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Pontiac athletic director Tarlton Small made mark as humble, professional leader

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By Mick McCabe, Detroit Free Press

Had he been almost any other athletic director, Tarlton Small would have retired as planned last June.

After beginning teaching in the Pontiac district in 1969, it would have been so symmetrical for him to retire in June 2009.

But that isn’t Small’s style.

Before he could call it a career, Small, 65, had one more task to complete. He had to oversee the merger of Pontiac’s two public high schools — Northern and Central.

They might as well have asked him to negotiate a peace treaty in the Middle East.

“I wanted to come and help put the two schools together,” he insisted.

He wanted to do this? Was Small blackmailed into sticking around another year as these two bitter rivals attempted to co-exist in the same building?

“Oh, no,” he said, laughing. “I’ve done this to myself. I chose to stay.”

Of course, if you were a college freshman in 1963 and you chose to be one of just 13 African-American students to become the first to integrate North Carolina State’s dormitories when the school didn’t even have any African-American athletes, getting Northern and Central students to survive together might not seem like such a daunting task.

Small’s dedication to the students of Pontiac and his sterling reputation as one of the top athletic administrators in Michigan are why Small has been chosen the Free Press’ 2010 Prep Person of the Year.

Small is familiar with experimentation.

Combining Pontiac’s two public schools — Northern and Central — seemed like a walk in the park to the Pontiac athletic director compared to when he left tiny Plymouth, N.C., and became a freshman at North Carolina State.

The year was 1963 and Small planned to live in a dormitory on campus among the other students, who were basically all white.

With just 12 other African-American students on campus, you can imagine the problems facing Small. It was not unusual for him to be the only African American in a lecture hall and in a sense it was like he and the other 12 African Americans were marooned on an island.

“Those of us who were there together tried to make as much of a social life as we could, but it wasn’t much,” he said. “I don’t like to talk about it a lot, but I can say this: I am glad I had the experience because if you can handle experiences like that I think you can handle anything. It was good to be able to survive something like that.”

Small later thrived in Pontiac and helped merge two rival schools this past school year, earning him recognitions as the Free Press Prep Person of the Year.

Early influence

Small survived N.C. State for two years before transferring to Elizabeth City (N.C.) State to complete his education as a math major.

Upon graduation, Small was offered a contract to teach in Pontiac, but turned it down so he could stay at home and save money while teaching at E.J. Hayes in Williamston, N.C.

“What a mistake,” he said, shaking his head. “But actually it was good for me because I stayed and taught at E.J. Hayes. The star running back for Herman Boone’s team was Davey Sheppard and he introduced me to my future wife, Julia, who was his older sister.”

Herman Boone?

He is the football coach the movie “Remember the Titans” was based on when he was coaching in Alexandria, Va.

Boone made an impression on Small. He gave Small a glimpse at the type of coaches he would eventually want to hire a couple of decades later.

“Herman Boone did things back then people wish they could do now,” he said. “For instance, the team every Friday had on a blazer — the great stuff that teaches discipline.”

The Pontiac district sent Small a contract the next year, too, and this time he signed it and in the fall of 1969 was on his way to Michigan to teach mathematics.

Steady sense of calm

He taught math in the junior high for five years before moving to Northern High school in 1974.

Hercules Renda was Northern’s athletic director from 1966 to 1982 and Small became his assistant AD in 1979, but he began working for him before that.

“When I first walked in the building in 1974, he put me to work as his ticket manager,” Small said. “You couldn’t have had a better mentor than him.”

Small learned well.

Over the years Small has earned the reputation for never losing his temper no matter the situation, and there have been many volatile situations at Northern.

Nate Hampton, assistant director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, first met Small when Hampton was the football coach and AD at Highland Park and he marvels at the success Small has had at Northern.

“It’s his ability to communicate, his ability to work with diverse groups, his calmness,” Hampton said. “I’ve never met a man, in tough situations, who stayed as calm as Tarlton does.”

Rivals become one

If you ask Small about his most pleasing memories at Northern the consecutive Class A basketball state championships in 2001 and 2002 are at the top of the list.

Robert Rogers coached those teams and was hired to coach by Small.

“He was the nicest guy you could ever want to work for,” Rogers said. “He never questioned anything I needed. It was always first class. He always looked out for the kids. He always wanted the kids to have top of the line in everything.”

Small’s biggest challenge began last summer when Northern and Central were combined and athletes who were bitter rivals in the spring suddenly were classmates and teammates in the fall.

Imagine trying to combine Birmingham Brother Rice and Novi Detroit Catholic Central or Detroit Pershing and Denby or Saginaw High and Arthur Hill.

“It’s like any town with multiple high schools, especially when both schools have some history and tradition behind them because actually you’re actually talking about family,” said Hampton. “They’re all cousins one way or another or brothers and sisters one way or another.”

First up was football season and Small needed to hire a new coach. He wound up hiring Greg Ganfield, a 60-year-old white guy who had little exposure to coaching African Americans.

And this was the guy who was supposed to take a team of mostly African-American players from two teams that combined for a grand total of four victories the year before?

“When we interviewed him, he was so impressive,” Small said of Ganfield. “You can tell when someone has it and we were lucky enough that he chose to apply. We needed some guy who knew what he was talking about and could plan. His offensive coordinator was very young, his defensive coordinator was fairly young.”

While many might have questioned Small’s sanity when he hired Ganfield, the man looked like a genius when Pontiac, after losing its opening game, reeled off seven straight victories to qualify for the state playoffs.

The go-to guy

The person who set the stage for Ganfield to be successful was Small, who became Ganfield’s go-to guy.

“When I came into that situation, everybody in the district had been laid off,” Ganfield said. “We didn’t have any counselors in the building. There was no principal; the superintendent was an interim person so, basically, the only person with any answers for me was Tarlton. Anything I needed or questions I had to have answered, Tarlton was the man.

“He pretty much ran the district from what I saw. Nobody else was in a position to do anything. It was interesting.”

People would have understood had Small retired at the end of the 2008-09 school year because his job has become more difficult as the years have rolled on.

“It’s impossible,” he said. “Plus, it’s not necessarily what they expect you to do. If you have pride in what you do and want it to be the best you want it to be at a high level. If someone asked me what the most important thing the athletic director has, I’d say it’s the secretary. If you’re trying to wing it without that you’re in trouble.”

Small has been in trouble for the last three years since Fern Dowell was reassigned to a different school.

“I haven’t had a secretary for three years,” Small said, “and yet you’d think that I did have a secretary because she’ll get off her job and come over and help.”

The reason Dowell leaves her school when her work day is done and spends time helping Small is because of the relationship they have forged over the years. When she was battling breast cancer five years ago, Small was the one who visited her in the hospital and he was the one who was a sounding board for her through her bad times.

“I’ve been with the district for 15 years,” she said, “and from the first time that I met him I’ve never in my life, met somebody as humble, as professional, as kind and caring as he is.”

All of those qualities have made Small a beacon in the Pontiac district.

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Written by Symphony

July 5, 2010 at 11:56 am

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