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What is the secret to Coach Wendell Corbin's success: 40 years teaching and coaching, more than 5,000 students and athletes taught and 74 state champions in track and field?
“I always treated my athletes like my own family.”
More than 100 former athletes, students, friends and well-wishers turned out Friday to see off Corbin, who is retiring after this school year. Their tremendous athletic achievements set the scene for the evening, along with Corbin's incredible memory for names and events. A Who's Who of Chiefland's former track stars entered unseen behind the stage, described their accomplishments over the microphone and waited for Corbin to remember their names. Again and again, he found the name and welcomed the athlete to the party. Many just drove in from Gainesville; one came from as far away as Hawaii.
Corbin, who was inducted into the Florida Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2003, was uniquely suited to lead his athletes. An outstanding athlete himself, Corbin lettered in basketball, football, baseball and track at Chiefland High School, where he graduated in 1965.
“In those days,” recalled former Chiefland head football coach C. Doyle McCall, “a boy played what I told him to play, whether he liked it or not. I told Wendell, 'After football gets through, you're going to play basketball, and after basketball gets through, you're going to play baseball and run track.'”
Corbin was named all-area in football and helped the track team to a state title. He attended Central Florida Junior College on a track scholarship, setting school records there in the 100, 200 and 4x100 events. On graduating from Central Florida, Corbin went to Mississippi College on a track scholarship, and played football there too. He returned to Levy County, where in 1970, he became the first elementary school physical education teacher in the county, at Chiefland Elementary School.
“There are 450 teachers in Levy County, and 51 percent of them weren't born when Wendell started teaching,” mused Levy County Schools Superintendent Bob Hastings, taking the podium after McCall.
Hastings and McCall reminisced on what Chiefland's athletic programs were like in the old days. McCall noted that in the days when Corbin ran, you had to go to a larger city – at least to Ocala – to run on a “store-bought track.” Chiefland hurdlers often didn't see manufactured hurdles until they got to the state final.
The tools and the setting didn't matter, either to Corbin, or to the generations of young men and women he coached. The clay track was paved in 1981 and new hurdles bought shortly thereafter, on the success of the great teams of the 1970s. They opened the gates for the great teams of the 1980s and 1990s. Leonard Thompson, who graduated in 1976, held the school record in the 100 yard dash until 1983, when Carlton Scott, Chiefland's best sprinter ever, took it over. Both say that running track under Corbin provided some of their fondest memories.
“It was a great time,” Thompson recalls.
“I say running track kept us in line, but that's not really true. We didn't need it. We were sincere about running.”
“I was built for speed back in those days,” says Scott, who went on to run for Florida State University.
“I was the speed demon. But Coach Corbin was the inspiration. It was wonderful to run here.”
As Chiefland's greatest athletes shared their stories, a common thread emerged. Running was hard work, but it was fun, and made for new places to go.
“It was a way to get the kids out of town on the weekend – something to do with their friends,” Corbin says.
“We didn't get a lot of parents with us, but they let us go because they knew I'd take good care of their kids. The things we did for them, they were so appreciative, and you could see the glee in their faces. Track was a big moment in their lives; it taught them how to get along with people.”
Corbin said he applied the rules of teaching elementary school to coaching his track teams.
“I treat them all like my family, and try to be honest and fair with them,” he said.
“Every kid has somebody who loves them, and it's your job to teach them.”