Among those breaking bread and telling stories at Grand National on Thursday night were national championship coaches, Heisman Trophy winners and NFL superstars. But the real guests of honor were 16 high school seniors who were awarded college scholarships by the Jimmy Rane Foundation.
Rane, known far and wide as the man wearing yellow on Great Southern Wood commercials, has for years recruited coaches to help advertise his product. Along the way, he has become close friends with many of them and others involved in college and professional athletics. For a long time, his golf tournament was a company event for clients. Three years ago, he decided to make it mean something more. The Jimmy Rane Foundation and the Jimmy Rane Charity Golf Classic were born.
The first year, the foundation had six applications and gave one scholarship. The second year, it had 27 applications and gave nine scholarships. This year, it awarded 16 scholarships out of more than 600 applications.
Like other members of the Auburn Board of Trustees, Rane has encountered his share of criticism in recent years. But all it takes is a look into the shining eyes of happy teenagers--some from Alabama and some from Georgia--to know that he and his foundation are doing something very good.
"It started with a child of an employee of Great Southern," Rane says. "She was a brilliant, bright child. Her father died and she wanted to go to Auburn, had always wanted to go to Auburn all her life. She was very bright and got a scholarship for her first year. But even with that scholarship she earned, it was not enough to pay all her expenses, so she had to get a job that first year. She just made outstanding grades. I did not know it until after it had happened, but she just could not work and pay her bills enough to stay there and her family wasn't able to help her. She had to drop out and come home.
"It just broke my heart. I didn't want to see that happen again. That was the Genesis of the Jimmy Rane Foundation. I call them the ones in the middle, the forgotten ones. They are from families that are not extremely poor, but yet they don't make enough to get the full benefits of being extremely poor. That's the ones I'm trying to help right there."
Rane has plenty of help in his mission. Among those who came Thursday night were Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan, Auburn's Heisman winners, and former Heisman winner George Rogers of South Carolina. There were numerous current and former head football coaches, including Miami's Larry Coker, Alabama's Mike Shula, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and former AU coach Pat Dye and former Alabama coach Gene Stallings. Former Alabama great and Baltimore Ravens' GM Ozzie Newsome was there. So was Steelers' Hall of Fame defensive end L.C. Greenwood. And that's just a sampling. NFL co-MVP Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts and formerly of Tennessee was the featured speaker. He was joined by his dad, Archie. Sonny Smith and Wimp Sanderson were the masters of ceremonies.
Most of the guests took the the golf course Friday morning to play a round for the high school kids who earned those scholarships and those who will come later. It was a fun time for a good cause.
Some of the highlights:
*The most heart-warming sight of the night was Sullivan. He reported that doctors say the mouth cancer that threatened his life is gone. Now it's just a matter of recovering from the process. "The letters and the calls we've gotten, it's just been unbelievable," said Sullivan, standing with his wife, Jean. "An awful lot of people have been praying for us, and it works. I am very grateful."
Sullivan, UAB's offensive coordinator, said he goes into work about two hours a day. He expects to be back working a full schedule by the time the Blazers open preseason practice in August.
*Former Auburn basketball coach Cliff Ellis said he plans to sit out the 2004-2005 season and take a look at getting back into coaching the following year. "I'm doing well," Ellis said. "I decided I would take a year off and do some things I haven't had time to do. I've done some hunting and some fishing. It's been great."
*Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, made it clear what he thinks of Dye when he was handed the microphone to introduce himself. "Bo Jackson, Auburn University, trained by Pat Dye," Jackson said.
*Archie Manning was still unhappy about the criticism that has come his way since the NFL draft. Manning insisted he had nothing to do with Eli, his youngest son and former Ole Miss quarterback, deciding he wouldn't play for the San Diego Chargers. "This was one of the hardest things I've ever had to deal with," Manning said. "You try to do the right thing and stay out of the way and all of a sudden somebody just throws you out there. It really kind of got to me a little bit. It still does.
"Terry Bradshaw just rips all over me this week. He just doesn't know. He's throwing stuff out there when he doesn't know what this stuff is about." Manning said he did no more than any other father would have done and that Eli and his agent made the decision.
"I just said, ‘Eli, look at every bit of it. I'll call people and get people's opinion quietly.' I just tried to be a dad."
*Troy State football coach Larry Blakeney says he'll have a talented team, but the competition continues to get tougher. The Trojans pulled off a coup for next season by convincing Missouri to make a visit to Troy. "They'll be favored, but it will be a different experience for them," Blakeney said.Iowa State is scheduled to visit Troy State next season.