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Categories: APRIL/MAY 2024, Heroes Among Us, Sports

Heroes Among Us: Alvin Copeland


Say Raiderettes on three!” A group of women of different ages and occupations throw their hands together onto the bleachers, their laughter echoing off the gym walls. They have one thing in common – they were all deeply affected by Coach Alvin Copeland. The legendary teacher has racked up honors like being named National High School Coach of the Year by the Black Athletic Coaches Association, induction into the Macon Sports Hall of Fame, and five state championship wins. His home turf for 41 years at Northeast High School was renamed Copeland Court in his honor.

But Copeland, now retired, demurs about all of his accolades. “It’s always been about [the players]. It’s about showing what they could do,” he said. But these women still can’t forget his impact on their lives. Hear what made his career as a women’s sports advocate so special.


In Coach Copeland’s words

Describe your career journey. How did you get to Northeast High School?

We really didn’t have a coach at our high school in 1960. We just had some gentlemen – one was my uncle. In the afternoon, they’d take off work at about four o’clock to come to help us in football and basketball. I kind of decided then that I wanted to be a coach. A group of teachers didn’t want me to; they were all trying to get me to go to medical school.

I’m originally from Valdosta, Georgia. I had a football scholarship to Fort Valley State University. When I finished school, I actually didn’t plan to teach. I was on my way to Atlanta to get me a job. And I had some friends in Monroe County in the schools, and I stopped by there to say hello. And they encouraged me to talk to the principal because they had an opening in physical education. And I ended up there for three years.

In a summer program, I had a friend of mine who went to school with me at Fort Valley State University, and she encouraged me to come to Macon. They were just building a new school, Appling Junior High School. I was with Bibb schools ever since.

Why are athletics important for women to pursue?

I think it’s important for women because it gives them a lot of opportunities to continue going to school. I had many young leaders leave Northeast and go on to college, in my experience more than young women who were non-athletes. Not only that, I think playing sports gives kids an opportunity to socialize with a lot of people. It teaches them how to be involved with teamwork. I had some good ladies who learned that.

Tell us a story about a student who sticks out during your long tenure as a coach.

Brenda Thomas, who works for the fire department. Now she’s the chief down there, but she was probably one of the best athletes in the state of Georgia for high school ever. She was determined. There were many young ladies that I can name who have done well. I think about how Brenda fights fires and how she is still winning, still knocking down doors, and getting victories. She’s as brave now as she was then.

What’s the secret to motivating a student?

I think the biggest motivator is that kids must know you care. And I’ve had a lot of coaches ask me about my success. I told them, you can know all the X’s and O’s in the book, but if kids don’t know you care about them, you’ll probably be fighting a losing battle. I always let them know that I cared about more than what they did in athletics. They had to have their grades in order. If something happened at home, or their parents needed some help or whatever, I was there to let them know how I felt about them.


FROM LEFT:  Pamela King; Cynthia Cornelius; Cora Smelter; Brenda Thomas; Tawanya Wilson (Mucker)

What his students say

“I always find myself quoting him, trying to instill character. My vision and mission at the school right now is ‘character plus intelligence is the true goal of education.’ Of course, that’s a Martin Luther King quote, but Coach Copeland taught me that.” — Tawanya Wilson (Mucker), principal of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School

“I was under him for a few years before he handed the torch to me — I got to learn a whole lot. Not just about basketball, but life itself — and the business side of basketball and athletic directing. He said it’s not about being cute. You gotta get out here and work.” — Cynthia Cornelius, former Northeast head basketball coach, current business teacher at Stockbridge High School

“We knew we were protected, represented, and respected as the human beings that we were and are. You know, it wasn’t just authoritative. He coached, he directed, and he loved. You knew he loved what he was doing and what he was giving to us.” — Pamela King, Air Force and Army veteran and veteran’s advocate

“He’s always been a great person, always took the time to talk to his students and players. So that’s what we love about him. He took the time out for us, and we appreciate him for that.” — Cora Smelter, civilian employee at Robins Air Force Base

“He wasn’t just a coach, he wasn’t just about the sport, he was about your well-being. He means the world to us as this dynamic coach and person.” — Brenda Thomas, Macon-Bibb County fire prevention chief

Heard on social media:

“He always made sure we had discipline and operated in integrity. He used so many sayings that are applicable today in life that I often use. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Excuses weakens one’s character!’” — Nakeitra Odoms

“He saw me standing in the lunchroom line, and he said hello and asked me what my name was, and I replied, ‘Sheila Worthy.’ He was never my coach or anything like that, but he always called me ‘Worthy’ after that meeting. He cared enough about me to remember by name. I knew he cared about me. That meant a lot to a girl who had low self-esteem.” — Sheila Ann Worthy

“He said, ‘Garrett, go run the 880.’ I was so far behind, the next race started. I became his track trainer for the next 4 years.” — Adina Garrett

“I had the honor to play for Coach Copeland. [I was] the smallest one on the team, but he pushed me and made me feel 10 feet tall. He told me that I could do anything if I worked hard, believed in myself, and gave it my all. I have taken those words and used them my entire adulthood and in my career. People often asked me where my ‘do not stop, do not give up’ comes from. I tell them, if you would have ever played for my high school basketball coach, you would understand! Thanks, Coach!” — Annette Brantley Newsome


Update April 4, 2024:

Alvin Copeland was honored among the first 10 most successful retired coaches to be inducted to the new Georgia Basketball Coaches Assocation Hall of Fame in March 2024.