.
Mary Birdwell is truly a legendary coach not only of the Hoover High School Bucs but inter-scholastic sports in general. It seems to me that when she passes from this world to heaven that she will leave with a stop-watch in her hand and a kind, gentle smile on her face. Thousands love “Coach Bird” of Hoover.