When the Pawhuska School Board accepted the superintendent’s recommendation to hire Duke Atterberry as a coach and elementary school physical education teacher, no one betrayed any emotion.
But for others, it was cause for celebratory disbelief.
The guy is a legend, who has coached high school and college athletes who went on to play college ball and even move into the pros, with the likes of the San Francisco 49ers.
“He’s an old defensive line coach but he had more energy and enthusiasm for the game than the youngest coaches who had just come out of the game,” said Britton Abbott, an incoming Oklahoma State University fullback who was coached until this past year by Atterberry at Liberal High School in Kansas, where he was quarterback.
“And his attitude was felt throughout the whole school. I remember once walking behind him on the way to the lunchroom and he said hello to 14 people. He knew all of their names and I didn’t – and I went to school there. He was a really bright part of our school.”
His roster of athletes includes Kendall Hunter, a former OSU running back who now plays with the 49ers, Ashton and Adren Dorsey, brothers who went through the football program at John Tyler High School in Tyler, Texas, under Atterberry and went on to the University of Texas and Texas A&M, plus many others.
“He’s a great coach and a great person,” said Hunter of the 49ers on Tuesday. “He told me every day if you want to get better and be the best you can be, you need to do it on your own time and do the extra stuff, running in the summer and looking at film. If you continue to do those things you’re doing, others will follow.”
“He wants the best for everybody and he wants everybody to succeed. They’ve just got to listen and work.”
Despite being in the big league with the 49ers, Hunter still keeps in contact with Atterberry, whom he described as one of his favorite coaches.
“He calls to check on me and I call to check on him,” Hunter said. “We don’t let it go long without checking on each other.”
For Atterberry, 62, returning to Pawhuska is just coming home. His wife, Debbie, works for the Osage Nation executive branch and three of his four children live in Oklahoma: Lauren Malone in Pawhuska, Beau Atterberry, the head coach at Southeastern Oklahoma University in Durant, and Josh Atterberry, a Tulsa firefighter who lives in Bartlesville. Another daughter, Dodi Jackson, lives in Frisco, Texas.
Atterberry’s career started in Big Springs, Texas, then Sand Springs. He then came home to Pawhuska from 1981-2004, where he is remembered for his Okie drills and cutting way back on fumbles by having players carry the ball “high and tight” as they went to classes.
“We didn’t have many fumbles after that,” Atterberry said.
His philosophy is pretty simple: Concentrate on character.
“Character issues and consistency and good fundamentals,” he said. “Being held responsible for your position and accountable for showing up.
“In every program, you have players who don’t show up. You need commitment, that’s what. And that’s the hardest thing for all ages. What are your motives?”
Pawhuska, Atterberry said, has a long history of producing coaches who went on to succeed in higher markets. Butch Davis, though his career has been marked by some controversy, coached the Huskies then moved on to Sand Springs with Atterberry, and from there to Tulsa, then OSU, the University of Miami, the Dallas Cowboys, the Cleveland Browns and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with a few college ball breaks at the University of North Carolina and a return to Miami.
Atterberry rattles off some other names of coaches: Gary Quimby, Pete Hiseley, Alvin Duke and A.D. James, who not only pulled Pawhuska football out of some sinkholes but went on to other cities and led teams to championships.
“I’m very grateful that Pawhuska has hired me,” Atterberry said. “D-line is my passion.”
In addition to being assistant varsity football coach and junior high wrestling coach, Atterberry will be teaching physical education to first- and second-graders at Indian Camp Elementary School.
His face crumpled into a big smile when asked about that challenge.
“Third- and fourth-graders don’t scare me but the younger ones do,” he said.
But Abbott, the incoming OSU fullback, thought that was great.
“Oh, man, that would be good!” Abbott said. “Pawhuska is definitely lucky to get Coach Atterberry.”
Hunter agreed: “No doubt about it in my book. (And those first- and second-graders) are really lucky.
“He’s a good dude.”