When it comes to sentiment and tradition, Jon Fabris — an Ole Miss graduate who may be the only coach to have coached in every major conference, at Notre Dame, and in the NFL — has more appreciation and feeling for the campuses where he has worked than many who are graduates of those institutions.
For example, when he coached for Mark Richt at the University of Georgia, it was Fabris who encouraged the Bulldogs head coach to bring Erk Russell back to Athens to talk to the team. By the time Rus-sell returned to the campus, some of the current players had never heard of the famed Bulldogs defensive coordinator who went on to win three national championships as the head coach at Georgia Southern. Russell himself was reluctant to speak, concerned that he might not relate to the players.
But Fabris took the lead in persuading the Bald Eagle to return to the place where he is revered and beloved. Russell, doing what he did naturally, spoke only to the defensive players, who became so enraptured on a spring practice scrimmage day that they went to Sanford Stadium and overwhelmed the offense.
“I’ll never forget the focus of our defensive players,” Fabris recalled in a conversation recently. “I happen to notice that our offensive players were all talking about what they were going to do after the scrimmage.
“I don’t ever recall our defense being so dominating.”
Richt was so impressed that he arranged for Russell to return and speak to the entire team. As the team gathered, taking a knee on the practice field, Russell soon had the young Bulldogs at rapt attention. He began by asking a player to hand him a helmet with the trademark “G” on the side.
Russell began to caress the helmet and said, “Isn’t this such a beautiful thing? Like a work of art.” He then flung it out on the grass. When it rolled to a stop, Russell said, as Fab recalled, “You come back in a few weeks and it will still be there. It’s what’s inside that helmet that counts.”
Today, Fabris is aware of the communications opportunity that exists for young athletes with an educational curiosity but also is concerned that the young people of today spend their life looking at a screen.
“Put your iPhones aside,” Fabris will tell players. “Take a walk in the woods, be creative. Listen to the birds. Develop a passion for learning.”
Young coaches often ask him questions. Such as, if you had a choice to coach anywhere in the country, where would it be?
He has a standard answer: Georgia.
In his view, you have to only spend one spring in Athens to be captivated.
“Georgia has everything,” he will tell them. “Environment, the greatest place to live, facilities, access to player talent — Georgia has always had the greatest potential — one of the top five schools in the country. I’ve been around, and I can’t think of a better place to coach.”
Fabris keeps mementos from his experiences — artifacts to remind him where he has been and the treasures of his experiences. He still visits Canoochee Cemetery in Georgia’s Emanuel County where family members, including his father Frank, are buried.
He talks abut his uncle Jamie Hendrix — a war hero who was tougher than any drill sergeant to his men — but never boasts of any of his military accomplishments. Fabris enjoys talking about his sons, Jack, 9, and Michael, 7, remembering a scene on the Indiana practice field last fall when he was at an intense juncture and “just happened” to look up to see Jack and Michael playing just beyond the end zone.
It was at that point that he was conscious that winning is important in football, but the most important thing in life is to be a good father.
Jon Fabris is part philosopher, minister, patriot, sentimentalist, soothsayer, historian and teacher. Some head coach who believes in a coach who believes in kids should reach out to this Southerner who is leaving Indiana for a new opportunity.
Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.